Debate on the Trade Bill

The Government’s Trade Bill received its second reading in the Commons yesterday. You can read a copy of the speech Catherine made during the debate about this legislation below. 

Catherine McKinnell: As I and other hon. Members from the region highlighted during yesterday’s debate on the customs Bill, the North East continues to have a proud record of being the only part of the UK consistently to export more than it imports, with some 61% of those exports currently going to the EU – our largest market by some measure. Many thousands of valuable North East jobs and firms depend on the Prime Minister’s ability to deliver a good Brexit deal that secures frictionless, unbureaucratic, two-way access to the European markets; that is what my region clearly needs.

North East firms are not solely focused on Europe, however. Emirates flights have been operating since 2007 from Newcastle International Airport to Dubai, opening a whole range of new markets and opportunities to the region’s businesses, and contributing significantly to the £350 million-plus of North East goods that are now exported every year from the airport.

So, North East businesses and the thousands of jobs they support also need to have the confidence that they have a Government with the capacity swiftly to deliver complex new free trade agreements with non-EU countries that support, not damage, British businesses, workers, consumers and living standards. Sadly, the approach of the International Trade Secretary and the Foreign Secretary was only recently described as “ludicrous and clueless” and a “kind of fantasy” by the former Treasury Minister, Lord O’Neill – overly focused on markets that have relatively few benefits for UK firms. Sir Simon Fraser, the former chief civil servant at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and then at the Foreign Office, only this month described Ministers as living in “cloud cuckoo land” on this issue.

When I challenged the Chancellor during a Treasury Committee session towards the end of last year on whether it was his and his Department’s view that the potential benefits of feasible future trade deals with non-EU countries will outweigh the costs and economic disadvantages of leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union, he was unable to provide a straight answer. ​There are many who are very clear about their concerns that benefits simply will not outweigh the disadvantages. Indeed, I remain of the belief that it was a catastrophic error of misjudgment and national self-harm on the part of the Prime Minister to rule out participation in the Customs Union and Single Market before the Brexit negotiations even began. It was an error that could disadvantage North East businesses, and firms across the UK and the British economy, for decades to come.

We face enormous economic consequences as a result of leaving the Customs Union. The UK’s current annual goods trade with countries within the Customs Union stands at some £466 billion. As a member of this Union, the UK is also party to preferential trade agreements with 65 countries around the world. We risk the deeply concerning prospect of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, as other hon. Members have mentioned. Meanwhile, British business faces significant non-tariff costs, endless red tape and time wasted on new bureaucracy, and the UK’s ports could grind to a halt – all of which would have truly dreadful implications for the country’s already poor productivity levels. Indeed, one of the Brexit Secretary’s own advisers has previously estimated that leaving the Customs Union would result in a permanent cost to the UK of around £25 billion every year until 2030, which is 1 to 1.2% of GDP.

I was pleased to add my name to the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray). What does the Bill do to address or mitigate any of the concerns I have outlined? Nothing. Instead, we have a Bill that manages to create further concerns, rather than address existing ones. It again fails to take the opportunity to make it clear that the UK’s future trade policy will set a gold standard on sustainable development.

After all we have been told about Brexit being about taking back control and the sovereignty of the UK Parliament, this Bill concentrates power into the hands of the Government, reducing transparency and democratic accountability by failing to commit to proper parliamentary scrutiny of future trade negotiations and trade deals, such as that currently undertaken by the European Scrutiny Committee and Members of the European Parliament, and, indeed, such as that which takes place in several other countries, including Germany, New Zealand and Australia. Sadly, this is entirely reflective of the Government’s entire approach to this historic process – prioritising the avoidance of scrutiny, transparency and accountability, and putting party over national interest at every turn.