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European Union (Withdrawal) Bill - Report (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 18th April 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Ludford Baroness Ludford Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union) 4:45 pm, 18th April 2018

My Lords, I am a signatory to the amendment and would like to speak to it. The Government’s paper of last August on future customs arrangements proposed two customs schemes as the alternative to being in the customs union, one based on technology, described as “innovative”, the other with the UK acting as an agent for the EU for EU-bound goods, described as “unprecedented” and “challenging”. Those are words that, if in Jim Hacker’s vocabulary, would have attracted congratulations from Sir Humphrey for the Minister’s bravery.

The issues for manufacturing industries such as cars and aerospace have been covered by the noble Lords, Lord Kerr and Lord Patten. They are to do with supply chains, border checks and rules of origin. That all sounds like very dry stuff but it boils down to costs, delays and red tape affecting investment decisions and jobs. Staying in the customs union is an economic and industrial issue. The Freight Transport Association estimates that an even an extra two minutes checking every truck during peak hours could result in queues of almost 30 miles at border points.

The chief executive officer of Airbus, Tom Enders, has summed up the problems for his company. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, that Tom Enders sees leaving the customs union, not staying in it, as very damaging. He points out that during production parts of his company’s wings move between the UK and the EU multiple times before final assembly. This is typical for all our UK-assembled products and why the lack of clarity around the customs union and trade is hugely worrying. We think that across our operations and supply chains Brexit will affect 672 sites. Hard borders and regulatory divergence risk blocking trade, creating supply-chain logjams and causing our business to grind to a halt. This is not some esoteric question. Of course, being in the customs union does not solve all the problems; for example, it would be great to have participation in regulatory convergence as well. However, staying in the customs union is a necessary part of preserving the simplicity and streamlined nature of the manufacturing industry. The noble Lord, Lord Lamont, is right that remain is the gold standard, but let us at least go for silver.

As for the argument that being in a customs union would constrain our freedom to conclude third-party trade deals, the ones that we have by virtue of EU membership are far more valuable. Our food, animal welfare and environmental standards could be compromised by third-party agreements. Many potential partners will want immigration concessions, which has proved difficult. As has been noted by the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, you do not need a trade agreement to export, hence Germany exports four times as much to China as we do. That country has not been inhibited so why have we? That is something that we can do inside the customs union. As reported yesterday, China’s top diplomat in Brussels, its head of mission to the EU, has said that a UK deal with the EU is a precondition for trade talks with China. The Chinese need us to have a decent arrangement with the EU before they want to talk about it. If there is not a Brexit deal, they say, there will not be things to talk about. They need to know exactly how we are going to operate with the EU. I add that no member of the Commonwealth has wanted us to leave the EU, so praying that in aid is totally inappropriate.

Not only did people not vote in 2016 to leave the customs union—that was not on the ballot paper—they did not vote to lose their jobs, either. We should protect those jobs by pressing for Britain to stay in a customs union.