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European Union (Withdrawal) Bill - Report (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 8th May 2018.

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Photo of Lord Alli Lord Alli Labour 5:45 pm, 8th May 2018

My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 112. The amendments are an attempt to ensure that we end up with a framework to deal with not just the goods we import and export but the services we trade in. The customs union amendment that we passed overwhelmingly a few weeks ago is only one half of the equation. The customs union deals only with goods. That is very important: it deals only with goods—tangible items such as cars, washing machines and televisions—where we have a £96 billion trade deficit. That is something we need to fix, but perhaps that is for another debate.

The EEA deals with services—such as retail, tourism, transport, communications, financial services and aerospace, where we have a £14 billion trade surplus. The customs union only will benefit our European neighbours in their imports, but without an EEA equivalent, it will damage our profitable export business and therefore the jobs and livelihoods of many thousands of people. It is for that reason we need to ensure that any continuation in the customs union must include continuation in the EEA or its equivalent.

My fellow proposers of the amendment and I come to this issue from the experience of creating, building and running businesses. It is our hope that the voice of business will be heard here. It is our hope that common sense will prevail over political dogma. It is hard enough to build a business in this country—the proposers of the amendment have all done so. We create jobs, we create real wealth, and to make it harder for us by ignoring what we do is, I think, unacceptable.

The EEA is a free trade agreement between the EU, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. It is similar to but not—not—the same as the EU single market. It excludes the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy. EEA participation does not entail any political integration or closer union. The EEA arbitration mechanism is not the European court, it is the EFTA arbitration court. There is flexibility in control over free movement of labour and people. Individual countries can take control of that area. Our access to European markets after Brexit could be radically improved if we retain our existing participation in the EEA. Having asked for a customs union for goods, it makes no sense to have one without an agreement to cover services.

What are the arguments against? The biggest is our belief that the EU negotiators will not give us access to European markets on similar or even better terms than we have today—that somehow they will punish us for leaving. We are not asking for charity, we are paying for access. Four weeks ago, the Chancellor confirmed that the Brexit bill will be between £35 billion and £40 billion. The question I have to ask the Minister is: what do we get for our £35 billion or £40 billion? Perhaps the Minister will have an answer, but in case he does not, I suggest what it should be. It should be the freedom to access the movement of our goods and services throughout those European markets. The Government have agreed a hefty Brexit bill without our getting access to European markets, a customs union or any trade agreements.

Forgive me if I have no confidence in the retort from the Government Front Bench: “We can’t tell you what we’re doing now because we don’t want to show our hand”. It is stretching credibility, in every area where we ask for clarification, to say, “We don’t want to tell you what we’re going to do because it shows our hand”. I cannot tell your Lordships how frustrating it is for those of us who have to operate in this environment to hear Minister after Minister tell us that they cannot tell us what they are going to do because they do not want to show their hand.

My criticism is not just for the Government Front Bench. The Opposition Front Bench, the members of whom I know work incredibly hard and have tried their hardest to take the Bill through, are unable to act on this issue. I do not blame them for that. For me, it is up to the elected House to decide on the EEA, not this House. Our job is to send this amendment back to them to ask them to make a decision on the EEA.