Duties of Customs: 20th November 2017

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con)
I have made it very clear to people in Broxtowe that I believe in our continuing membership of the customs union and the single market. Can the Minister help we with this? Will the measure be able to cope with all eventualities, including our staying de facto as a member of the customs union through a period of transition? Could we—if everything goes the way I would like—even stay a member of the customs union under this Bill, if that were the will of the Government and the House?

Mel Stride
The Bill deals with our leaving the European Union, which means, as a simple matter of law, that we will be leaving the customs union. However, it does indeed allow for a transition period in which there could be a very close customs association with the European Union.

 

 

 

 

 

Anna Soubry
I think the hon. Gentleman is really struggling on this. It makes eminent sense that the Government should have the powers to deal with all eventualities. Perhaps he could help this place by explaining the Labour party’s current policy on the customs union. Is the Labour party in favour of us remaining in the customs union de facto as we go into transition, or is it against that? Is it in favour of our staying in the customs union by way of a final deal, which I think is an eminently good idea?

Peter Dowd
I will tell the right hon. Lady what we are in favour of: parliamentary scrutiny. It was John Bright who reportedly coined the phrase “the Mother of Parliaments”, which is completely alien to Conservative Members and, obviously, to the right hon. Lady. I suspect that he, along with many other Radical and Conservative parliamentarians, would be turning in his grave at the idea that a Government living on borrowed time have the arrogance, hubris and others would say bluster to treat Parliament in the fashion this Government are intent on doing.

Conservative Members have to ask themselves this question: did their constituents send them to this House to acquiesce is the systematic stripping away of ​parliamentary scrutiny, which is not in the national interest, or did they send them here to hold the Government to account, regardless of their party allegiance? The Minister should take seriously the concerns I have raised, as many others inside and outside the House have, about the fast and loose approach the Government are taking to parliamentary scrutiny.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con)
I rise not only to support those excellent amendments, but to make it clear that I shall be voting for them. That is because I ​made it clear in the run-up to the general election in June that I would continue to make the case for the customs union, the single market and the positive benefits of immigration to everybody in Broxtowe. Having been returned to this place, admittedly with a diminished majority but with an extra 1,800 votes, I take the firm view that to be true to the words I have said and to my conscience, I am going to vote for these amendments. It is an absolute pleasure to follow some of the excellent contributions we have heard tonight, notably those of the hon. Members for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie) and for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), and the right hon. Member for Carshalton and somewhere equally pleasant—

Tom Brake
Wallington.

Anna Soubry
Exactly—somewhere equally pleasant.

The pleasure I have in speaking in this debate is primarily this: the fact that we are actually having a debate and, moreover, we are actually having a vote. We are providing this House and this place at last with an opportunity to have a real and meaningful say in the future of our country, which has been denied within this place ever since 23 June 2016. If only the Government had at that time—I can understand why in many ways they could not—looked to build a consensus and to find what elements united us far more than had divided us during the EU referendum debate, we would not be in the unholy mess we are undoubtedly in today. As this Brexit reality or nightmare begins to dawn increasingly on the people of this country, we see that this scenario of either deal or no deal is not the real option facing the British people. We are being painted the idea of the hard Brexit as something that we should prepare for, and although it is right of the Government to be responsible and examine that, the reality is that we are more likely than not to not get a deal.

Not only are all the things the Prime Minister promised and said she did not want—no deal—likely, but in quarters of this place some people are positively urging and welcoming that. I find it utterly perverse and bizarre that my party, the party that has always been so proud to be the party of business, is increasingly being seen as the party that no longer represents business in this country. Let us be absolutely clear: the overwhelming majority of businesses, not just in Broxtowe, but the length and breadth of this country, do not want a hard Brexit. This is not just a choice between a hard Brexit—that no deal—or a bad deal, because there is a third option, one that has not even been debated and until tonight has certainly not been voted on. I refer to this third way; tonight we are talking about the customs union, but in my view this also includes the single market.

I am not going to repeat the excellent arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Edinburgh South, but I absolutely endorse all the arguments he made and the interventions that he took from other hon. Members who also see the value of the customs union. It delivers what I think the British people want. Overwhelmingly the majority of people in this country are thoroughly cheesed off with the whole darned thing; they are fed up with Brexit. They are fed up with the arguments and the squabbling. I am going to be blunt about it: they are getting fed up with a Government who have still not worked out what their policy is for the transitional deal or for the final deal. Some might say that that is shameful, ​given all the time that has progressed since we jumped, as I fear we did, into triggering article 50. Some of us—my goodness, we know how we got all the attacks for having said this— did caution the Government, saying, “Please don’t trigger article 50 until at least the Germans have had their elections and that stable Government have been put in place.” I get no pleasure in saying how right we were to put that caution forward. The British people are looking at all of this, they are fed up to the back teeth with it and they want us to get on with it. I do not demur from it—we should get on with it—but not in the way that a small ideological group of people, mainly in my own party, I am sorry to say, are now urging the Government to do: by leaping off the cliff and getting no deal.

Ian Murray
When the history books are written about this period of time, the right hon. Lady’s name will be prominent for trying to pull her own Government back from the brink, so we all appreciate the work she is doing on this. We have heard all the arguments tonight, and I, too, am delighted we are debating the customs union. The Government are suggesting a frictionless and seamless border and frictionless and seamless customs arrangements, so does she agree that the best thing they could do to deliver that is to stay in the darned thing?

Anna Soubry
I could not agree with the hon. Gentleman more. That is what the people need to understand now: there is this third option. There is this other way of getting a Brexit. We would be out of the European Union, so we would have satisfied the 52% of voters on that, but we would deliver what everybody wants, which is the best possible Brexit that is in the interests of everybody in this country, with the economy, jobs and prosperity right at its heart. This would solve the problem that Northern Ireland faces and that Ireland faces, because we would keep the customs union.

Lady Hermon
I am deeply disquieted by the fact that prominent Conservative Members are seemingly in favour of no deal as we leave the EU, because today’s Belfast Telegraph carries a report saying that republican organisations in Northern Ireland and Sinn Féin are hoping that there is a hard Brexit. They are exploiting that idea to then campaign for a border poll to try to rip Northern Ireland away from the rest of the UK. That is extremely concerning to me, as a Unionist.

Anna Soubry
I listen to the wise words of the hon. Lady, as she, more than many, knows exactly the serious consequences of getting this wrong. It is not just about trade and the economy in Northern Ireland; it is also about the politics. I take the point that there is a huge danger of abandoning the customs union and going for some ghastly hard border, which plays right into the hands of Sinn Féin, the IRA and all the rest of them.

I am not going to speak for much longer, because I agree with so much of what has been said by the three Members I particularly picked out and by the hon. Lady. I am old enough to remember my father having a car and when we asked what had happened with it and why did we not have it, we were told, “It is down in the garage and we are waiting for a part. It hasn’t cleared customs.” Some other Members will remember that, too. The terrible problem with much of this debate is that so many people are so much younger than I am and ​they have never experienced this. People like me are old enough to remember the days of having to have our suitcases opened at customs control, but this is lost on huge swathes of our population. Yet here we are actually beginning to plan for a return to those bad, dark days when we were the sick man of Europe.

So we need to stay in the customs union for the sake of our economy and because it will deliver what the people want: we will get on with this and we will make progress. We can take it, because it is there on a shelf and we can take it off the shelf. We may have to tweak it here and there but it will get us on and it will deliver Brexit, and it will ensure that we can then look at these huge other domestic problems we face.

I was going to say something else, but I have no doubt completely forgotten it. It matters not, though, because these are important matters. [Interruption.] Ah, I know what it is. As I said the other day, history will record the profound irony, which cannot be right, that the overwhelming majority of right hon. and hon. Members in this place agree that we should be in the customs union and the single market. The only reason why that is not even on the table anymore—this is an uncomfortable truth—is because, I fear, my party is in hock to 30 to 35 hard, ideologically driven Brexiteers. The British people will not thank my party unless we stand up for business and for the economy. We must deliver Brexit but also make sure that we deliver for the British people.

Stephen Doughty
The right hon. Lady talks about the extremists in her own party; does she share my horror that a former Minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union is planning to make a speech tomorrow morning in which he actually advocates our dropping off the cliff and going on to WTO rules, and in which he will tell the Prime Minister that she needs to take forward a no-deal Brexit? What an absurdity!

Anna Soubry
I do not like to speculate or comment on things about which I do not know, but that is terribly interesting.

Finally, I just need to ask: why are we leaving the customs union? Apparently, we are leaving the customs union so that we can make trade deals with other countries. It is the stuff of complete fantasy. As the hon. Member for Nottingham East rightly pointed out, we already have this fantastic arrangement: the customs union and single market, the biggest in the whole world. We are turning away from that, causing this dreadful self-inflicted wound, looking into other places and dreaming of deals that will never be done. Was there ever a better example than if we look to America? Look at Bombardier, and look at the most protectionist, anti-free-trade President that that nation has probably ever seen. That is the reality. There is no wonderland ahead of us; what there is ahead is real economic damage to our country unless we stay in the customs union. That is why I shall vote for the amendments tonight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anna Soubry
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the reality is that we will not get a great deal because the EU does not want to give us a great deal? If it gives us a great deal, it would have to give one to a whole load of other people who might decide to leave the European Union. Although I am not saying that it wants to punish us—I do not think that it does—it does have a responsibility to keep the European Union together.
 
Jonathan Edwards
The right hon. Lady captures my sentiments exactly. By deciding to leave the single market or the customs union, we effectively become a competitor —a third country. On that basis, the overriding priority of the European Union is to protect its interests. A lot of the problems that are arising in our negotiations, as we heard from the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant), could be dealt with if we said that we wanted to stay in the single market and the customs union.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anna Soubry
Does the hon. Gentleman know of any Government plan to solve this problem for Airbus? I think this would be fatal to such a fantastic project, which completely relies all these different components moving right across the European Union so frictionlessly. Does he know whether anybody has come up with an alternative?
 
Stephen Doughty
I am not aware of any alternative. Indeed, we can sense growing frustration in the country at the moment about the lack of such information. In fact, Airbus has come out in public today to make very clear its view that we need a “lengthy transition”, in its own words, and it has made a very clear statement about what it wants if it is to keep its business going.