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Brexit: Appointment of Joint Committee - Motion to Agree

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:51 pm on 3rd July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Bridges of Headley Lord Bridges of Headley Conservative 4:51 pm, 3rd July 2019

My Lords, as we all know, in 121 days we are due to leave the European Union with or without a deal. While I entirely agree that we need more facts about the implications of no deal, I part company with the noble Baroness on this Motion because I believe we cannot spend those precious days creating committees, calling for evidence, questioning Ministers and re-examining issues that have, if we are honest, been debated many times before. What is needed is something altogether simpler, more fundamental and a lot more urgent.

What people want to know, very simply, is how no deal would affect them, what has been done to prepare for no deal, what still needs to be done, and what more government, businesses and individuals should do. To give the Government credit, a lot has been done to prepare for no deal. There have been at least 750 communications of one sort or another since October alone. Print them off and you would have a compost heap of press releases, reports and statements. That is precisely my point.

As we clatter towards 31 October, Parliament and the country must be given now—not in September—a comprehensive summary that sets out clearly our nation’s overall preparedness. This summary should cover three broad areas, a few of which the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, spoke of: government preparedness, business preparedness and legislative preparedness. Let me outline just some of the major issues that we need to know about.

First, on government preparedness, how well prepared are the United Kingdom Government, including the devolved Administrations and our regulators, to keep the movement of people, goods, transport and services, including—crucially—data, flowing in the event of no deal? Are our regulators as confident as they can be that enough has been done to safeguard stability, especially financial stability? Are our police and security services ready for the changes of which the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, spoke? More specifically, in February, the NAO said that six out of the eight critical IT systems remained at risk of not being ready for a no-deal outcome in March. What is their status now? If they are not ready, what are the consequences? As the noble Lord, Lord Hain, asked, what precisely will happen on the Irish border? Then there is the channel. How well prepared are our channel ports for handling roll-on roll-off freight in the event of no deal? Last week, Peter Foster, the excellent European editor of the Daily Telegraph, reported that he had been told by the Road Haulage Association that any truck without the right paperwork would not be allowed on to a ferry at Dover. Is this the case?

That brings me to the second topic that the summary should cover: business preparedness. How well prepared are our major sectors, especially those with complex supply chains such as pharmaceuticals, food, automotive and aerospace, for no deal? In February, the Government assessed the risk in relation to trader readiness as red. As of 26 May, 69,000 firms had signed up for EORI status—fewer than one-third of the 240,000 EU-trading firms estimated to need one. EORI status is also needed if a firm is to participate in the Government’s transitional simplified procedures scheme. By the end of May, just 17,800 firms had applied for the scheme. What is the status now?

I could go on and on, but let me turn to the next topic—which the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, referred to—of legislative preparedness. How many pieces of primary legislation still need to be passed if our statute book is to function effectively on day one, were we to leave without a deal? My understanding, as the noble Lord said, is that in February the Government said they needed to pass six more Bills. Since then, however, even though today we are debating wild animals in circuses, I understand that only one of these Brexit Bills has made it on to the statute book. If that legislation cannot be passed, we need to know whether there are means to work around those problems.

Then there is the Government’s proposed tariff schedule that would apply in the case of leaving the EU without a deal. That still needs to be approved by Parliament: when will it be passed? As for EU trade and other agreements, how many of these deals have now been grandfathered over? What are the consequences of our failing to grandfather over these agreements, such as those with Canada and Japan? Again, I ask: are there workarounds? We know that the EU and member states have been preparing for no deal. Will the Government reciprocate in those areas where the EU has created arrangements to mitigate disruption? Into this category falls the all-important and much debated issue of Article XXIV of GATT, about which the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, spoke with great authority. We need to know the Government’s approach to this.

My reading of it is that both the EU and the UK—the contracting parties—will need to come an agreement if trade in goods is to continue as now. The UK and EU will also need to come to an agreement covering services if Article V of the GATS is to be triggered. What is more, my understanding is that neither Article XXIV nor Article V covers issues such as mutual recognition of standards and regulations for goods and services, rules of origin, participation in institutions such as Euratom, or, very importantly, security co-operation. So to achieve a seamless no-deal transition in which the status quo is maintained will indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, so rightly said, be a matter for negotiation, and we know the EU’s negotiating position as it stands today. Monsieur Barnier has told us:

“We would not discuss anything with the UK until there is an agreement for Ireland and Northern Ireland, as well as for citizens’ rights and the financial settlement”.

In other words, until we have agreed what is essentially in the existing withdrawal agreement, there can be no further negotiation.

All this has a direct bearing on our no-deal preparations. If we leave with nothing on 31 October, the longer it takes to agree with the EU simply to freeze current trading arrangements, the longer we will be trading with the EU on pure WTO terms, which will indeed have a further impact on our no-deal preparedness. So this is the summary we need: a document that sets out, for the public and for Parliament, how well prepared we are and what more needs to be done. We have just 121 days to go until we are due to leave, so this comprehensive summary should be prepared now and be published before Parliament rises for the summer. Ignorance breeds fear; honesty breeds trust. We need the facts and we need them now.