Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Mr Dominic GrieveMain Page: Mr Dominic Grieve (Independent) - Beaconsfield)
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By remarkable coincidence, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am coming to the conclusion of my remarks. I want to explain why I will not press my amendments to a vote, as I indicated to the Minister last week. The reason is the production of the White Paper.
I will be very frank: the White Paper does not go as far as it should—it is silent on services, which make up 80% of our economy—but I welcome it because it absolutely marks that our Prime Minister understands the needs of British business, in particular manufacturing businesses, and is determined to do the right thing. She has come up with this third way. Whether she can achieve it remains to be seen, but I decided not to press my amendments to a vote because of my support for the White Paper and my desire to give that third way a chance.
Having done that, I believed, as a pragmatic, reasonable, moderate Conservative, that I had done the right thing by my Prime Minister and, as much as anything else, by my country. Imagine, therefore, my profound disappointment that the Government today, for reasons I can just about understand, decided to accept four amendments, two of which are not controversial but two of which—new clause 36 and amendment 73—seek to wreck and undermine this.
I completely agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. Members on the Government Front Bench, and indeed across the House, should be hanging their heads in shame. This is the stuff of complete madness. The only reason the Government have accepted the amendments is that they are frightened of around 40 Members of Parliament—the hard, no deal Brexiteers —who should have been seen off a long time ago. These people do not want a responsible Brexit; they want their version of Brexit. They do not even represent the people who actually voted to leave. The consequences are grave, and not just for this party, but for our country. One has to wonder who is in charge. Who is running Britain? Is it the Prime Minister, or is it my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg)? I know where my money is at the moment.
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Thank you, Mr Speaker. Just to answer my hon. Friend’s point, I think that we have to be practical. There will be a change in the way in which people treat consignments because they are crossing a customs frontier, but as the technology develops it will be possible to track individual consignments or multiple consignments in trucks across customs frontiers. We have discussed this matter with Revenue and Customs in this country. Ultimately, in future—looking ahead 10 or 20 years—the idea of customs frontiers existing between countries that trade tariff-free will become obsolete. To hinge our entire Brexit policy on the issue of not having customs declarations and customs frontiers is very last century, and we should not be captured by that.
My remarks are directed primarily at amendment 72, which I confess has turned out to be disappointingly uncontroversial. It was the intention of the European Research Group, a group of Conservative Back Benchers, to table four amendments—one or two of them in the light of the Chequers agreement and the White Paper—to test our understanding of the intention of Government policy. Every single one of our amendments, we believe, reflects Government policy. I do not imagine that the Government would have accepted any of them as calmly as they have if they did not reflect Government policy.
My right hon. and learned Friend, who seems to be becoming a remainer again, judging from his article in the Evening Standard—
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I wish to speak to new clause 11 and against amendment 73.
Last week, we had a debate in Westminster Hall in which the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who is back in his place, advised me that everything would become clear when the White Paper was published. I am afraid that for me, 70 minutes before we are going to vote, Government policy is still not quite clear. I am going to ask the Minister a few questions in the hope that we might get some clarification from him. I am interested in the interrelationship between the Bill and the White Paper, which was published last week.
Contrary to what some right hon. and hon. Members wish to say, the common market, which is the customs union, is fantastically popular with the public. Whenever I ask my constituents, “What do you dislike about Europe?”, they say, “Being bossed around”, and “The immigration.” When I say, “What do you like about it?”, they say, “Oh, we love the common market.” Well, of course, the common market is the customs union. When I talk to industrialists, what they want—in the words of GlaxoSmithKline, which employs 1,000 people in my constituency—is “no disruption”. PPG Industries, which is a supplier to Airbus, wants a common rule book. When I spoke this morning to the North East chamber of commerce, it said that 90% of its members want to stay in the customs union. We know that legally speaking that is not possible, so we have to have a new one that will give them the “exact same benefits”.
I am not clear about whether the Bill facilitates the customs approach that is set out in the White Paper. Nor am I clear about which of the Government’s amendments have made changes to the Bill that will enable them to undertake the facilitated customs arrangement that they have described in the White Paper. Nor am I clear—I very much hope that the Minister will be able to explain this; I am sure that he now will be—about whether the Government’s proposed acceptance of amendments from the ERG means that they are abandoning the facilitated customs arrangement as their opening position or that they are still holding to it. If they are still holding to it, I would suggest that it is not wholly practical. It will need a tracking system so that when people import goods, they know where their final use is going to be. This is a whole new bureaucratic system. It means that people who import will have to have information along the supply chain that, at the moment, is of no concern to them. The White Paper says that there is going to be a formula so that we can follow the proportions from the past year, but what if things change from one year to another? Then people will have to make their rebates on the basis of new, fresh information in real time. It sounds very much as though we are going to have not only VAT but VAT mark 2.
Paragraph 20 on page 18 of the White Paper says:
“This could include looking to make it easier for traders to lodge information…This could include exploring how machine learning and artificial intelligence could allow traders to automate…This could…include exploring how allowing data sharing across borders”
would work. It could include rather a lot of things. I can only imagine officials saying to Ministers when they were drafting this, “This does seem to involve rather a lot of imagination.” It does not seem to be bottomed out. I would much prefer it if we could go along the path set out by my hon. Friends on the Front Bench in new clause 11, because what is being proposed will be horrendously bureaucratic and an open invitation to smuggling.
I turn then to new clause 36 and amendment 73. The first thing that strikes me about them is that they are designed directly to undermine the White Paper, and the second is that they do not do the job, because they are inadequately drafted. Therefore, the second obfuscation is that the Government accepted amendments that they know cannot do what they are intended to do. Not only that, but they said so to my right hon. and hon. Friends and they have decided not to say, “Oh, in those circumstances we withdraw them,” but to persist with them because they are just an exercise in bullying. It is not my job as a Member of Parliament to put on the statute book clauses that are inadequate, incomprehensible and, on top of that, seek to undermine the Government. That is why I describe those two amendments as entirely malevolent and why I shall vote against both this evening.