Territories forming part of a customs union with UK

Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:45 am on 1 February 2018.

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Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury 11:45, 1 February 2018

I beg to move amendment 6, in clause 31, page 18, line 31, at end insert—

“(3A) Before laying a draft of an Order in Council before the House of Commons in accordance with section 32(10)(a), a Minister of the Crown must lay before the House of Commons a statement about—

(a) the arrangements entered into; and

(b) the Minister’s assessment of the effect of the arrangements on trade relations with other countries and territories.”

This amendment requires a statement to precede a draft of an Order in Council giving effect for the purposes of import duty to a Customs Union with another country or territory.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 82, in clause 31, page 19, line 10, at end insert—

“(8) No regulations may be made under this section after the end of the period of five years beginning with exit day.

(9) Any Order in Council made under subsection (4) and any regulations made by HMRC Commissioners under subsection (5) shall cease to have effect after the end of the period of six years beginning with exit day.

(10) In this section, ‘exit day’ has the meaning given by section 14(1) (interpretation) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 and subsections (2) to (5) of that section apply to the term under this section as they apply to the term in that Act.”

This amendment limits the duration of the delegated power under Clause 31 to the period ending five years after the United Kingdom leaves the European Union and limits the duration of any delegated instruments under the Clause to six years, so that a permanent customs union would require primary legislation.

Clause stand part.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

It is a pleasure as always to see you in the chair, Ms Buck. I want to speak to Opposition amendments 6 and 82, which seek to amend clause 31. Clause 31 in its current form gives Ministers the powers to create a customs union between the UK and another country, overseas territory or multilateral body, including, for example, the European Union.

There has been much debate in this Committee of the possibility of the UK forming a customs union with the European Union after we leave. It is stating a fact that when the UK leaves the European Union it will also leave the European customs union. However, we have been consistent in our belief that it would be wrong to take the option of the UK forming a customs union with the EU off the table at this early stage of UK negotiations. Therefore, we welcome the Government making specific provision for the option of a customs union in the Bill.

There are a variety of customs unions, and an internal customs union between the UK and its overseas territories and Crown dependencies is far different from a customs union with a single country or a multinational organisation such as the EU. It is a welcome sign that the Government have considered that and ensured that clause 31 is drafted in a way to fit the scenario.

Although the Opposition accept the principle of what the Government are attempting to do, we once again take issue with the concealed manner in which they plan to do it. Under the measures in clause 31, the formation of a customs union would be made through the declaration of an Order in Council, completely cutting out Parliament, in effect, as I understand it—the Minister may wish to clarify that.

We have heard from Ministers on a number of occasions that their action is related to delegated legislation, for example, and that it is always commensurate and proportionate. Setting up a customs union, of whatever construction, without commensurate and proportionate parliamentary involvement is not consistent with the approach that the Government have taken thus far in relation to that commensurate and proportionate principle. It is simply a matter of the Government changing the goalposts capriciously. I completely acknowledge that the Minister may put me right on that.

This appears a rather strange way for the Government to uphold the central theme espoused by those advocating leaving the European Union—of “taking back control.” It confirms one of the central objections that we have made time and time again, and stated throughout this Bill and others, concerning Executive overreach and the centralisation of power. That issue will not go away any time soon. Conservative Members also have concerns about that.

Opposition amendment 6 would instead require a Minister to make a statement to the House of Commons on the establishment of a customs union, outlining the specific details of the customs union and how they were reached, as well as the effects of the new customs arrangements on trade with other countries and territories. I consider that—I think that most people will—to be the minimum level of parliamentary oversight that we should expect, and one that would ensure the Government are accountable to this House.

Several customs unions exist in the world, including the EU customs union, Mercosur and the Caribbean Community. There are more in the pipeline, with negotiations on potential customs unions taking place in the middle east, parts of Africa and between New Zealand and Australia. Under amendment 6 the House will be able to give proper scrutiny to what kind of customs union the Government have in mind. Is that a detail that Parliament need not bother about? Our view is that it is an important fact.

If the Government intend to keep the option of forming a future customs union with the European Union on the table, as clause 31 makes possible, they must consider the variety of needs of UK businesses, manufacturers and stakeholders. Customs unions are ordinarily designed to address trade in goods. However, the new UK-EU relationship will also need to deliver trade in services, cross-border Government procurement and, possibly, regulatory equivalence, as well as a host of other issues that others may want to comment on. I have made that point previously.

The debate on the UK’s future trading relationship remains controversial. The Secretary of State continues to shroud the progress of future deals in a veil of secrecy, under issues to do with commercial sensitivity, except when, as today, we are told there will be £9 billion of trade with China. The Government pick and choose what to tell us. We have consistently opposed such a level of secrecy, and we believe that Parliament should have the right to give proper scrutiny to future trade agreements and customs arrangements.

Amendment 6 would therefore ensure an open process, and a level of transparency around the negotiation and establishment of a customs union; it would ensure that the negotiation and implementation would be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. The amendment would also allow Members of the House, who bring diverse experience— a vast range of experience in many situations—and who represent a variety of key sectors and stakeholders, to debate an issue that is very important.

The Government would also be required under the amendment to consider the impact of the establishment of a customs union on trade with other territories and countries. That is an important factor, particularly given that, currently, the UK’s membership of the EU customs union means it is unable to enter into trade agreements outside the EU. Part of the issue is that we have seen what happens when Governments do not consider the impact of entering a customs union on trade with other countries.

We need only go back to the time when we first entered what was then the European Economic Community. We failed to take account of the impact on trade with Commonwealth countries, which then accounted for 20% of all imports and exports. The result was unhappy and damaging, with Commonwealth countries losing out. The Labour Prime Minister had to renegotiate better terms that ensured that trade with Commonwealth countries could continue. There is a history, and we need to make sure we get things right, as best we can. Parliament’s role is to tease those issues out, especially given the seriousness of this.

Amendment 6 is intended to prevent a scenario such as I have outlined by requiring Ministers to make clear to the House and other trading nations the possible impact of forming a customs union—internally or with another country or a multinational organisation—on trade.

Amendment 82 would limit the period for which a customs union agreed by the Government through delegated legislation could be in force. It would set the period at six years, after which the Government would have to introduce primary legislation if they wanted to extend the customs union. The amendment would be an important part of guaranteeing that Parliament, not the Executive, would have the final say in any customs union that was established. It would constrain and limit Ministers’ power and ensure that the long-term establishment of a customs union would receive the proper parliamentary scrutiny that such a move deserves.

Under clause 31, delegated powers could be used to bring the UK into a permanent customs union without a vote in the House of Commons. In that scenario, Members would not be able to assess the benefits of that customs union before the Government entered into it. There would also be no recourse to a reversal of the decision if it proved costly to the UK—other than through primary legislation, presumably, so let us do that first. Just as the Opposition have forced and required the Government to concede a vote to the House on the final deal reached in the negotiations between the UK and the European Union, amendment 82 would require the Government to put the formation of a future customs union to a vote.

There is of course a difference between a temporary customs union and a permanent one, and amendment 82 makes that distinction. While we accept that the Government may need the powers in clause 31 to put in place temporary measures as part of a transitional process, more permanent changes should receive proper parliamentary oversight and sanctions. We believe six years to be time enough for the House to consider the net benefits or costs of a customs union, be that an internal customs union with overseas territories and Crown dependencies, or a customs union with another country or a large, multinational organisation such as the EU. Six years would prove enough time for Members to assess whether that customs union protects UK manufacturers, supports UK businesses and works in the interest of the country.

As the Minister has stated many times, the Bill is a framework Bill. Clause 31 sets out framework powers that will give Ministers the ability to introduce regulations for the creation of a customs union. Our opposition to this matter is clear: while we welcome the Government including these powers in the Bill, as I said earlier, amendments 6 and 82 would guarantee that Parliament has the final say.

Photo of Mel Stride Mel Stride Financial Secretary to the Treasury and Paymaster General

Clause 31 caters for a situation in the future in which the UK has made an agreement with an overseas country or territory to enter into an arrangement to establish a customs union. The clause allows such a customs union to have effect for the purposes of import duty. It also allows HMRC to make regulations that might prove necessary to ensure that a customs union functions effectively.

As I previously set out, the Bill caters for a range of possible outcomes after the UK has left the EU. There are various circumstances in which the Government might wish to establish a customs union with a country or territory overseas, and to have that union apply for import duty purposes. One instance might be to establish a customs union with a Crown dependency—namely Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man.

The clause caters for any international arrangements such as this that establishes a new customs union. The clause does not provide the power to enter into an international agreement; such an agreement does not require a specific statutory basis. Instead, it simply allows the UK’s customs regime to reflect such an agreement by providing the means necessary to implement it. Once an agreement has been reached, an Order in Council will be required before it can take effect for import duty. That order can itself be made—this is a critical response to the remarks of the hon. Member for Bootle—only if it has first been approved, in draft, by the House of Commons under the draft affirmative resolution procedure. I am sure the Committee agrees that that will afford a high level of parliamentary scrutiny for each stage of the process.

It is likely that further provisions will be needed to make an international agreement effective for import duty purposes. The most obvious instance would be to ensure that import duty is not charged on the movement of goods between the UK and the overseas country or territory. For that reason, the clause allows HMRC to make any necessary changes in regulations.

Amendment 82 seeks to add a restriction to that process in two ways. First, it would limit the ability of HMRC to make regulations to five years from exit day. Secondly, it would make any Order in Council cease to have effect six years after exit day. Both of those positions are misguided. I am sure that I do not need to remind the Committee that establishing a new customs union with an overseas territory or country is likely to be a long-term process, not least because of the need to ensure that it reflects the UK’s new international trading relationship once we have left the European Union. It would therefore be wrong to limit the ability to adapt the UK’s legislation to a period of five years following exit.

More importantly, it would be rather perverse to make any customs union simply cease to have an effect on domestic law after a six-year period. As I explained, the level of parliamentary scrutiny that would apply to such a union is very high, requiring both an Order in Council and the draft affirmative procedure in Parliament, as well as all the potential debates and votes that may occur around the negotiations that led to that customs union arrangement in the first place.

There is therefore no case for time-limiting an agreement in the way proposed by the amendment. Indeed, it could make it far more difficult, if not impossible, to reach any agreement if our overseas partners were aware that such an agreement would no longer function effectively at a future point because of limitations on powers in our domestic legislation. I therefore urge the Committee to reject amendment 82.

Amendment 6 would require the Government to lay a statement before the House before laying the draft Order in Council giving effect to a customs union between the UK and an overseas country or territory. That is simply unnecessary. As I have explained, appropriate procedures are in place to ensure that Parliament has proper scrutiny before a customs union can take effect for import duty purposes. The House will have full opportunity to debate any draft order, and to scrutinise its contents as necessary. That could include the potential effects of the draft order on the UK’s trade relations with other countries or territories. There is therefore no need to put such information on the face of the Bill. I therefore urge the Committee to reject amendment 6 and vote that clause 31 stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury 12:00, 1 February 2018

We will not press amendment 6 to a vote, but we will no doubt tease the issue out a little more in due course. Again, I am not completely reassured by the Minister’s statement in relation to affirmative resolutions. I do not accept that the process is as rigorous as he has implied throughout.

The other aspect is that, if Parliament will have to do huge amounts of work, we had better make sure that we get everything right and get the ducks set up in a row. The idea that the Government’s proposal and mechanism for authorising are commensurate and proportionate is, in my opinion, far off the mark. It is a very important area, and Parliament should have significantly more of a say in it.

This issue will clearly not be resolved today, any more than many other things will be, but it is really important. We will not push the amendment to a vote today, but there is no doubt that we will, in due course, come back to this issue and the whole question of parliamentary scrutiny, particularly in relation to this sort of matter. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 31 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 32