Customs and Trade Bills Update

Vince Cable and Liberal Democrats on Europe March 2017

In the next few days, MPs will vote on the Customs (Taxation) and Trade Bills. These bills will be both pivotal to our future relationship with the EU and a battleground for parliamentary democracy itself.

The Chequers deal is a total fudge. The plan requires the UK to be the EU’s policeman and follow its rules on goods and state aid. Meanwhile, the services sector would be left to flounder. We have absolutely no guarantee that the EU would accept such a deal.

But take a quick look at both Bills and you’ll see no mention of the Chequers agreement. In fact, you’ll learn nothing from reading them about what the Government’s Brexit strategy actually is.

What you’ll see instead is Theresa May asking Tory MPs to give her a blank cheque. If these Bills get passed, the Conservative Government can go and make any customs regime it wants: their Chequers fudge, no deal or anything in between. It was also the Government’s intention to carry over any existing trade deals, and then change them as much as they liked and sign them into law without Parliament’s approval.

Far from taking back control, these Bills give us less democratic control over our future trade deals than over the ones we agreed as an EU member.

Parliament knows it is being bypassed and is fighting back. MPs from all parties have proposed changes to give Parliament its say over future trade deals.

Thankfully, the Government are starting to listen to the arguments we’re making. They’ve accepted one of my colleague’s, Wera Hobhouse, amendments, so that if we need to change the law when carrying over a trade deal, Parliament must approve those changes.

But it’s not enough. For instance, there’s a sneaky clause allowing Ministers to make any law they like about customs in relation to Brexit. The Government say they won’t use this power after 2022. If Brexit is really about Parliament taking back control, they should take it out of the Bill altogether.

What else can we expect? Because the Chequers fudge is so unappetising, support is building for membership of a customs union. A cross-party group of MPs want to make this a legally binding negotiating objective. It’s a necessary – but not sufficient – step to ensure frictionless trade, keeping our supermarkets fully stocked and business supply chains intact.

Meanwhile, the extreme Brexiters want to scupper the Chequers agreement. There’s even talk that they’ll join forces with us to vote down the Customs Bill today. An unholy alliance, yes, but one that demonstrates how unloved the Chequers deal is.

We also need the Government to show us the facts on how their barmy plans will harm jobs and businesses. Wera and I will demand that the Government publishes reports showing how the Chequers deal impacts the UK economy and the border with Ireland.

Finally, if the Tories don’t change course, we must prevent a race to the bottom. Wera is calling on the Conservative Government to ensure that our future trade deals promote sustainable development, defend human rights, protect our environment and uphold food safety standards.

Theresa May and the Conservatives are making such a mess of Brexit that they do not deserve to have a free hand. That’s why I’m demanding that people – not politicians – get the final say on the Brexit deal, including the option to remain in the EU.

Our message is getting through and we’re making a difference. We’ll continue to do so as the Customs and Trade Bills are debated in the House of Lords later this year. The fight for an exit from Brexit is far from over.