Trade Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:10 pm on 11th September 2018.

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Photo of Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Crossbench 7:10 pm, 11th September 2018

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Astor, who spoke so warmly of my old service, and to take part in this debate, introduced so clearly and convincingly by the Minister.

There is absolutely no doubt that, if we leave the European Union in March next year—something about which I am becoming increasingly doubtful—we need to have a Bill of this kind on the statute book. As the noble Baroness, Lady Henig, reminded us, there is a lot to be done on the detail in this Bill: the balance it strikes between the Executive and the legislature; future roles of and relationships between industrial, social, environmental, consumer and trade policies, and how transparent it should all be. In Part 2 of the Bill, I hope we shall look at the devolution aspects in relation to the Trade Remedies Authority. The noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, drew our attention to this. A threat that is seen as not particularly substantive UK-wide, could be seen as significant in a devolved part of the country.

I think we shall spend quite a long time in Committee. For reasons that escape me at the moment, we are about to be sent away on holiday. It is clear from this debate that we should take advantage of our last chance before the October European Council—which was meant to be decisive—to tell the Government what we think about deal, no deal, what it might take to get a deal and what no deal would mean for our country. I shall try to go into that territory too. I shall cover almost exactly the same themes as were addressed by the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, in his typically splendid, rambunctious speech, although I may address them in slightly different terms. There is nothing between me and the noble Lord but a fundamental disagreement.

On no deal, I am not always sure that those of us who claim that it would be perfectly fine if we were to trade with the world and have the EU trade with us on WTO terms, understand what WTO terms would mean. I exempt the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, from this criticism. The WTO’s guiding principle—the most favoured nation principle—means that, in the absence of any agreed bilateral or multilateral free trade agreement covering substantially all trade, WTO members must offer the same terms to all fellow members. Without an EU-UK free trade agreement covering substantially all trade, the EU could not offer us terms better than it was ready to offer everyone. This is what WTO terms means. It means tariffs, queues at Calais, UK supply chain disruption and queues at Dover because the trucks have to go in both directions. I am talking only of the effect of the EU being on WTO terms in relation to us, whatever we do.

What would we do? Take the United States. In the absence of a UK-US free trade agreement covering substantially all trade—and the President is not exactly rooting for trade liberalisation—any specific concessions that Dr Fox were to offer the Americans in order to try to open up their market, he would have to offer to all third countries. This would seem to be some way down the road, if ever. These are the WTO rules. Concessions outside FTAs, covering substantially all trade, have to be erga omnes. I have not heard Mr Gove explaining this recently to UK farmers.

Going to WTO rules would mean a major economic shock. Some would say that it might be salutary. Professor Minford is all for it. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, is too—I do not know. Gardeners in the Cotswolds would come much cheaper if the car factories in Swindon and Oxford were to close. The Bullingdon boys would be just fine. They could carry on giggling about two-thirds of diddly squat. The country would not be fine. WTO rules, in the absence of a free trade agreement with the EU, would hit our producers and exporters. We would have left the world’s largest single market and seen it obliged, by WTO rules, to act against our exports. In the absence of the full rollover of and continuing participation in the EU’s 40-odd free trade agreements with third countries, or newer, successor free trade agreements with all 40, WTO rules would mean that we would have to allow wider market access. If we allowed it for a particular import from one country, we would have to allow it for that import from all. Professor Minford would love it. He wants the end of all tariffs, quotas and duties. UK farmers and manufacturers would not. Prices would undoubtedly fall, but so would employment, growth and revenue.

I might be accused of setting up a straw man. The 27 have said all along that they would like to have tariff-free trade with us. It has been in all their texts. I believe they mean it. They have said all along—or for more than a year— that they would be ready to offer us a Canada-type free trade agreement. I believe they mean that too. This assumes that there is a deal. If there is no deal, there is no free trade agreement. Why? Twenty-eight member state Prime Ministers, including our own, have defined the deal. They agree that it means a framework declaration about the future, although I fear this is increasingly likely to be alarmingly vague and aspirational. It also means a treaty covering citizens’ rights, the money we owe, a backstop solution to the Irish border problem and a transition period.

If Mr Rees-Mogg, Mr Johnson and their friends have their way; if we renege on the Prime Minister’s December commitment to pay the £39 billion we agreed we owed; and if we ignore Section 10 of the EU (Withdrawal) Act—recalled by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis—and renege on the Prime Minister’s commitment to find an acceptable backstop in Ireland, ensuring the Irish border stays open, there will be no treaty. The EU will see us in court. They will want their money back. There will be no UK-EU FTA, but tariffs at Calais. There will be no EU co-operation on rollover deals on the third-country free trade agreements and the division of quotas, and there will be no transition period, but a cliff edge in less than 200 days’ time. It is not a straw man. It is a clear and present danger because it is the consequence of what Mr Johnson is advocating, even if he does not understand that.

Actually, I think the money question is settled. I was alarmed by what the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, said at our Dispatch Box this afternoon, but I was fortunate enough to run it past the Chancellor of the Exchequer in a committee upstairs and was reassured by his reaction. He confirmed that, in the event of no deal, the United Kingdom would honour its legal obligations. I never thought that we would default. We never have.

The crux is the Irish border issue. Mr Johnson complains that it is the tail wagging the Brexit dog. Mr Rees-Mogg cheerfully talks about going back to the way the border was—or, rather, was not—controlled during the Troubles. Brexiteers dare to say that the Belfast agreement, the Good Friday agreement, has run its course. I find that shaming. It is certainly not the view of the other 27 Governments. I do not believe it is the view of our Government. It is an international agreement, so the others are entitled to have a view. In my view, that is not how anyone in this House sees it. It seems to me that we all stand by what the Prime Minister has been saying about the Good Friday agreement.

If there is no secure backstop, I do not believe that there will be a withdrawal treaty or a free trade agreement. My Brussels friends tell me that there has been no sign of the backstop deadlock breaking. Mrs May rejected the 27’s proposal. Her counterproposal, the Chequers idea of a customs partnership—with all imports at all UK ports to be examined, segregated and taxed differentially and then tracked to their ultimate UK or EU destination—looked pretty implausible from the start. The implausible became the impossible when the Government accepted the ERG amendments on the customs Bill, so purporting to require the other 27 to impose the same complex dual system on their ports, clogging them up and increasing their costs. Of course they will not, and the Government must have known that. Mr Barnier has certainly said it.

What is our next trick? I see only one workable solution. It would be warmly welcomed by UK industry, commerce and inward investors. The CBI and the TUC have both called for it. The Opposition parties all favour it, and this House voted for it in April by a majority of 123. The solution—or nine tenths of the solution—to the problem of the Irish border is for the UK to negotiate a customs union with the European Union. I very much hope that in addition to all the technical improvements that I am sure we will make to the Bill, we will add to it a provision requiring the Government to do just that. I hope that it will have the support of the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, as it did last time.

Without a credible Irish backstop—a commitment to a customs union would be the most credible—I do not believe that there will be a withdrawal treaty. Without a withdrawal treaty, there will not be a free trade agreement any time soon and we will be thrown back on WTO terms which, as I have tried to explain, will certainly mean an economic shock. Whether one sees that as a good or bad thing is a matter of judgment. I think it is a very bad thing. It is imminent, because no treaty means no transition period.

I cannot believe that our Government would be so irresponsible as to propose a no-deal Brexit, or this Parliament so irresponsible as to permit it. I do not see the charlatans being allowed to run the show. Rather, I foresee an Article 50 extension and an exercise in democracy to establish the will of the people—the informed will of the people—when the outcome of the present negotiation, at last defining the choice before them, is clear.

I must remind the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, who is sadly not here, that the polls show that a majority across the country now believes that there should be such a poll. So, as in Whitehall in the distant past, I still stand with the noble Lord, Lord Butler. Meanwhile, of course, I do not oppose the Bill, although, like the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, I very much hope that events will render it otiose.