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Trade Bill - Committee (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 4th February 2019.

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Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords) 6:30 pm, 4th February 2019

Although this group of amendments points in different directions, the amendments have a common starting point, and it is therefore not inappropriate that they should be debated together. Amendment 77 is in my name, joined by other noble Lords, and others have put their names to Amendments 78, 79 and 80, to which I shall also speak.

The history is important, because it raises a wider point than we have recently discussed, although we have from time to time touched on it: the fact that the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Act and this Bill are really two sides of the same coin. They deal with aspects of trade which need to be in place in the unfortunate event that we crash out of the EU, but they are also pointers towards how we would carry out our trade policy and activity in the event of either crashing out or, as the Government would wish, having an extended period during which various other agreements would be added to the withdrawal agreement and political declaration.

The question that underlies the amendments is: are we in a good place to take forward those future discussions, given the two pieces of legislation that we are looking at? Because of how the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill was defined as it went through the other place, it came in a form expertly handled by the Minister but which allowed us only a limited degree of comment and an occasional question, which he was of course well able to answer but which did not allow us to either amend or question in any serious way how the Bill was framed or where it pointed.

In addition, at a very late stage in the process in the Commons, the Government accepted a group of amendments tabled by the rather quaintly named European Research Group which, to many people, were tabled very late, rather surprising and subject to little debate—they certainly did not go through Committee. So the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill, unscrutinised by your Lordships’ House, was not even scrutinised to any great extent in the Commons after the later amendments arrived which changed its nature.

At the time, we felt that there were issues that could have been raised in debate, but we were unable to do so. Of course, the presence of the Trade Bill before your Lordships’ House and its ability to amend previous legislation opens up the opportunity to make some changes, if the House feels that to be an appropriate way forward.

In crude terms, Amendments 77 to 80 would reverse the late amendments made by the European Research Group to the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill in the other place. In so doing, obviously one looks at the impact that those amendments had and tries to frame our amendments in relation to both the Bill and wider policy arrangements. Briefly, it is fair to say that the conclusion that we on this side have come to is that those amendments do not strengthen our position in general terms and that it should be the duty of this House carefully to consider whether they should be removed, because that would return the Bill to a much better place in terms of where we may require powers set out in the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Act to be utilised.

For example, Amendment 77 removes the restriction in Section 31 on creating a customs union with the European Union by requiring a separate Act of Parliament to be passed before the designated powers could be used. We think that that should be amended because the restriction under the previous amendment will make it difficult for the Government to negotiate a customs union—or even the customs union—should that be the way that they wish to move in forthcoming discussions.

As it stands, the collection of taxes and duties on behalf of the European Union would be banned unless there are reciprocal arrangements, but Amendment 78 would change that. I think the debate has moved on here, and it could be argued that Amendment 78 is probably the least important of the group. Nevertheless, it was a change perhaps made in haste and, at leisure, the Government may come to the view that it is not the best way to try to open a negotiation if the possibilities one is offering are already restricted by the Act.

Amendment 79 would make it legal for the Government to enter into arrangements that would see Northern Ireland forming a separate customs territory from the rest of the UK. Although I gather that this has support from the DUP, it still makes it a very different situation and context for any discussion about the backstop arrangements. Other noble Lords may expand on that issue. As it stands, the Bill seems again to cut off an opportunity for future discussion and debate—which is even more important than when the amendments were tabled.

Amendment 80 concerns a rather significant change to the way in which VAT is charged in a customs union. It is perhaps of some interest to your Lordships’ House that we have not, within the duopoly of legislation with which we are currently dealing—the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Act and the Trade Bill—dealt with the question of why the VAT rules that operate within the EU have not also been subject to attention. It will be interesting to hear the Minister’s response.

Of course, VAT is dealt with under separate rules under a separate agreement among the countries in the EU; it is not part of the EU as such, nor part of any other arrangements which normally interpose with trade. To that extent, the Schedule 8 arrangements in the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Act are distinct and different. It is therefore important that we should have some response from the Government about how this should be taken forward.

The amendment proposed by the European Research Group and inserted into the Act is not the only story that needs to be told on this, but we may not wish to go all the way down that route, although expertise is available should we wish to do so. The Government should be very clear about how they intend to take this forward. I beg to move.