[Relevant documents: First Report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Unfettered Access: Customs Arrangements in Northern Ireland after Brexit, HC 161, and the Government response, HC 783; Oral evidence taken before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on 16 and
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It is a delight to speak under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker.
In three weeks’ time, the transition period will end and this country will take its place as a fully sovereign trading nation once more. It is a very important moment in our nation’s history, one that will undoubtedly provide us with great opportunity in the years ahead, but the Government are acutely aware that at this time they also have a great responsibility to provide certainty to people and businesses and to preserve this nation’s unity, and the fundamental purpose of this Bill is to achieve those goals. It seeks to ensure that businesses in every part of the UK can continue to trade smoothly after the end of the transition period, but its particular focus is on businesses based in Northern Ireland or those that work with Northern Ireland companies.
The Government have always been clear that we must deliver on our pledge to provide unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the rest of the UK internal market, and we have been equally unstinting in our determination to uphold our commitments to the people of Northern Ireland under the Northern Ireland protocol and to protect the progress made under the Belfast Good Friday agreement. This Bill will help us support those commitments by providing legal certainty for the customs, VAT and excise systems in Northern Ireland after the end of the transition period.
If I may, I will start with the customs elements of the Bill. The House will know that the UK is a single customs territory, with article 4 of the Northern Ireland protocol giving a clear legal commitment to this. However, the protocol also requires a new and unique set of arrangements to be put in place for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Under these arrangements, the only circumstance in which there should be charges on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is if those goods are destined for the EU single market or there is a clear and substantial risk that they may be.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way in this Second Reading debate before we get to Committee. Will he confirm that under the proposals in this last legislation the European Court of Justice will be the ultimate arbiter of excise and VAT arrangements within Northern Ireland, and that the European Union will be placing staff in our country to supervise this?
VAT in Northern Ireland will be subject to the EU principal VAT directive, and for that purpose the ECJ will be the judicial body. I cannot comment as to whether or not there will be anything more than staff, except to say that excise processes in Northern Ireland will be carried out by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.
Yes, I was simply paraphrasing the point that my right hon. Friend made.
Under the terms of the protocol, we need to treat goods at risk of such onward movement into the EU differently from those groups that are not at risk. On the specific details of what will be defined as at risk or not at risk, the House will be aware of the EU-UK joint agreement made this week setting out that an agreement has been reached in principle regarding the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. In accordance with that statement, the draft texts will now be subject to further consideration in both the EU and the UK. Once that is complete, a joint committee will be convened to adopt them formally. Further details will be set out in due course, and before the end of the year.
In reply to my right hon. Friend John Redwood and Mr Carmichael, the question of jurisdiction was raised, and perhaps it is best to use the right expression, rather than paraphrasing. The fact remains that EU officials will be there for the purposes of enforcing the jurisdiction of the European legal arrangements, which will be enforced subject to the European Court. In those circumstances, will the Minister now accept that actually there is an infringement of sovereignty in that respect? As the “notwithstanding” clauses are being taken out, there is therefore a further complication, and if I may say so respectfully, that is slightly in contradiction of his allegation that we would now take over as a sovereign, fully independent power.
I thank my hon. Friend for the question. He is right that it is expected that there will be EU officials. The checks will be levied and done by HMRC inspectors, and the system that we are putting in place gives effect to the Northern Ireland protocol, which, as he will recognise, already recognises the balance that is being struck in Northern Ireland between its status under the Union customs code and its status within the UK customs system.
If I may proceed, the Bill will allow the Government to put in place decisions made by the Joint Committee on goods that are not at risk of entering the EU, ensuring that they do not have to pay the EU tariff. However, if I may underline the point, this Bill does not itself seek to specify the classes or categories of goods or movements that are at risk or not at risk. Instead, that will be set out by regulations that the Bill permits us to make once legal texts have been formally adopted. The “at risk” or “not at risk” definitions will also determine whether the UK or EU tariff applies when goods arrive in Northern Ireland from rest-of-the-world countries, again in line with the Northern Ireland protocol.
In relation to the so-called “notwithstanding” clauses, as part of yesterday’s EU-UK joint statement, the Government have agreed not to introduce these provisions into this Bill, and we have also committed to remove the three “notwithstanding” clauses from the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill.
Could I simply say to my right hon. Friend that this does raise a question? I am not going to go into it in an intervention on him, but I will in my speech. I believe that those provisions may well be needed, because we do not know the outcome of the negotiations yet. I will leave it at that for the moment. We do not know, but we have been told that the clauses are going to come out. The question of whether they should have been put in is a separate question, which I dealt with yesterday.
I am not quite sure where that was heading, but we have the Bill in front of us and the Government have made it clear that the so-called “notwithstanding” clauses will not be introduced.
The legislation follows from commitments made in the Government’s Command Paper on the implementation of the protocol, which was published in May. The Bill will ensure that EU goods moving into Northern Ireland remain free from customs duties or processes. Although we recognise and are addressing the challenges relating to the movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, we should not lose sight of the benefits to Northern Ireland of having continuing access to the EU market.
In addition, this legislation will ensure that the UK customs regime applies to goods moved from Northern Ireland to Great Britain if they do not qualify for unfettered access. The Bill will also introduce anti-avoidance rules to prevent goods from being rerouted through Northern Ireland to avoid UK customs duties or associated obligations, and its measures will ensure that customs enforcement and penalties, along with review and appeal processes, are in place in relation to duty and that they continue to work alongside EU legislation in Northern Ireland and can be applied, where required, to movements of goods between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
I welcome the thrust of the Bill. We have heard a lot about the anti-avoidance approach in recent months, but we have never seen any detail as to how it will work. This is a critical issue, particularly for the agrifood sector, to make sure that inferior product is not coming into Northern Ireland and taking advantage of the protocol, and there is the risk of organised crime in Ireland as well. When will we see detail on exactly how it will look?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, goods that are, as it were, normally circulating in Northern Ireland will be open to go into Great Britain from the beginning. There will be some goods that, over time, will be designated as non-qualifying goods for these purposes, and HMRC has well established practices for identifying, discussing and targeting those, as may be necessary, and will be applying them to prevent avoidance and to keep the market honest.
As I have said, the Bill will ensure that the UK customs regime applies to goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain if they do not qualify for unfettered access. These anti-avoidance rules will prevent goods from being rerouted through Northern Ireland to avoid UK customs duties or associated obligations, and its measures will ensure that customs enforcement and penalties, along with review and appeal processes, continue to work alongside EU legislation in Northern Ireland and can be applied, where required, to movements of goods between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
The Bill also amends and modifies certain provisions in relation to VAT and excise for Northern Ireland.
In many of these debates over the past four years, the Government have referred to “frictionless trade” between the mainland and Northern Ireland. The Government now say that they want VAT accounting treatment for goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland to remain “as close as possible” to the current approach. Will the Minister confirm whether we have now accepted that frictionless trade is not possible? Can he tell us a little more about what “as close as possible” actually means for businesses in Northern Ireland that are looking forward to
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and, yes, the legal basis on which VAT is charged will change. I will spare him the details of the difference between import VAT and acquisition VAT, but it will change. The experience of those who pay VAT will be very similar, if not identical, to the system we have in place at the moment. HMRC and the Government have identified flexibilities, which allow that to be put in place. Of course, there will continue to be the normal processes of enforcement that one would expect to see from HMRC in order to make sure that VAT is properly paid in the usual way.
These are urgent and important issues. We heard earlier from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster that there are various delays to the full implementation of trade arrangements into and out of Northern Ireland as a result of his negotiations. Will they be incorporated into this legislation, and do they provide a brake on the immediate introduction of these complex double-taxation arrangements?
I have no doubt that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will be updating the House over time as the different provisions he has negotiated come into force but, from our point of view, the position remains as stated, that is to say that VAT will become chargeable by a slightly different legal means, but in substantially the same way in Northern Ireland as it is at the moment. The mechanisms we have put in place are designed to ensure that, as far as possible, VAT will be accounted for in the same way as it is today.
Existing rules in relation to movements of goods between Northern Ireland in the EU, including the rules relating to acquisitions and distance selling, will continue to apply. Goods entering Great Britain from Northern Ireland will be subject to VAT as though they were imports under the relevant UK legislation. Similarly, goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain will also be subject to VAT as though they were imports and relevant EU or UK legislation will apply, but let me add that the Government are adopting an approach that minimises any changes for goods moving between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker, can you clarify whether Members in the Chamber should be socially distancing by staying on the seats that have ticks on them?
Yes, that is what the ticks are there for. I hope that all Members will abide by them so that we can have safe social distancing. Thank you very much.
In addition, the Bill amends current legislation for excise duty to be charged when certain goods, such as alcohol and tobacco, are moved from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. The changes are necessary to ensure that there is a fully functioning VAT and excise regime in place in relation to Northern Ireland at the end of the transition period.
In line with the protocol, Northern Ireland will maintain alignment with existing EU excise rules. That means a change to excise duty is required when goods are moved to Northern Ireland from Great Britain, but the Government are adopting an approach using flexibilities and EU rules that minimises changes for excise goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
A small number of other taxation measures also need to be in place before the end of the transition period. The Bill introduces a new system for collecting VAT on cross-border goods. That includes moving VAT collection on certain imported goods away from the border and involving operators of online marketplaces in the collection of VAT at the point of sale.
In addition, measures in the Bill will remove the VAT relief on imported low-value items so that VAT will be due on all consignments, irrespective of their value. The relief has been the subject of long-standing abuse and removing it will build on Government efforts to level the playing field for UK businesses still further by protecting high streets from VAT-free imports. Together, the changes will improve the effectiveness of VAT collection on imported goods, tackle non-compliance and protect the flow of goods at the border.
I very much support the measures that the Minister is talking about. Why is the measure just for low-value goods? There will be other goods where a similar loophole applies, such as watches or jewellery that have a value above £135. Is this not an opportunity to close that loophole as well?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I will take that under review. We have put in place a set of measures designed to tidy up the position that particularly arises in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol, as he will be aware, and the end of the transition period, and that has meant a change to low-value consignment relief and the changes I have described. I am grateful to him for his contribution and suggestion.
The Bill also includes provision for an increase in the rate of duty on aviation gasoline, which will apply across the UK. Otherwise known as avgas, the fuel is a form of leaded petrol predominantly used in leisure flying. The change made by clause 6 of the Bill will increase the avgas rate by half of a penny to 38.2p a litre from
The Bill also includes a clause to ensure HMRC has access to the same or similar tools to prevent insurance premium tax evasion as it does at present, regardless of whether an insurer is based in an EU member state. Overseas insurers are liable to pay insurance premium tax when they supply general insurance for UK-located risks. Occasionally, overseas insurers do not pay the insurance premium tax they owe, so it is important that HMRC has access to tools that deter and tackle that form of evasion. Up to now, it has been using EU provisions to prevent evasion by insurers based in EU member states.
Separately, HMRC can issue liability notices in cases involving insurers based in any country outside the EU with which the UK does not have a mutual assistance agreement. Given that the EU provisions expire at the end of the transition period, this clause will enable HMRC to issue liability notices in evasion cases involving insurers based in any country with which the UK does not have a mutual assistance agreement, including EU member states.
Finally, the Bill introduces new powers that will enable HMRC to raise tax charges under the controlled foreign companies legislation for the period from
This Bill will give people and businesses throughout the UK certainty about the arrangements that will apply from
Before I call Anneliese Dodds, let me say that the wind-ups will begin at 5 o’clock at the latest, and that 13 Members wish to speak and are all here. We therefore know that there will definitely be 13 Members speaking, so colleagues should really be thinking about speeches lasting for six minutes. Even if I do not put the clock on, it would be really useful if everybody shows at least some discipline on that, so that everybody can get a fair crack of the whip.
It is a year to the day since the Chancellor boasted that there was no need to plan for no deal because
“we will have a deal.”
Yet today, as we debate this Bill, we stand on the brink of a no-deal Brexit that would destroy jobs and livelihoods right across the United Kingdom. We have only 22 days to go until the end of the transition period, with still no deal in sight.
When we debated yesterday the Ways and Means resolutions associated with this Bill, a number of Government Members claimed that agreements between nations are often only finalised at the last minute—that there is nothing out of the ordinary about this Government’s approach. That is because for run-of-the-mill agreements there is a fall-back option, a status quo. But failing to reach a deal now does not mean a return to the status quo—that we stay as we are. It means extensive economic damage to the tune of an additional 2% loss of GDP, on top of the 4% loss of GDP that the Office for Budget Responsibility has calculated would be the impact of a very thin deal: the type of thin-as-gruel deal that the Conservatives look set to deliver.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but even the statistics that she refers to regarding the overall impact on the economy mask the absolutely catastrophic impact that no deal would have on individual businesses and individual industries. I had the pleasure of visiting the Toyota factory in Derby. No deal means that the entire purpose of that factory being based in Derby is under serious threat. Alongside those statistics about the overall impact, it is really important that we recognise that the situation is much worse than that for individual businesses and industries.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is potentially a very, very severe impact from no deal, but, as I will go on to explain, there is already a concrete and very acute impact on our economy. I am particularly concerned about the situation for many businesses based in Northern Ireland.
This damage will be long lasting, likely to outlive even the impact of the current covid crisis. Our country cannot afford this. We have already experienced the steepest economic downturn in the G7 due to the covid crisis, and are predicted by the OECD to experience the slowest recovery in the G7. Just the prospect of a potential no-deal outcome is already leading to chaos in the midst of a pandemic. Stockpiling by companies, caused by the threat of no deal, is exacerbating supply blockages at our ports.
The economic damage that the hon. Member is talking about should a deal not be agreed would also be inflicted on the European Union, particularly certain parts of the European Union, such as the Republic of Ireland. She criticised the UK Government for the way that they have negotiated. Does she have no words of criticism for the EU negotiators in this two-way negotiation?
Of course we need application and a determination to conclude a deal on both sides; that surely is obvious. But the fact remains, as I will go on to describe, that it was the UK Government that, rather than tabling this Bill many weeks ago, which they could have done, decided to effectively retain provisions that threaten to break international law. That is on the Government’s head, and it is something that the Government must surely be responsible for.
The irresponsible approach that we have seen recently speaks to a wider pattern over the last 12 months of recklessness with public finances, broken promises to the British people and short-term thinking that is doing long-term damage to our country. The Prime Minister promised the British people that he would get Brexit done. He said he had an “oven-ready” agreement. Whatever he has got cooking ahead of his dinner with von der Leyen tonight, my message to him is to get on and deliver what was promised.
I would just like to point out to the hon. Lady that Labour Governments, not to mention Conservative Governments or the coalition Government after 2010—there is a host of examples by a number of Governments—have passed treaty overrides, on exactly the same principles relating to Finance Bills, in the past. If she wants to construe that as breaking international law, she can, but the reality is that it is consistent with article 46 of the Vienna convention.
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman mentions that situation, because it has been referred to by those who favoured the Government’s approach previously. However, I gently state to him that if he is referring in particular to provisions against tax avoidance—the example of a general anti-avoidance rule—then, sadly, I believe he is mistaken. In that case, that commitment and the ability to apply such rules was actually a fundamental principle agreed to by this country as part of a multilateral agreement that it concluded with the OECD, so I fear that that example is not as telling as he may wish it to be.
With just three weeks to go until the end of the transition period, the Government published late yesterday afternoon the 116-page Bill that we are discussing now, setting out detailed new rules for tax and customs duties. Members of this House have been given less than 24 hours to scrutinise a major piece of post-Brexit legislation that will impact businesses and individuals across the country, especially in Northern Ireland. Many of the clauses in the Bill, particularly those covering customs and excise duties, require the Treasury to make regulations that will set out the actual detail of its proposals at a later date, so even with the publication of the Bill, businesses and individuals still do not have the information they need to prepare for the end of the transition period.
Earlier today, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said there would be “further clarity” forthcoming on these matters, but again without saying when. In fact, the Minister talked a few moments ago about those details coming in due course. His letter to Members spoke about the fact that there would be information on this later; “in the coming days” was the formulation at that time. How can he really expect businesses to plan on that basis—on the never-never up to
This last-minute approach was not necessary. It is no use pointing to the complexity of the ongoing negotiations. We know that this Bill could have been published a long time ago because the Government have been floating a Finance Bill for months, so why yet another last- minute scramble? My right hon. Friend Mr McFadden set it out very clearly: because the Conservatives had a not-so-cunning plan to use this Bill as negotiations reached a critical point by threatening to override the withdrawal agreement. At a time when we are seeking to negotiate new trading relationships across the international community, and when the Government are trying to project an image of global Britain to the world, this tactic certainly sent a clear message, albeit not the message the Government intended.
It is welcome that the Government finally saw sense yesterday, although we have already seen damage being done. Both in relation to the provisions in the Bill and more generally, the time is running out to ready our country for the challenges ahead. The Public Accounts Committee was clear last week that:
“Government is not doing enough to ensure businesses and citizens will be ready for the end of the transition period”.
It expressed concern at reports from industry bodies that the Government had not provided the key information needed for businesses to prepare. Indeed, the Committee indicated that more than a third of small and medium-sized enterprises still believed that the transition period would be extended.
The Cabinet Office has admitted that it is well behind in recruiting the customs agents desperately needed for
I am terribly grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. She has criticised the Government for spending £80 million in support of traders and a facilitated approach to the border. Could she tell us whether she thinks that number is too large or too small?
With enormous respect to the Minister, the problem with his Government’s approach is the fact that they do not indicate what they have got with that spending. As I said, £4.4 billion has been spent on preparedness for Brexit and for the end of the transition period, and the £80 million that he refers to, but there is no indication from the Government of how many additional customs officers we have received as a result of that spending. I hoped that he was intervening on me to provide an indication of the additional workforce that has been recruited. It is a matter of regret that he was unable to do so.
The hon. Lady is quite rightly querying how money has been spent. I do not know whether she has had letters from the Government asking MPs, as small businesses, to get ready for Brexit. I got two of them, including one that referred to me as an MSP, so perhaps the Government are not spending their money particularly wisely or accurately.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for that very relevant point. I am sure that it is not only Opposition Members but Government Members who have had many businesses contacting them, often in despair, about the communications and advertisements asking them to get ready when there is so little indication of what they have to get ready for.
Yesterday morning, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee heard from the Food and Drink Federation, which said that the guidance being published now was already too late. Some 43% of its members who supply Northern Ireland have said that they will not do so in the first three months of next year. That is desperately worrying. TheCityUK said that in the worst-case scenario, 40% of the UK’s EU-related financial activity could be lost. Every day between now and the end of the year counts to get a deal, and failing that, to plan for the no-deal outcome that the Prime Minister himself conceded would represent a failure of statecraft.
With that in mind, Labour supports this Bill passing. Labour is a responsible Opposition, and we are determined to see the minimum disruption possible, but we cannot support such continued lack of clarity on critical issues. When businesses need clarity as a matter of urgency, it is not good enough to state that further guidance will be forthcoming. At the very least, they need a timetable for the provision of that greater certainty. They need to know what rules of origin will apply from
Businesses need to know whether there will be a pause in penalties arising out of this legislation and, if so, what would be done to counterbalance that and prevent wilful avoidance. They need to know whether the measures in the Bill countermand the existing guidance provided to Northern Irish businesses, some of which was updated just on
I want to end my contribution by asking the Minister to place himself in the shoes of a small manufacturing company. We have many excellent such companies across the United Kingdom—in Northern Ireland and in Great Britain. Companies will already have faced enormous challenges during this period because of covid. Potentially, they have staff off because they have to self-isolate. Potentially, there is continuing uncertainty about the future of furlough because of this Government’s unwillingness to provide that certainty. Potentially, they were counting on the job retention bonus, but they are not going to receive it. They are now trying to plan which members of staff they will need to have in the company at work to get ready for
The Minister and his Government must do all they can to overcome those uncertainties and help businesses to plan. That is the least they can do for businesses and the people who work for them, who have had such a hard year.
I simply would like to put on record it on Second Reading the fact that, as I made clear in a point of order earlier, consideration on Report will take place next week and a lot will happen between now and then. The UKIM Bill at the moment has the “notwithstanding” provisions in it; they have not yet been taken out. We do not yet know what will transpire this evening or at any point between now and the Report stage of this Bill next week. Therefore, I have given instructions for the tabling of amendments to reinsert the “notwithstanding” provisions for the purposes of this Bill, which would have appeared but for the fact that the decision had already been made yesterday, before a statement was made to the House of Commons. That was dealt with today in principle, although not the question of what actually is going to be done. Therefore, for practical purposes, all I need say on Second Reading is that there are relevant provisions within the scope of this Bill, in clause 9, which is entitled “Recovery of unlawful state aid”.
Earlier this afternoon, I chaired, as I always do on Wednesdays, the European Scrutiny Committee. We have a 10 or 15-page paper on this question. The report, which will be signed off today and then published, covers reform of state aid rules and potential implications for the UK and includes a full description of what the state aid rules would mean; what the evaluation is at the moment by the European Commission; what it intends to do with respect to state aid in relation to enforcement proceedings; matters of sovereignty regarding the United Kingdom; the timetable for amendments to the EU state aid rule book; and the continued relevance of EU state aid law to the UK.
I am reading out some headline points, which also include infringement proceedings for state aid granted before
In conclusion, I intend to table these amendments to examine the question when we get to the Report stage next week.
It is always a pleasure to give way to the right hon. Gentleman, with whom I have been jousting on these questions for the best part of 20 years.
I hate to think it is the best part, but certainly it has been almost 20 years. The hon. Gentleman gives an interesting list of topics that his Committee has considered. The actual, practical application of these matters will be very different if the ratio decidendi in the Factortame case continues to have application in Northern Ireland post
As somebody who has taken a great interest in Irish matters since I came into this House, I can only say the answer to that is yes. However, I also know that there is an enormous amount of malicious rubbish talked about the implications for the hard border. We are not going to impose a hard border. If anybody does, it will be the EU. If the EU gets its way on these matters, believe me, we are going to end up with difficulties that will have been created by the EU, not by us. I remember Martin Selmayr saying that the price the United Kingdom would have to pay would be the loss of Northern Ireland. I mean, it is as bad as that. I therefore say that I do take a great interest in it, because I want the Union to survive and to prosper. I believe it can, but it will not be able to if we end up with provisions that undermine the sovereignty of the United Kingdom Parliament.
On the specific question of state aid, that is a matter within the scope of the Bill. I therefore expect our amendment to be able to be called. Precisely what I do about it at that time will depend on the outcome of the negotiations, but I am not going to buy a pig in a poke and accept the idea that it is all over and done with because somebody who happens to be a Government Minister made a statement yesterday from Brussels and then came to the House to put forward his case today. We have not seen the details, so I want to reserve my position until I know exactly what the outcome of the negotiations is. I would warrant that the 70% of the British people would agree with me.
The way this Bill has been brought to the House today, less than 24 hours since it was published yesterday, really shows the disrespect the Government have for Parliament and for all of us here today. It is unacceptable that the UK Government are coming so late in the day with these proposals and are blatantly using them as a form of leverage in their negotiations.
The proposals before us today will impact on the daily lives of residents in Northern Ireland and of businesses more widely. I have concerns, not least from what Sir William Cash has just said, that the clauses being taken out could easily be put back in again—if not by him, then by the Government themselves. We have no certainty over that because of the way they have conducted these negotiations.
As MPs, we do not have adequate time to scrutinise what is in front of us this afternoon. Businesses and stakeholders have also been excluded from the process and they are, of course, those who will feel the impact the most. It is typical of the slapdash, chaotic way the UK Government do things, but I would like very much to put on record my dismay and regret at this shambles. I would also like to say that, while I have huge sympathy for those who have worked on the drafting on the Bill, it would not be the first Bill that has come back with errors and drafting issues because it has been prepared in haste. We have also seen that with some of the financial services statutory instruments that have gone through. I am very concerned that this has been done so hastily that we will not find out what the errors are until the UK Government come back to fix them later.
The Northern Ireland provisions have huge complexity and give significant powers to the Treasury to define in regulations the goods that are “at risk” of being moved into the EU. The Minister confirmed yesterday that we do not know exactly what those at-risk goods are, which causes huge uncertainty for those moving goods in and out of Northern Ireland. As Anneliese Dodds said, that has a chilling effect on businesses that want to transact their business as normal, but just do not know what it is that they are being expected to prepare for.
The letter that we received earlier from the Financial Secretary to the Treasury confirms that changes to the regulations will be made under the negative procedure, so this House will have no ability to further scrutinise them. The same is true of Stormont and it is crucial that we hear Stormont’s views on these regulations and the effect of them.
“Take back control,” this Government said. Well, it seems that most of the control is either going to the Treasury or to officers in HMRC. All these regulations are being put forward in such a way as to remove scrutiny and to remove control. Throughout the letter that we received earlier from the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, references were made to the use of the negative procedure and, curiously, to powers that there are no plans for the Government to use. It may not be the plan now to use them, but even the best laid plans gang aft agley, as happens so often and so wildly with this Government. How will the scrutiny work should the Government decide to make these changes? Lots of powers are being hived off, as we can well see. The amendment tabled in my name and the names of my colleagues attempts to redress some of the democratic deficit in the way that the Government are conducting themselves.
The affirmative procedure, as with many procedures in this place, is not perfect by any means, but at the very least this would make the UK Government come to this House to explain the reasons for their actions and to be scrutinised on their thinking, rather than just making changes that will make a real difference to the lives and livelihoods of people across these islands and more widely. Changes should not just go through on the nod.
The withdrawal agreement has the consent mechanism for Stormont, which will kick in only at the end of 2024. The UK Government must explain how their engagement will operate on all the mechanisms between then and now. This matter is horribly complicated and my sympathies are with all those who have to operate under these very difficult circumstances. So much of the uncertainty is also swathed in huge amounts of red tape. The red tape that the Brexiteers claimed they were going to remove will now be wrapped around Northern Ireland.
I received very little by way of reassurance from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in his statement and his responses to Members earlier today. Too much is uncertain, and a lot of it is mince. The derogation in chilled meat, sausages, mince and unfrozen prepared meals is one such aspect. [Laughter.] Keep up, keep up! RTÉ’s Tony Connelly notes that when the as-yet-to-be-determined derogation period expires, supermarkets in Northern Ireland will need to source products locally or from the Republic of Ireland. That may well be good for those producers and good luck to them, but a clear competitive disadvantage is being placed on food exporters in Scotland, Wales and England and that cannot be justified by the Government.
The trusted trader scheme itself is subject to review three and a half years after the Northern Ireland protocol begins, but what mechanisms exist to hold it to account in the meantime to ensure that it is effective and that it does not have a distorting effect, which we suspect that it may do? What is in place now to ensure that there is not a further panic in a couple of months’ time due to a lack of qualified staff to carry out checks for export health certificates? Given the propensity of this Government to hand in their homework late if the dog has not already eaten it, what concrete assurances can they give?
I turn now to enforcement. The Prime Minister could not answer the question earlier from the Leader of the Opposition on the existence, or otherwise, of 50,000 customs agents, and the Minister today could not answer the same question from the hon. Member for Oxford East. I want to know a bit more about these customs agents. Where are they? How many of them are there? Will they be prioritised for the big ports in the UK, or will the Government run the risk of leaving the door open to smuggling and tax-dodging via the short straits? As Stephen Farry mentioned earlier, there is a risk of criminality as well as just of error.
What assessment have the Government made of the competitiveness of our export businesses with reference to schedule 3 of the Bill? If customs charges now apply, surely it will make it more difficult for people to export as well as to import? This is a general concern that has been raised by my hon. Friend Kirsty Blackman on multiple occasions. It presents an extra hassle for small businesses as well as an extra unanticipated expense for consumers. I give the House a small example. I ordered a necklace some time ago from the United States and when it arrived a huge customs charge was slapped on it. Had I known about it before I had ordered it, I might not have ordered it, given the scale of the charge. Consumers do not know what they will end up with if they order something online. When we see something online, we see what the price of it is and what the postage is, but we do not see that customs charge, which is really not transparent. The earrings that I am wearing today are from a small business based in Slovenia, which was able to send them with no additional charges because we were a member of the European Union. Some 70% of Irish online purchases come from the UK. I want to know from the Minister what the impact of the changes will be on our own businesses that wish to export to the Irish Republic.
The hon. Lady makes an almost persuasive case about the difficulty of fragmenting a customs union that has been in place for only 40 years or so. How much more difficult would it be to fragment the United Kingdom, a customs union that has been in place for centuries?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good attempt there, but the issue is really the UK Government and their incompetence in dealing with all these issues, which could well have been anticipated, as well as in taking us out of the large trading bloc on our doorstep from which we have benefited for 40 years and from which our businesses have been able to export their goods. We in Scotland have been able to export our food and drink very easily, very simply and without any barriers. These are barriers that the UK Government wish to put in place—and if they wish to put them in place with an independent Scotland, that is their choice, not ours.
I have almost finished, so I want to make a little progress, but I will try to bring the hon. Lady in later.
I am curious about what assessment the Government have made of the chilling effect of these changes. It is also very interesting that the customs duties will benefit the Irish Exchequer and be to the detriment of our people who wish to export. I note that paragraph 12 of schedule 1 will amend the Isle of Man Act 1979, and that part 6 of new schedule 9ZB to the Value Added Tax Act 1994, which is inserted by schedule 2, also relates to the Isle of Man, so I would be grateful if the Government told us what communication they have had with the Manx authorities on the proposals. Obviously those proposals have come out overnight, so I do not know what discussions have been had, but it would be very interesting to find out.
Scotland has not been offered the deal that Northern Ireland has been offered. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury spoke about the benefits of the EU single market that people in Northern Ireland will enjoy. Lucky them. Scotland is the only part of this supposed Union of equals not to get any of what we asked for, and we will see our own industries disadvantaged. To add insult to our very evident injury, Baroness Davidson and the then Scottish Secretary, David Mundell, threatened to resign if Northern Ireland was given different treatment. Just a couple of years ago, they said:
“Having fought just four years ago to keep our country together, the integrity of our United Kingdom remains the single most important issue for us in these negotiations.
Any deal that delivers a differentiated settlement for Northern Ireland beyond the differences that already exist on an all Ireland basis (eg agriculture), or can be brought under the provisions of the Belfast Agreement, would undermine the integrity of our UK internal market and this United Kingdom…We could not support any deal that…leads to Northern Ireland having a different relationship with the EU than the rest of the UK, beyond what currently exists.”
Well, that is exactly what we have. It is exactly what the Bill is and what it does, yet those two Members are still about. The Scottish Conservatives really do have more faces than the town clock.
To move on to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, he has an absolute brass neck to describe the situation in Northern Ireland as the “best of both worlds”. He said on ITV that Northern Ireland would have
“access to the European single market, because there is no infrastructure on the island of Ireland, and at the same time unfettered access to the rest of the UK market.”
“The best of both worlds”—in Scotland, we have heard that before. The Better Together campaign told us that the only risk of losing our place in the EU was if Scotland voted for independence. Where are we now?
The United Kingdom Internal Market Bill farce undermines yet further the integrity of this crumbling Union, and today’s Bill takes another sledgehammer to the support structures that this Government believe are stronger than they are. The people of Scotland—those who voted no as well as those who voted yes, and those who were unable to vote six years ago—have been watching what has been going on. They do not want a UK Government who drag Scotland out of the EU—they voted very clearly, by 62%, to remain—they do not want a UK Government who threaten to break international law and spoil our standing in the world, and they do not want a UK Government to force Scotland into an insular and poorer future. People want their chance to have their say. The 15 polls in a row that now back independence show clearly to me and everybody else that the people of Scotland believe that things have changed. As Winnie Ewing said:
“Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on.”
I have declared my business interests in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
The origins of this legislation lie in the negotiations under the previous Prime Minister that introduced the whole idea of a Northern Ireland protocol. I regretted those negotiations very much. I opposed them at the time and did not vote for the deals that my right hon. Friend Mrs May came forward with, because I thought they were designed by the EU as a lever to try to delay, dilute or damage Brexit.
When the current Government asked me to support their version of the withdrawal agreement, I still had considerable reservations about the Northern Ireland protocol. I put those to Ministers, who reassured me and said, “This is only an outline operation in the withdrawal agreement as currently drafted. None of the detail has been done. We will negotiate very strongly. We will get rid of the offensive features that you don’t like.” They said that they shared some of my concerns and that they would come back with something much better. I am always trusting of colleagues, so I said that that was very good to know but that I did not have the same confidence in the EU.
I thought it was unlikely that the EU would want to facilitate that in the way that I and the Government would like. so with some friends, I backed my hon. Friend Sir William Cash in saying that the way through this was to put clause 38 into the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill. Under that clause, were the EU to act in bad faith and not come up with a workable solution for Northern Ireland and the other problems, we would have asserted UK sovereignty in our version of the treaty, and so in good law we could use clause 38 to legislate in Britain for what we intend to do, overriding the agreement.
It was quite clear from the drafting of that Bill that we wanted that override, and I would not have dreamt of voting for the thing without the override. The Government were saying that they did not think we would need to use it, but we could use if we had to, which is why I was pleased to support them earlier this week in a very modest override. It is entirely legal; it is the assertion of British sovereignty. We need to keep that in reserve, because without seeing all the detail from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, I am not satisfied yet that we have a working operation for the Northern Ireland border and the matters that we are discussing today—more precisely, who controls the taxation.
What I do not like about these proposals is that it is extremely difficult for individuals and businesses to have to respond to two legal jurisdictions on tax in the same place, yet we seem to have both an EU VAT system and a UK VAT system. I hope that the UK VAT system will deviate rather more from the EU one and be friendlier, lower and apply to different things, but the more that that happens, the more difficult it will be if we are trying to enforce two different VAT systems in one part of the United Kingdom.
I am also concerned about the enforcement mechanisms. We are led to believe that it will be handled by HMRC, but we are also told that the ultimate authority on the EU part of VAT and excise will be the European Court, and therefore there are likely to be inspectors and invigilators—electronic or in person—interfering in the process within what should be sovereign United Kingdom territory. I hope the Government will think again and push back again.
We need more of the detail that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has so far withheld from the House. It may be that he does not yet know it all or that his agreement is high level, in principle, but there are details that we need to know—indeed, details that it would be better to know before we legislate today. For example, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster says that delay periods for adjustment will be necessary for supermarkets and some meat products and so forth. Does that not require some kind of recognition in this legislation? Does it not mean that these jurisdictions do not kick in during the period of grace that we are told will be available?
We need to have more detail from the Government on what exactly happens at the border. I have always explained to the House and others who are not very interested that VAT and excise take place electronically across the borders at the moment, so we are talking largely about an electronic border. We need to know how this electronic border will be programmed to deal with the competing jurisdictions and competing incidences of taxation, and how the product codes and shipment codes will correctly identify the products by category that will be suborned by the EU jurisdiction as well as, properly, by the UK jurisdiction, which ideally would be handling the whole thing.
We do not have nearly enough time to discuss the fundamentally big issues of principle that the Bill brings before us and we have had precious little time to go into the detail. It is all very sad that this rush job is being done like this, but I hope before the Government finish the debate today they will have done a better job of explaining to someone like me why we need to have this dual jurisdiction; how the EU control is going to be limited; how it is going to operate; how, in the early days, the “transitional arrangements”, which we are told about, are going to apply; and why they are not reflected in the current text of this rather unfortunate piece of legislation.
It is a great pleasure to follow John Redwood. Unusually, I found myself agreeing with much of what he said about the time we have to debate this Bill. The points made by my right hon. Friend Mr McFadden in the previous debate were absolutely on the mark.
As someone who voted in the referendum to remain but who represents a seat that voted leave, I have to say that when I hear speeches such as the right hon. Gentleman’s, and many others that we are going to hear, I fear that much of what I have long feared about the whole Brexit process is coming to pass, which is that Brexit will be an orphan child and when we have left the EU and come to our final arrangement, it will be impossible to find anyone, perhaps with the exception of the Prime Minister, who says, “This is the Brexit I was campaigning for.”
Brexit operated in so many different people’s minds as a different entity. Even now, with a Brexit-backing Prime Minister, an overwhelming Tory majority, any Tories who showed a whiff of regard for our future relationship with Europe banished from the party and all rebellion quashed, the fundamental contradictions of Brexit remain unresolved. I have no way of knowing whether there will be a deal, but I can be certain that when that deal is signed many who argued earnestly that we should leave the EU will claim, “This was not the Brexit I was campaigning for.”
Let me turn to the measures in the Bill. I confess that during the referendum our campaign to back remain in Chesterfield hardly touched on the position of Northern Ireland. We did speak a bit about the Union in the context of Scotland, but Northern Ireland was barely mentioned, yet much of the Bill relates to the provisions relating to Northern Ireland that have become central to the issues that remain. The Labour party is, as I am, resolutely behind the Union and entirely committed to the Belfast agreement, and we recognise the many contradictions that persist.
I have to say to colleagues from the Democratic Unionist party and others that they should not think that these Northern Ireland issues concern very many of my constituents in Chesterfield. I know from many conversations that took place during the general elections on doorsteps in Chesterfield in 2019, when I was trying to raise the issues associated with Northern Ireland, that if the cost of getting a Brexit deal that enables our country to trade freely and regain control of immigration happened to be a united Ireland, many of my Brexit-voting constituents would accept that in a heartbeat. The people of Northern Ireland, whom, we should remember, in totality voted to remain, have been badly let down by many of the people they elected to represent them, either by those who sold their support to prop up the disastrous May Government and were then shocked to be sold down the river by Boris Johnson, or by those who, through their absence from this place, allowed the Brexit view to be heard as the dominant opinion of Northern Ireland.
The businesses of Northern Ireland are now starting to understand what that failure means for them. Right now it means that just weeks away from a change that will impact them more than any other on these islands, the promise that they will be able to enjoy frictionless trade has been exposed as wrong. It is irresponsible that when the Government themselves acknowledge that the administrative impacts on businesses affected by these changes will be significant, those businesses have so little time to plan, and no serious economic or fiscal impact assessments are contained within.
The last-minute nature of the Bill once again exposes the fact that the businesses of Great Britain, and particularly Northern Ireland, are left vulnerable by this incompetent Government’s pursuit of a promise that they cannot keep and should never have made. Although I wish the Prime Minister well tonight, the whole country needs him to remove the spectre of no deal from the nightmares we face as we look towards 2021. Once again, the Government are leaving businesses in the dark, jobs at risk and industries on the brink.
I am going to break with tradition in this debate and actually talk about the Bill. A Bill that is described, in large sections, as primarily technical, administrative and procedural will not always excite the juices in Parliament, among the public or in the press but, although dry in sections, this Bill contains important measures, and I rise to support them.
Let me ground my comments in the experience of many people in the UK today. As someone who ran her own business prior to the election, I know that it is often the technical, administrative and procedural that can really shift the dial—for example, on the number of sales an individual can make or on market price points for a certain type of product—never mind the administrative and procedural processes that take too much valuable time from often hard-pressed smaller traders. Clarity is essential, welcome and timely. Once passed, the Bill will ensure that whatever happens in the ongoing trade negotiations with the EU, in an important subset of regulations there is clarity and fairness for businesses in the UK.
Measures in the Bill will change and improve our tax system and have been brought forward in separate legislation in advance of the proposed Finance Bill. They will ensure that the UK is prepared, whatever the outcome of the Prime Minister’s trip to Brussels later today. We are, and will continue to be, a proud sovereign trading nation. We are ensuring, and will continue to ensure, a smooth transition and continuity for trading businesses.
What do I mean? Let me be specific and turn to schedule 3, on amendments to the Value Added Tax Act 1994—essential bedtime reading for all, I am certain. In my previous business, I sold volumes of lower-value goods in online marketplaces and online channels to customers in the UK, the EU and many other locations overseas. For too long prior to the election I saw lower-value goods advertised by overseas sellers—my competitors— that were imported from abroad and undercut UK manufacturers and suppliers.
Currently, overseas sellers can avoid VAT, not charging it at the point of sale and not handing the revenue back to our Exchequer. That means that our country is losing twice: our fabulous businesses are losing sales to cheaper products from overseas sellers who do not have to charge VAT, which is unacceptable, while our Exchequer is also losing the revenue that such measures raise, which I remind the House funds the provision of the public services, such as the NHS and schools, that we rightly value so highly on the Government Benches. The Bill will remove that overseas-seller anomaly.
Specifically, the measures will mean that low-value consignment relief—LVCR—is removed from all non-UK sellers. All imported goods worth under £135, including under those worth under £15, will be subject to VAT at UK rates. Although currently legal, the existing situation amounts to tax avoidance by overseas sellers and has created distortions in UK marketplaces. It is this Conservative Government who are clamping down on it. To level the playing field, online marketplaces must now account for their VAT. This Government support our fabulous businessmen and women who trade from shops or—like me—online and will continue to do so.
Earlier, Alison Thewliss mentioned extra exporting barriers. As someone who has sat and put the labels on to goods going to EU, Ireland and international destinations, I know that for lower-value goods, any individual consignment worth under £270 gets a CN23 sticker with all the declarations on it, and then off it pops and there are no additional barriers between the EU and the US. No change that we will make today will put in place extra paperwork: what was done for the EU was always what happened anyway—it automatically comes off the printer. I am sure there are great British jewellers who can sell us wonderful earrings—
Yesterday in the debate on the Ways and Means resolutions, I said that I would be supporting the Bill because our country needs it. It needs it for the core purposes of the Bill, which are the smooth continuity of business after the transition period, being ready, and creating a more level playing field for UK businesses.
I recognise that leaving the EU is a field full of tough issues, but the most problematic element is the nature of our land border with it. Seeking to deliver Brexit while protecting the Good Friday agreement was the major stumbling block in our endless debates and struggles last year, so I am pleased to see progress made on that issue. We had a statement on it earlier; I will not go over trodden ground.
There are businesses in Harrogate and Knaresborough that do significant trade selling to and buying from Northern Ireland. The Bill will be welcome news for them. More people in Harrogate and Knaresborough are affected by internet shopping, either buying from or selling via online platforms. Even if people do not buy online, they are affected by the struggles on the high street. It is a tough time for retailers and, of course, high streets provide countless thousands of jobs. They are economic hubs. Our high streets and town centres also have a social function beyond an economic one. They provide a community focal point.
Before coming here, I worked in retail and for brands that sell through retail. When I talk to retailers, they say that they just want a level playing field. They are talking widely when they use that phrase, but they are talking about taxation, particularly business rates and VAT. The Bill helps to create more of a level playing field with a new model for the treatment of VAT on goods arriving in the UK from overseas. The collection moves to the overseas seller or the online marketplace where that transaction occurs. As a result, it will be easier to collect VAT and harder to avoid it. The last thing that a business having a tough time needs is for competitors to have a 20% price advantage. High street businesses and online players based here pay VAT, so if overseas businesses are allowed to make VAT-free sales, they are unfairly undercut.
I do not think the measure is controversial; it is entirely reasonable. Indeed, as I mentioned yesterday, there are moves across the world in this policy direction. I commented on the other measures in the Bill yesterday, so I will not detain the House with repetition.
The past year has obviously been one of the toughest on record in peacetime. The economic impact will be felt for many years. We also have the consequences of Brexit. The need for the continuity of business operation is profound. Our whole United Kingdom must focus on growth as we seek to protect livelihoods as we have sought to protect lives. The Bill is part of the measures being taken to secure our business future, and that is why I will support it.
The existence and contents of the Bill encapsulate the opportunities and complexities that we, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, face as we reach the end of the transition period. As we regain control of our money, borders and laws, we have the opportunity to innovate and, in relation to taxation, to remould our regulations around the values and requirements of our modern UK economy.
For example, the Bill introduces some administrative and procedural VAT changes that not only are legally necessary, but allow us to tackle non-compliance and to support our high streets to compete with online sales. That is important in the current economic climate where, for nearly nine months, our high streets have faced unprecedented restrictions and sales have plummeted, while online retailers have traded unhindered and made record profits. I therefore support the measures in the Bill that stipulate that VAT is due from online sales by companies that import goods into the UK. That will ensure a more level playing field for our bricks-and-mortar retailers.
Another opportunity presented by our departure from the EU and the end of the transition period is our potential ability to crack down on tax evasion. The Bill also makes technical provisions on that issue. As well as realising the administrative opportunities that we can embrace as we leave the EU, the Bill reflects some of the complexities that have inevitably arisen as we, an historic Union of four distinct nations, seek to disentangle ourselves from 40 years of economic and increasingly political union with our European neighbours.
During the referendum campaign in 2016, I was not actively involved in politics and I was not a member of a political party, but I agonised over my vote. I was torn between the moral conviction that our UK Parliament should be sovereign and the practical acknowledgement that any divorce after 40 years of union will be complicated and messy—of course, both are true. Following 17 million votes to leave the EU, it is right and democratic to leave, but is also a complex and challenging process that has tested our determination and resolve for three and a half years. That is why the Bill must also make provision for all the circumstances that we may face following the outcome of ongoing trade negotiations. We cannot gloss over or underestimate these complexities or pretend that they should not exist. The history of the relationship between each of our four nations is unique, and it is based on cultural and relational settlements as much as law and statute. Whatever the outcome of the trade negotiations, we must ensure that we have a VAT and customs framework in place to allow trade across the UK to continue as seamlessly as possible. That is what this Bill will achieve, and it is why I support it as a sensible, responsible and necessary piece of legislation.
Somehow or other, I always thought that taking back control would look rather different for this place than this: to have just 24 hours to consider 112 pages of highly technical and detailed taxation legislation is an affront and insult to this House, and an abuse of the process by which we are supposed to govern ourselves. Those on the Treasury Bench who have brought forward this legislation in this way should hang their heads in shame. But, as Anneliese Dodds indicated in her contribution, it is, unfortunately, necessary. It is remarkable that amongst these 112 pages there are so many enabling provisions; so we know that in fact the detail is still to come and there will require to be secondary legislation to implement the detail of what our businesses will actually need.
The kindest comment I can make about the Bill at this stage, given the time available to me, is that it is just a foretaste of things to come. Essentially, most of what we have here pertains to the relationship with Northern Ireland, and even at this stage the Government are still tying themselves in knots because they promised three things of which they could only ever at best deliver two. They said we could come out of the customs union or we would have no border north and south or have no border east or west. In fact, if we were going to come out of the customs union, eventually we had to have a border north or south, or east or west; we could not have all three. I listened to John Redwood talking about electronic borders, but the clue is in the title: it is a border. Once sovereignty trumps economics, that inevitably leads to having borders—something that should be heard in all parts of this House.
“The best laid schemes o’
Gang aft agley,”
I was disappointed and a little surprised that she did not then deliver the next line of that stanza:
“The best laid schemes o’
Gang aft agley,
lea’e us nought but grief an’
For promis’d joy!”
If ever I heard the perfect way of describing Brexit, that has got to be it:
lea’e us nought but grief an’
For promis’d joy!”
The House will remember, of course, that Robert Burns was an exciseman, so he would know quite a lot about customs and the matters in this Bill; Lord alone knows what he would make of it if he were alive today.
This time yesterday we, frankly, would all have celebrated seeing what is in this Bill; today, I want to celebrate what is not in it. It is great that we do not have to consider the inclusion of additional measures to take account of the failure of the Joint Committee to come to an agreement on the proper interpretation of the Northern Irish protocol; I am delighted to learn that we have now come to the pragmatic and proportionate way found by the Joint Committee for the interpretation and enforcement of its provisions. Just a few days ago the European Union asserted that all goods travelling from GB to Northern Ireland were to be considered as being “at risk” of onward transport to the EU, a patently absurd and obstructionist position, so I heartily welcome this last-minute change of heart.
“Practical cooperation and flexibility has been agreed to make it as manageable as possible for people and businesses.”
Amen to that, and may the same spirit suffuse the continuing negotiations elsewhere in Europe.
Clauses 2, 3 and 4 put in place the practical requirements to allow for the charging of customs duties and VAT away from the geographical border with the Republic of Ireland while continuing to protect the ability of Northern Irish products to travel without restrictions to the rest of the United Kingdom. This respects the Government’s commitment that goods from Northern Ireland will continue to have unfettered access to the rest of the United Kingdom.
Clause 7 proposes that VAT collection for goods sold in the UK by overseas sellers will move away from the border either directly to the overseas seller or, importantly, where the sale has been facilitated by an online marketplace, to that marketplace. This is a very important step that marks, I hope, the beginning of a much wider reassessment of the role of online marketplaces and the responsibility that they should properly have for the goods of international origin that they sell. All goods sold on our high streets pay the appropriate level of VAT, yet high street shops are being unfairly undercut by online international competitors that have avoided VAT. This clause allows the first step to be taken in recognising that the online marketplace has come of age, and with that coming of age it needs to accept the responsibilities of its powerful market-making position.
I hope that the link between the facilitation of sale and wider responsibilities will be a theme that the Government expand on in the coming months. As I mentioned in the debate yesterday, the same argument can be applied to areas of environmental legislation, such as the extended producer responsibility, as well as the collection of electronic waste for recycling.
I welcome Her Majesty’s Government’s approach. It is no longer credible for the hugely powerful and commercially dominant online marketplaces to wash their hands of what actually passes through their platforms.
It is a pleasure to follow Jerome Mayhew, particularly given the fact that he highlighted that just yesterday, we were all wondering what was going to be in this Bill.
What a complete and utter boorach the last 24 hours have been. Mr Carmichael rightly highlighted the shambolic scenes that we have all seen. I heard yesterday from those on the Government Benches that the reason for this is that we are currently in a fast-paced environment. This has been going on for four and a half years, with three Prime Ministers and two general elections. How many resignations? How many U-turns? And the Government leave it until three weeks before the end of the transition before they bring forward something, and they do so with less than 24 hours’ notice of what it will actually entail. What a complete and utter embarrassment. Government Members are the ones who tell us that this is the place where power should lie, yet they are the ones who treat it with more contempt than anyone else. If I was not so disappointed, I would laugh at their sheer hypocrisy.
To turn to the Bill—I am very mindful of time—Katherine Fletcher was right to highlight one of the good elements of the Bill, in relation to online VAT. We should all support that, particularly at this moment in time, given the challenges that we are all seeing on our high street. We need to see a level playing field, and if we can bring that level playing field about, we should be willing to do it. I hope, however, that the Government will continue to go further and revisit the issue of the digital services tax, where they have the powers to make further inroads into levelling that playing field.
You will be unsurprised to learn, Mr Deputy Speaker, with just 60 seconds to go, that my agreement with the Government ends there, for four simple reasons that I will cover quickly. The first one is this: England voted to leave and England will leave. Wales voted to leave and Wales will leave. Northern Ireland voted to remain and Northern Ireland is going to get the best of both worlds; it is going to get access to the EU market while simultaneously remaining in the United Kingdom. And what of Scotland? What do we get? Scotland was told that we should stay in the United Kingdom in order to lead the United Kingdom—lead, don’t leave. We wanted the same access as Northern Ireland. We put forward numerous proposals, yet time after time, this UK Government completely ignored our views and desires in that respect. That all adds up, and it adds up in the minds of the very people this UK Government are going to have to rely upon the next time we go to the polls on our independence.
At least I and Stephen Flynn agree on a level playing field for business, and I want to concentrate my comments on that area. There is no question, for the best deal for consumers on prices and service, but that we need a fair and level playing field for businesses. That makes the market more competitive, which drives down prices and drives up service. It is absolutely where this Government should focus, and I am pleased to see that they are doing so in this legislation.
I am a big fan of VAT’s part in the collection of taxation. It is much more difficult to avoid than other taxes and much easier to collect. It is not a regressive tax, and I think we should try to focus on indirect taxes as we reform taxes in the future and simplify the tax system. As this closes a loophole, there is actually another area where we lose such a fair and level playing field, and that is the threshold for VAT registration. Some businesses are slightly below that and gain an advantage over others that are slightly above it. That is perhaps a conversation we should have another day.
On part 1 of schedule 3 to the Bill, I very much welcome the changed emphasis on online marketplaces in the collection of VAT duty. I understand from reports that when the changes were made in 2016, we collected about £500 million, although I am not sure what period that accounted for. I would be interested to hear from the Exchequer Secretary how much she thinks these changes will actually bring in for the Exchequer. I am pleased to see that we are closing another loophole in this way, after things like the digital services tax and the diverted profits tax. I do not think any Government in history have done more to clamp down on tax avoidance than this Government, quite rightly.
I would like to ask a couple of questions about these provisions. As I asked in my intervention, why is the figure £135? I realise this is to do with the changes in Northern Ireland to do with our leaving the European Union and the provisions in EU law for this, but why is it £135? Many products sold on the internet are also sold by UK domestic sellers who have to charge VAT, but above £135 overseas sellers may not have to, so this is another loophole that needs closing. I am not sure why, for example, someone could buy a watch from abroad that might be £500 or £1,000 and the same loophole would apply.
Similarly, this applies only to goods, not services. Many services are now sold online from abroad, such as legal services, accountancy services, IT developer services—for example, people can recruit developers from abroad through platforms such as Elance—and UK providers would have to charge VAT, but overseas providers potentially would not, so I wonder whether we can look at that. However, in the round, I am very supportive of these changes. I welcome them, and I certainly will be voting for them, if it comes to that, later today.
I am pleased to be a Northern Ireland voice in this very important debate. Obviously, this is a different type of speech from the one I was envisaging making earlier this week, and I do welcome that progress—not least that we are, I hope, moving beyond part 5 of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill and the potential notwithstanding clause in this legislation, although of course we do remain vigilant in that regard.
I would welcome confirmation from the Minister, not least given that we have had very little time to scrutinise the detail, that the current version of this Bill is entirely consistent with the Northern Ireland protocol. It is worth recalling why we have to do that and why there is such a protocol. It arises from the decision of the UK not to have a fresh customs union with the EU post Brexit. That prompts the question of where the line is going to be drawn on the map between the UK’s customs union and the EU. The protocol essentially sees a situation whereby Northern Ireland remains part of the single market for goods, but remains part of the UK’s customs territory. Crucially, however, the EU customs code is to be applied down the Irish sea; hence the nature of this Bill.
Just to correct something that was said earlier, the withdrawal agreement and the protocol, which were signed up to by this Prime Minister, had the starting point that all goods moving into Northern Ireland were potentially at risk. That was what was said in the protocol, and I do welcome the progress that has been made in trying to find a way through this and that that is not going to be the case in practice.
Some people may say that it was only the EU that was threatening a border in Ireland. Of course, the EU does have the right to protect the integrity of its single market and customs union, but I think we are being too complacent about the UK’s own obligations in that regard. If, in the event of no deal, the back gate was left open, so to speak, there would be a requirement under WTO rules for the UK to adopt the exact same posture that it has on the island of Ireland with the rest of the world. I am not sure that is a line that it would want to go down, particularly given the whole range of threats that are out there.
There are a range of issues still to be addressed regarding the wider context of the Bill—in particular, the achievement of a zero-tariff, zero-quota deal. Even with that, rules of origin will still be an issue. But if there is no free trade agreement, we are back to the issue of goods at risk. Although we have the prospect of the authorised economic operator model—we await more details of that—it is not going to cover everyone. For example, it is not going to cover small retailers and it may not cover the online issue. There is also the question of what happens if that measure is not renewed in a few years’ time, as well as the issue around necessary resources.
Looking the other way, I have already raised in my intervention on the Minister the issue of qualifying goods and how we can tackle avoidance.
It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate. It has certainly been a wide-ranging and interesting one, on both sides of the House.
Trade is among the most efficient ways to ensure that peace can be maintained between the communities in Northern Ireland as a whole, and to maintain the prosperity of Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. I believe that this Bill secures that. In creating the legal framework for customs, VAT and excise charges, the Bill will make a real and positive impact on trade in both Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, including in my communities in Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton. It will have a sizeable effect, given that 10% of England’s exports are to other parts of the United Kingdom, and particularly to Northern Ireland, with Northern Ireland external purchases from Great Britain coming in at around £14 billion. In specifying that customs charges will apply to certain goods only if they are at risk of moving into the EU, the Bill provides greater certainty and will ensure that our businesses can have the brighter future that they are looking for. Equally, the Bill will ensure that businesses across the United Kingdom can benefit from a continual flow of goods between the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, and that Northern Ireland exports and imports do not have to suffer from barriers to trade.
It is quite right that our red line in this Bill has been the ability to set our own customs laws and excise duties. We are going to see the benefit of that in January, with the streamlining of some 6,000 tariff lines and the removal of tariffs on some £30 billion of imports entering supply chains, particularly within manufacturing, which is a key industry for areas like mine in the Black Country. We are going to do that while ensuring that there is no hard border on the island of Ireland, that we maintain the peace that has been built there over generations, and that we maintain the integrity of the communities within Northern Ireland.
Let me turn to the technicalities of the Bill. My hon. Friends the Members for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) and for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) touched on the tax element, particularly VAT. As we have heard, schedule 3 finally ensures that our high street retailers can have the level playing field that they desperately need. As I touched on in my contribution yesterday, this has been a horrendous year for our high street retailers, with all the uncertainty and difficulties that they have come through, so ensuring that they are on a level playing field with online retailers and are able to obtain those benefits—and, equally, ensuring that the tax revenue that we have lost out on so far can be put into our vital public services, which have stepped up to protect us and our constituents during this time—is absolutely crucial. I welcome that part of the Bill.
I am extremely conscious of time, so I will round off my comments. Ministers have been given quite a degree of discretion under the words in the Bill, both in some of the definitions, and in some of the abilities that they will have. My right hon. Friend John Redwood touched yesterday on the point that Ministers have to realise the potential of what they can do through this Bill. I implore my hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench to realise the potential in some of the abilities and powers that they have in this Bill, and to ensure that they get this right as we move forward—because we will move forward into 2021, and we have to ensure that, as we implement these measures, we do the best by all traders and all businesses operating within our United Kingdom.
I thank everybody who has contributed to this short debate. To pick out a few, Sir William Cash told us that he was reserving his judgment on some of these measures, particularly the Government’s decision not to proceed with the “notwithstanding” clauses. Alison Thewliss talked about hidden customs charges and described parts of the Government’s approach as “absolute mince”. John Redwood spoke about the dual taxation regime, which we will return to in the Committee stage shortly to follow. My hon. Friend Mr Perkins spoke about the phenomenon of people saying that it is never a proper Brexit, no matter what kind of Brexit it is. Stephen Farry gave us a very welcome Northern Ireland voice on these issues.
What this Bill does, first and foremost, is to put in place a framework for the monitoring, taxation and movement of goods that was not there in the past. However much the Government try to duck that issue—to pretend that everything is going to carry on as normal—the new regime is there for everybody to see in the clauses of the Bill and the regulations to follow. Business to and from Northern Ireland will be conducted on a more monitored, differently taxed and significantly more bureaucratic basis than before. There is simply no escaping that and no hiding from it, and it would be better if the Government acknowledged this as what they have agreed. My first question to the Minister is: do the Government really expect to implement everything in this Bill and to secure compliance from businesses both in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the UK on all these measures by
The Bill, of course, could have been very different. It could have contained clauses setting aside parts of the Northern Ireland protocol. The Government did look ready to double down on the course of action that they had embarked on in the UK Internal Market Bill, but thanks to yesterday’s statement by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and his counterpart, Mr Šefčovič, the Government have announced that they will not proceed with such clauses. We can now look forward to the Government moving amendments in the other place to delete that which they insisted was necessary in this House on Monday evening. It is one thing to play ping-pong with the House of Lords, but quite another to play ping-pong with yourself. Once again, the Government’s MPs who valiantly defended the line on Monday now have a very different line to advance before Thursday. This is not the first time this has happened, and I should guess it will not be the last. If I was a Government Back Bencher, I would be becoming a little bit more wary of following the line from No. 10 on a number of issues.
In all the twists and turns that got us here, Ministers might think that they have acted tough, but threatening to legislate to set aside parts of an international agreement that the Government signed only a year ago has only done damage to the country’s reputation. The Government have not communicated toughness; all they have communicated is that they cannot be trusted. As we embark on a process of trying to negotiate new free trade deals around the world, what a signal to send and what a starting point: do a deal with the Government who threatened to ditch parts of the last one that we signed. That was not clever negotiating tactics and it was not toughness—it was reckless, and, I am afraid, it was revealing about the character of the Government.
The Bill sets out the new customs regime for so-called at-risk goods moving to and from Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Although it empowers Ministers to levy the necessary duties, there is still much that, as clause 1 says, will have to be clarified in new regulations from the Treasury. We only have 22 days to go. When will we see these new regulations? When will businesses in Northern Ireland, or those anywhere else in the country that send goods to Northern Ireland, know exactly what the new regime will be? Does the Minister really think that this is a proper way to do this, more than four years after the referendum and just three weeks before the end of the transition period?
Similar phrasing is used in clause 2 in relation to goods moving from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK, and the same point applies: when will businesses know what is happening? On the VAT regime in clause 3, will the Minister set out how the EU’s VAT regime, as it applies to Northern Ireland, will interplay with the UK’s VAT regime—the question raised by John Redwood? Similarly, on excise duties, how will the measures in clause 4, which apply to everything from spirits and beer to tobacco products, differ from current arrangements? Are the insurance premium tax changes thought necessary in the event of no mutual assistance provisions between the UK and the EU? If they are, are such provisions likely to be part of any deal which, if agreed, would then mean that the clause was not needed?
These measures are likely to pass the House quite quickly tonight, but the real action at the moment is of course not here, but elsewhere. As we debate this Bill, we still do not know whether there will be a free trade agreement reached. After four years, the public, companies and their staff do not know what they will be facing in January, and the root of that decision remains what it has always been: this choice between sovereignty and market access.
The story of the past four years has been the Government moving more and more towards the sovereignty side of that choice. They may say that is the remorseless logic of Brexit, but no one should doubt the significance, because what it means is that, for the first time in history, we have a Government and a process where questions of investment, of people’s prosperity and of their living standards have been progressively relegated to a more and more distant second place. We will see the results of that choice over the coming months. Perhaps after tonight’s dinner in Brussels, we might even be a bit clearer about the results in the days to come, but in the end what has been described as a negotiation is, in fact, a choice. The Government have made their choice, and we will see the effect in the months to come.
It is a privilege to close this debate on behalf of the Government, and I thank Members from all parts of the House for their thoughtful and varied contributions.
At the end of this month, the transition period will end. As my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary pointed out at the beginning of today’s debate, we have a great responsibility to be ready for this event. The measures contained in the Taxation (Post-transition Period) Bill will play an important part in the preparations.
Let me take this opportunity to thank Opposition Members for their constructive and collegiate approach throughout the passage of this Bill, despite their evident reservations, and in that same spirit I will address some of the points raised in today’s debate.
The Bill is an essential part of our preparations for the end of the transition period. It takes forward important changes to our tax system to support the smooth continuation of business across the UK. It contains six measures. Three relate to the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol and three implement wider changes to the tax system, which are needed before
Now that we have further clarity on the outcome of the Joint Committee negotiations, it is vital that the provisions are in place before the end of the transition period to provide that certainty. The Bill’s passage is necessarily rapid, but it will allow for these important changes to be implemented on time. Mr McFadden asked if we believed it can be done, and my answer is yes, of course. The UK Government will take forward a pragmatic approach that draws upon available flexibilities to implement the protocol without causing undue disruption to lives and livelihoods.
The Government are committed to supporting business. At the centre of the package is the free-to-use trader support service, which will support business when moving goods into Northern Ireland, educating traders on what the protocol means for them and completing customs safety and security declarations on their behalf. That is working. Since the launch of the registration portal in September, more than 18,000 businesses have signed up for support from the trader support service.
Turning to Members’ comments, Stephen Farry requested confirmation that the UK meets its obligations. The powers in the Bill allow us to implement the Northern Ireland protocol in a way that is consistent with our obligations, and I appreciate his broader supportive statements. My hon. Friends the Members for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) and for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), among others, rightly referred to our closing of the VAT loophole in clause 7 and schedule 3. Low-value consignment relief is subject to widespread abuse and contributes to trade distortion. It disadvantages UK high street businesses that are required to charge VAT where overseas businesses are not, either for legitimate reasons or through abuse, and removing the relief will bring overseas sellers on to an equal footing with UK businesses.
My hon. Friend Kevin Hollinrake asked why the clause applied just to low-value goods and whether there was an opportunity for it to apply to high-value goods as well. The reason is that the £135 threshold aligns with the threshold for customs duty liability. Imports of goods greater than £135 in value are subject to enhanced customs requirements, which would negate the benefit of moving VAT away from the border. Therefore, imports of goods greater than that amount will remain subject to the current model for goods arriving from non-EU countries, where VAT is collected at the point of importation.
My hon. Friend also asked what revenue we expected from this change. The Office for Budget Responsibility has forecast that these changes will raise over £300 million a year over the next five years, and £1.6 billion over the scorecard period. Approximately two thirds of that will come from improving collection and tackling non-compliance through the new VAT treatment of cross-border goods, and the final third of the revenue will come from the removal of low-value consignment relief, which will end widespread abuse of this relief.
My right hon. Friend John Redwood asked whether the ECJ would be the ultimate arbiter for VAT and excise. The ECJ will continue to have a role where EU directives apply in Northern Ireland—for example, where there are disputes on how the EU rules should be interpreted. However, the rules will continue to be policed by HMRC, which will continue to be the tax authority for the whole of the UK. He also mentioned Northern Ireland being subject to two regulatory systems. Northern Ireland is and will remain part of the UK and its VAT system. It is correct that the Northern Ireland protocol means that NI will continue to align with the EU VAT rules in respect of goods, but not services. That is to ensure that trade is not disrupted on the island of Ireland, and to allow us to meet our commitments under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. But, as I said, HMRC will continue to be the tax authority for the whole of the UK. Businesses will continue to have a single UK VAT number, issued by HMRC, and they will submit only one UK VAT return to account for VAT on all supplies of goods and services.
My hon. Friend Sir William Cash asked about the current negotiations. Just to remind him and reiterate to the House, the UK Government set out on
As I have just said, I am not in a position to be talking about what is happening in the future. We have been negotiating in good faith and we have an agreement in principle. I do not believe that those clauses will be coming back, but as the right hon. Gentleman knows very well, the negotiations are still ongoing and we need to wait and see what the outcomes of those negotiations are. It would be quite wrong for me or him to pre-empt anything else that will be taking place, and we must not bind the hands of our negotiators. It is absolutely right that we all speak with one voice in this House.
Alison Thewliss mentioned GB and NI parcels and asked how consumers would know whether there was a customs charge. The movement of parcels into Northern Ireland is another important part of how the protocol will work in practice for people in Northern Ireland. That is why the UK Government will take forward a pragmatic approach, just as we have elsewhere, that draws on available flexibilities to implement the protocol without causing undue disruption. In terms of schedule 3, she gave the example of the earrings from Slovenia that she had ordered. It is worth stressing that schedule 3 deals with imports to the UK and not exports. It will ensure that UK customers see the amount of VAT that needs to be paid at the point of sale on goods below £135. For goods between Northern Ireland and GB, VAT is already charged on supplies sold by a GB business to an NI customer. When the Northern Ireland protocol comes into effect, Northern Ireland businesses or consumers purchasing goods from VAT-registered businesses will see no significant difference in costs from a VAT perspective.
Let me conclude by saying that tonight, this House has the opportunity to give businesses in Northern Ireland and throughout the rest of the UK certainty about the arrangements that will apply from
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Committee of the whole House (Order, this day).