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.