Nicky Morgan – 2018 Speech on Customs and Borders

Below is the text of the speech made by Nicky Morgan, the Conservative MP for Loughborough, in the House of Commons on 26 April 2018.

It is a pleasure to follow three such excellent speeches, two of which I agreed with and one that, as I think the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) will not be surprised to hear, I did not. However, I do agree with one point that she made. Right at the end, she mentioned a dishonesty in debate, and I take the tenor in which she made that point. Actually, Parliament is doing today exactly what it should do and teasing out the issues in these complex and important negotiations, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) said.

The Select Committees are bringing before Parliament the hours and hours of evidence that we have gathered from expert witnesses. I know there is a suspicion of experts, but there are many people who want to share their thoughts, their expertise and the points that they had to get on the record before the Select Committees. It is right that those Committees should have called today’s debate via the Liaison Committee, because this is a very important issue. When the hon. Member for Vauxhall talks about dishonesty, let me say to her that the dishonesty is not fronting up to the issues that we face. We must be able to discuss them, and part of the reason for today’s debate is that we are not having it in the heat of amendments to legislation, when we know there is enormous pressure on Members on both sides to vote one way or another. I hope that today’s debate can remain calm and rational, so that we can get the evidence out there. If there is any doubt about the amount of evidence, Members have only to look at the number of reports on the Table here in the Chamber or the number of reports tagged on today’s Order Paper.

Time is very limited and I do not want to repeat all the points that have already been made, but I want to say a few things, in particular to my party colleagues and party members out in the country, some of whom seem to think that it is an affront for Members such as myself and others with my views to be making these points today. First, the Prime Minister was very clear in both our manifesto and the Lancaster House speech when she talked about wanting a customs agreement. The manifesto talks about a

“free trade and customs agreement”,

and the Prime Minister said in the Lancaster House speech:

“I do want us to have a customs agreement with the EU. Whether that means we must reach a completely new customs agreement, become an associate member of the Customs Union in some way, or remain a signatory to some elements of it, I hold no preconceived position.”

Much has been said about free trade agreements and the fact that they will take some time to negotiate, but it is not just the new free trade agreements to be negotiated; it is the ones that we are currently party to that have to be renegotiated. That is a complex project. It will take a long time to make that pulling apart happen, and I do not think that the time necessary for it has been allocated by the Government.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con) I utterly agree with everything that my right hon. Friend has just said. I joined a free-trading Conservative party that was pro-business. Does she agree that inevitable delays and complexities, the additional form filling that is required and dead-weight costs on businesses can do nothing but reduce the competitiveness of British business, unless we have the kind of effective customs union that she is talking about?

Nicky Morgan My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The cost to business, as identified already by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), must not be forgotten. This is not just about costs for the Government; it is about costs for business.

Mark Garnier (Wyre Forest) (Con) rose—

Nicky Morgan I give way to the former Trade Minister.

Mark Garnier Just on a small technical point, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right that a trade deal takes a long time to complete and negotiate, but the plan is to transfer across the existing trade deals that we enjoy within the European Union at the early stage and then renegotiate at our leisure where we can improve them, so we will ensure continued business afterwards without deviation.

Nicky Morgan I understand the point my hon. Friend has made; he is a former Minister and everything else. I will talk about this in a moment if I have time, but the trouble with it is that we have been saying, “The plan is—” for some time now. We had a speech last month from the Prime Minister and we had position papers last summer: “The plan is—”. Time is running out, as we heard from the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee. The hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie) is not in his place, but as he said, when we travelled to the United States with the Treasury Committee, the US was very clear: “Yes, you can have a free trade agreement. It’ll be on our terms.”

Let me talk about logistics. As I have said, part of today’s debate is about getting the evidence, and we took evidence in the Treasury Committee from Jim Harra, a senior official at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, who said:

“The key challenge, for example, in ro-ro ports, in contrast with container ports, is that in a lot of them there are no port inventory systems in place.”

We have less than 12 months to go to March 2019 and not that much longer to December 2020, and no port inventory systems are in place. He also talked about ensuring that declarations can be linked

“to the vehicle that is carrying the goods,”

so that they can

“flow off the ferry and we know what…lorry we need to check.”

The British Irish Chamber of Commerce has come up with a proposal for a new customs arrangement. Have the Government been exploring it? Much mention has been made of Northern Ireland, and for me this is a critical issue. I had the pleasure in the 2010 to 2015 Parliament of being a Treasury Minister. I was the Duties Minister, and I visited the Northern Ireland border. Other hon. Members will know far more about it than I do, but it is over 300 miles long and incredibly porous. Had it not been for the policemen I was with, I would not have known which side of the border I was on. It was impossible to tell. Realistically, how on earth is such a border going to be policed? This is not just about the economy; it is about the political and cultural sensitivities of the border. We have already heard about the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s conclusion about the aspirational aspects of the technology that might be needed.

This is a debate of the Government’s own making, because as we have heard, time is running out and silence on these important issues is no longer an option. It is completely right that Members of Parliament and Select Committees should ask questions about these issues. What are the Government’s plans? How are things going to work? We have to listen not just to those in the country, but to individuals and business in our constituencies. The Treasury Committee and the Select Committee on International Trade had a joint evidence session this week. When asked about the free trade agreements and the free trade policy that we are apparently going to pursue, Professor Patrick Minford, who many Members on my side of the House will say is somebody we should listen to, said:

“We don’t have any precedents for this.”

This country is being asked to experiment, at other people’s pleasure, with a free trade policy when we do not know what the costs will be for constituents and businesses in this country. I say to my party: if we undermine and ignore the evidence, the peace in Northern Ireland and the business and financial security of people in this country, we will not be forgiven for a generation.