Lord Sharpe of EpsomMain Page: Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Conservative - Life peer)
Department Debates - View all Lord Sharpe of Epsom's debates with the HM Treasury
My Lords, the Bill is welcome for the practical measures it contains, but more for the notwithstanding clauses that have been omitted and were previously threatened. In a way, it is another tortuous step along the way to deliver the easy Brexit that the Government, or their Brexit-controlling cabal, promised. I well remember the Prime Minister during the election, in a draughty-looking warehouse in or near Birmingham, promise that there would be no new paperwork or charges between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In fact, the “oven-ready deal” proved anything but. The only oven-ready thing about it is that it was stuffed.
Having agreed the deal that Theresa May negotiated, we then got the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, with its law-breaking clauses now dropped. Why? It was because the EU-UK joint committee met and agreed a way forward. This was always the way it should have been resolved, without the threat of breaking international law or resorting to the latest ploy of gunboat diplomacy. I just wonder how hard the Government are working to alienate everybody that we need to have on side for trade, co-operation, security and all the other things that a respecting nation needs.
Arch-Brexiteers in the Commons tried to reinstate this approach yesterday. It appears that they are still deluded in the belief that sovereignty is an absolute. It can be only if the country puts itself in solitary confinement—an uncomfortable place for a trading nation with a historically massive balance of payments deficit. Facing reality, the Government have now agreed, as they always had to, that at-risk goods will be properly monitored, that Northern Ireland will conform to EU rules on, as a case of detail, aviation fuel duty, and that the rest of the UK will follow suit for “consistency”. Is this a taste of things to come? I suspect it is. Similarly, there is agreement on aspects of VAT, but can the Minister explain the implications for online sales under £15 in Northern Ireland? Do Northern Ireland residents have to pay VAT on online purchases when GB residents do not?
Can we now hope for the dawn of pragmatic common sense and an acceptance of reality? The Prime Minister advocated cakeism, and it appears that Michael Gove believes that it is being delivered, but for Northern Ireland. He seems to be supported by the Foreign Secretary. We have been told that Northern Ireland is in a wonderful position, effectively being in the UK and the single market. This is an enviable position that the majority of businesses in Great Britain wish to be part of, but they cannot be.
The rest of us—the 99.8% of the economy that does not depend on catching fish—want to know where the dust will settle. Even in fishing, the catchers and processors have conflicting interests. If we want to continue trading profitably with the EU, which takes nearly 50% of our exports, we have to accept that there will be EU rules and we will need to accept those rules if we want to secure access. That has always been the case for third countries. We will no longer have a say in shaping those rules but, as the EU states have pooled their sovereignty to make the rules, we can reject them only at a price. We have the right to choose, but there is a price to pay.
Ironically, we are choosing to trade under WTO rules. We have far less influence over these than when we were members of the EU. Indeed, the WTO is a pretty dysfunctional organisation in dealing with disputes among its members. The Government are urging businesses to prepare to end transition in 15 days’ time. Ministers claim that they are trying to provide certainty, but the opposite is the case: how can people prepare for the unknown against a background of promises that it would all be quick and easy? This Bill is necessary, but more legislation is required. We still do not know under which terms, if any, we will leave the EU, and businesses are expected to adapt to unknown rules and regulations, which the Government cannot explain, which are complicated and for which they will probably have to pay for expert advice.
I was astonished, the day after the Prime Minister claimed that there would be no new rules, regulations or paperwork, to go on to the government website and see that its advice was to contact HMRC to get a registration, to take advice on customs requirements and to consider whether you need to employ customs staff or a customs agent. The contradiction was there for all to see on the very day that the Prime Minister made his absurd claim, which everybody knew was unsustainable.
The Bill is necessary. Thankfully, it is limited compared to what it would have been, but it is symptomatic of the bungling incompetence that characterises the Government in delivering an ideological ambition that is deeply damaging to the interests of this country and has left the world looking on in astonishment at how the UK took leave of its senses.
My Lords, it gives me immense pleasure to follow the excellent maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Sharpe of Epsom. Our friendship goes back some 15 years, when we worked side by side as volunteers in the Conservative Party. As my noble friend mentioned, both my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach and I have had the privilege of being chairman of the National Conservative Convention, the position that my noble friend Lord Sharpe currently holds. And what a superb chairman he is, leading from the front, motivating, encouraging and cajoling, but never asking fellow volunteers to do something that he would not do himself.
There are few parts of this country that my noble friend Lord Sharpe and I have not campaigned in together, and I am certain that his passion for democracy and volunteering will continue for years to come. I know, as I have witnessed first-hand, how much my noble friend likes nothing more than a good debate on the doorstep. Now that he is here in your Lordships’ House, he has found a new forum for debate. This outlet will probably be a great relief to his family.
Talking of family, it would be remiss of me not to mention my noble friend’s wife Fiona, son Charlie and daughter Kate, who, over the years, have given their unstinting support to his voluntary work and, on occasion, have got involved too. As is so often the case in working for any voluntary organisation, it has meant his absences on many an evening or weekend.
As noble Lords will have heard from his speech, in my noble friend we have a great addition to our House. We have heard only a snapshot of the experience that he will bring. Not only does my noble friend have a notable background in the world of finance and the unique experience of being an inspector in the Royal Hong Kong Police, but there is so much more. He is well travelled and is even a published historian. In the coming months, when we are able to move beyond this dreaded virus, more noble Lords will, like me, find my noble friend to be the most genial company, and I know that he will prove to be a real asset to these red Benches.
Turning to the business before us today, the Taxation (Post-transition Period) Bill is a crucial step on the road that the United Kingdom must take us as we prepare for the end of the transition period at the end of this year. I know, and hear today, that there are noble Lords who see this as a cause for melancholy, whereas others, like myself and my noble friend Lord Sharpe are optimistic for the opportunities that Brexit will bring to the whole of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland included.
Throughout the negotiations, Northern Ireland has been the focus of much debate. This has caused anxiety from many in the United Kingdom who hold the union dear. However, the most affected are the British citizens who live in Northern Ireland or those whose livelihoods rely on trade and the movement of goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom’s internal market. This has inadvertently harmed businesses, which are rightly concerned about the legal and practical state of regulations and tiresome taxes governing their trade with the European Union and the rest of the United Kingdom. Reassuring words of politicians have had little impact in soothing this concern. This Bill, however, represents action, ensuring that Northern Ireland will not be left behind or forgotten. It provides legal certainty for the customs, VAT and excise systems in Northern Ireland after the end of the transition period. This legislation will also help deliver the commitment made by this Government to deliver unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the rest of the UK internal market and protect progress made under the Belfast agreement.
As the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, we must do our best to provide the assurances and support needed for businesses to prosper across the country. This is particularly true of SMEs, which are the backbone of the United Kingdom’s economy and which millions of citizens rely on for work. I am glad to see that this Bill has this at its core.
The Bill is no silver bullet but, along with other Bills currently making their way through Parliament, it will create a clear pathway for the whole of the United Kingdom to pass through this transition period, weather any possible storms and emerge stronger and ready for the opportunities awaiting us. Like my noble friend Lord Sharpe of Epsom, I give this Bill my full support.