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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 8th May 2018.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 6:15 pm, 8th May 2018

My Lords, before the noble Lords, Lord Howarth and Lord Forsyth, tell us that we are frustrating the will of the people, it may be appropriate to remind them of the arguments that the leave campaign made before the referendum for leaving the customs union and the single market. We had to leave the customs union because, if we stayed in, we could not negotiate those different free trade agreements that we would make independently with India, China, the United States and many others, which would give us better conditions than we had had, constrained as we were by being a member of the European Union. They said that we had to leave the single market because we had to get rid of so many of these constricting regulations that bound the British economy and which we could be free of when we left. I wish to suggest that neither of those arguments now holds.

The Government have so far spent well over half a billion pounds on the Department for International Trade, and the Treasury, as the newspapers reported this morning, has decided that that is getting to be too expensive for the value that is being produced, which, after all, is very low. Liam Fox has travelled the world several times—someone told me the other day that he has travelled half the distance between here and the moon so far—and has achieved remarkably little. A number of countries have made it quite clear that they are not prepared to offer us anything better than we would get as a member of the European Union. Our hopes that we have a wonderful free trade partner in the United States do not appear to be assisted by President Trump’s present approach to foreign economic relations. Those who still support a hard leave, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, are reduced to attacking business as being part of Project Fear when business says that its interests are about to be damaged so badly.

On deregulation, we have heard increasingly from members and supporters of the Government, including those on the Front Bench at present, that we do not want to deregulate—that we want to maintain the high standards of regulation. I have not even heard anyone suggest recently that we should get rid of the working time directive. If that is the case, the reason why we want to leave the single market has also evaporated. The Minister earlier this afternoon suggested that, as an independent country, we could mirror EU regulations by passing, on our own, the same regulations the European Union has just passed. That is wonderful parliamentary sovereignty, isn’t it—jumping in behind, taking the rules and saying, “Gosh, look, we’re doing it on our own”? Geoffrey Howe, a far greater Foreign Secretary than the present incumbent, used to talk about the gains to Britain of the single market: that we would be sharing sovereignty and taking part in decisions about common regulations. Outside the single market we will be taking the rules others have given us and pretending that we are a sovereign country.

The Minister suggested earlier this afternoon that the amendments in question would introduce confusion and uncertainty. I suggest to the Minister that most of us think that that describes the Government’s current position. Indeed, I took part in a radio discussion on Sunday morning with someone whom I imagine is quite a good friend of his—Nigel Farage—who agreed with me that the Government’s current negotiations with the European Union are a total mess. That is the relatively widespread set of opinions from a range of different views around the world. Then, we are faced with the Daily Mail this morning, in which the Foreign Secretary is rubbishing the Prime Minister’s views. If that had ever happened during the coalition Government —if a Liberal Democrat Cabinet member had rubbished the Prime Minister—there would have been a government crisis. But we apparently have such a weak and unstable Government that they totter along from one thing to another, unable to decide what they are doing.

My question to the Minister and to noble Lords who are about to speak is: given that the arguments the leave campaign made in that hard-fought and narrowly won referendum have now evaporated, what are the arguments for staying out of the customs union and single market?