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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:12 pm on 2nd October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Davies of Stamford Lord Davies of Stamford Labour 7:12 pm, 2nd October 2019

My Lords, I want to begin by commenting on two of the speeches made earlier on by the noble Lords, Lord Lilley and Lord Howarth. They were both very original speeches; those Members of the House always make original speeches. Both were the subject of considerable reflection. Nevertheless, I detected in those speeches a considerable degree of complacency about the threats facing us. I believe that complacency is such a danger in economics and in politics, in business and generally in life, that it needs to be commented on if it arises. I may say that both noble Lords have been long-standing personal friends of mine for over half a century, and we have been arguing about politics and economics together since we first met at a university in the Fens, 55 years ago. I hope that this is not the end of a beautiful friendship.

The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, said that we may go through some choppy water if we have a hard Brexit, but that is all right; we will get through that okay, with the help of the Bank of England, fiscal spending and so forth. I have to tell him that fiscal spending is not a cost-free policy. As you build up your debt—and public debt in this country has risen from less 20 years —you are gradually reducing your capacity to intervene in the future. We learned in the 1970s where that can eventually lead, and it is not something that one should do lightly.

The noble Lord, Lord Lilley, managed to make out that in fact there would be no increase in customs checks as a result of our leaving the European Union. That seemed to me inherently implausible; but he completely left out the subject of the longest delays in any border checks, which is the issue of certificates of origin, which is extremely complicated and a nightmare for those who are organising international logistics. I think that should be taken into account. I have to tell him, too, that the continental customs authorities do not share his very optimistic view. In June I happened to be in the Netherlands, with two or three colleagues who were equally interested in the subject. We were very kindly received by the head of the Netherlands customs in Rotterdam; we saw the port there and met many of her leading staff. They told us that they have taken on about 900 new employees, simply to deal with additional UK business after Brexit. The Dutch are serious people; they do not hire 900 people just to watch the traffic and do nothing. Noble Lords can make the arithmetical calculations as easily as I can, but you can imagine, if there are 900 people who intervene with a lorry every hour or two hours, for two minutes, three minutes or five minutes, how much that will induce delays in the process of clearing trucks through Rotterdam that are destined for the United Kingdom. There is clearly a material change happening there, and the same thing is happening in other ports and suppliers. Rotterdam is of course the major port that supplies us. I do not think that complacency is in order there, either.