My Lords, the fact that, if the Government have their way, in two months’ time we shall be dragged out of the single market is a tragedy of great proportions which will affect everyone in this country with not the slightest doubt. That is particularly sad and ironic because of the great efforts that were put into the creation of the single market, particularly by this country. There is no question that the major movers were not Lord Cockfield and Margaret Thatcher. What is more, the single market has been an inspiration around the world. As others seek to imitate the achievement and derive the great benefits that we have had, the British Government can think of nothing better than to take us out of the original single market.
This raises many practical problems, as we have seen. We have heard three extraordinarily well-briefed, considered and well-informed speeches on this subject by the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, and by the noble Baronesses, Lady McIntosh and Lady Kramer. The noble Lord spoke particularly about the difficulties which will arise in connection with the definition or redefinition of rules of origin; and the noble Baronesses spoke extremely well about the threats and complexities we shall face because of the rules of the WTO and the possibility that we will suffer considerable perverse costs as a result of leaving the single market. These have never been properly considered in this country by the Government and, therefore, private individuals, trade associations and businesses up and the down the country have also not had enough time or opportunity to consider and reach a conclusion as to what the concrete impact will be in all probability on their own businesses.
That is the point of my intervention. It is not reasonable to ask tens of thousands of businesses which may well be affected by the changes that the Government are trying to enforce on the country in this regard to pick through all the volumes of Hansard in the House of Commons and the House of Lords where these matters have been debated, even supposing—which was not the case on the last occasion we debated this matter—that the Government give informative answers to the questions that have been raised.
My question to the Minister today is: does she propose, or has she already perhaps set in motion, an effort to inform businesses directly about these matters; to set out for the benefit of British business in different sectors the potential threats—or indeed the opportunities, if there are any—from the policies that the Government are pursuing in this area; and to answer definitively the questions that have been raised today about rules of origin, the impact of the WTO non-discrimination rule and principle, which has been set out so well, and any other WTO rules which may have an impact on the trading conditions for British companies which are trading with either the European single market after the end of March this year or with countries which currently have trade agreements with the Union?
In that latter context—my final remark today—can we please have some absolute clarity about what is happening to those countries which currently have free trade agreements with the European Union and where we have the ambition to roll over those free trade agreements? How many countries have accepted in principle to roll over the agreement as it currently exists without any substantive change? How many countries have expressed the willingness in principle to roll over an agreement but are asking for substantive changes?
Most people, I suspect, will ask for a particular concession of interest to them. They will take the opportunity to get something if they can. At the very least, this will result in many months of discussion and negotiation. In some cases, it may require us to make concessions that will be expensive for British industry or business. We need to know exactly where we stand here. I hope the Government themselves know the answers to these questions—I sometimes get the feeling that they do not. If the Minister thinks that that is unfair she has the opportunity this afternoon to make the position absolutely clear to the House and the whole country.