Amendment 42

Part of European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill - Committee (3rd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 16th January 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport) 3:45 pm, 16th January 2020

My Lords, I was a member of the committee to which the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, referred when he mentioned the evidence on this issue. Week after week we heard witnesses from the transport industries giving evidence, and they presented a pretty united picture. Not one of them bounced in and said, “No, it’s all right, we’ll cope; we aren’t worried.” They were all worried and they were all frustrated. Of course, they will do their best to cope, but many of them genuinely fear that their businesses will go to the wall in the process.

Transport of one sort or another has been the subject of a lot of discussion and controversy throughout the Brexit debate. This is a comprehensive amendment which includes references to passengers, freight, roads, rail, air and sea. All of these are currently governed by a mass of different rules and agreements. Some of the agreements are with the EU and some are international treaties, but we are a member of those treaties solely as a member of the EU. Therefore, our position has to be renegotiated as we leave. All of this has to be unravelled and reconstructed if our transport system is to flow smoothly. It will never flow as easily after we leave the EU, because the Government have set their face against the close trading relationship needed for it to do so. However, they can still do things to paper over the cracks.

It is important to recognise the size of the problem. The prosperity of our economy rests on the shoulders of our transport system. Much of that involves foreign trade and the movement of people between countries, but even parts of the economy that are purely internal are to a varying extent affected by problems in the international movement of goods and people. To give one example, any delay to the ports in Kent has a huge knock-on effect not just on the motorways but on the towns and villages of Kent as a whole, and has an impact directly on its internal economy.

Now we have the added factor of the border down the Irish Sea. I have spoken repeatedly in this Chamber about the impact that this would have on Wales—for example on the port of Holyhead, which is badly unprepared to deal with long queues of traffic simply because of where it is situated—and on the farming industry in Wales as a whole. Transport-related problems are not confined to the impact of increased bureaucracy, to which the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, referred, nor to more complex border arrangements and the delays they might produce. They are also caused by the steady departure of EU nationals. This industry has a very high percentage of such employees, and their departure will also cause recruitment issues.

I draw the attention of the Minister to the fact that many of the early arrangements we made as a country with the EU in preparation for this are now badly out of date. Indeed, I remember sitting opposite the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, when she was the Minister, discussing whether the dates matched for the interim arrangements that had been reached. So all these now need to be updated. They took us a long time in the first place—many hours of work went into them—but they must be looked at again, and it would be very useful for this House to know how well the Government are getting on with that.

The Government have been relatively keen to maintain our membership of aviation-related treaties but have been much more limited in how they have approached, for instance, links with our current EU partners on the railways. They have wanted agreement only with our immediate neighbours. Is that still their position?

The Government have gradually woken up to the general issues and concerns, especially in relation to freight and ports. A great deal of money has been spent on an emergency infrastructure in Kent. Of course, a lot of that money was wasted because it led to previous dates for departure from the EU that did not come to anything. Then there is of course the famous ferry company with no ferries.

I see that the Government are now trying to reclaim some of the £10 million that they gave to this industry and others to prepare for a no-deal Brexit. That displays the Government’s confusion on all this, because the Prime Minister continues to threaten that if there is no trade deal this year there will still be a no-deal Brexit. Everyone I talk to or listen to who has any knowledge of the complexity of a trade deal says of course that it is a highly likely event, because it is virtually impossible to get an agreement by the end of the year.

The transport industry remains seriously concerned. It grapples with uncertainty and complexity. I argue that this issue is so fundamental that it deserves the spotlight and the report that the amendment suggests. It is about a great deal more than whether we will all need two different sorts of international driving permit. It is that kind of thing that will have a huge impact on the general public, but it is the complexity of all the other issues that will have a major impact on how our goods are carried to and fro, and with what efficiency.

The amendment is designed to impose on the Government an obligation to work for the smoothest possible trade arrangements going forward. I hope that the Government have no problem in accepting that principle; but I also hope that they accept that Parliament should have the opportunity to assess progress. I believe, and I have always believed, that it is not until we get the impact on our transport arrangements across the board that people in Britain will realise the size of the change coming to us.

I hope that the Government can accept the amendment. If they cannot, I hope that they will work toward agreeing something along similar lines that will impose similar obligations on them to give updates on progress as they move forward with agreements on transport.