It is a great honour to speak after my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) and hear his impassioned plea for a vision about life in Britain after Brexit. Let me say one thing on that. In my one year here in Parliament, I have spent a lot of time working on different bits of legislation about what life will be like after Brexit. For example, the Environment Bill sets out a whole new framework, one far more ambitious than the EU’s, to preserve the environment, and the Agriculture Bill removes the totally discredited common agricultural policy, which I would like to see any Opposition Members support, and replaces it with a new regime in the UK that is fit for purpose.
I am the proud product of the EU and its internal market; I am half Norwegian, part Irish, part French, with extended family in Italy and Denmark. I have also been engaged in European politics for about 20 years. I was Europe correspondent for The Times, living in Brussels for three years. I was in charge of all the EU funding in London during the Prime Minister’s first term as Mayor of London. As chief executive of the British Bankers’ Association, I led all the negotiations for Britain’s biggest export industry in the European Commission, Council and Parliament, with meetings up to and including Jean-Claude Juncker. So I have had a ringside seat at many European negotiations, and we all know that they are part showmanship, part brinkmanship. Everything is always left to the last minute, and for a very good reason—this picks up on the point made by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson)—which is that we are negotiating with 27 different countries and they all have differing interests. A lot of them have a vested interest in trying to leave everything to the very last moment. I have sat through many Council meetings and summits where things went to not just to one minute to midnight, but several hours past it.
Another thing I have noticed from EU negotiations is that there are many different negotiations happening in parallel, and virtually no one knows what is going on. In fact, no one really knows what is going on apart from the people in the negotiating room, and often the people in the negotiating room do not know what is going on, because there is some ambush being plotted somewhere else that then slips into the negotiations. We have to trust our negotiating team. They are the only ones with the insight and knowledge of what is going on to be able to make judgments about when an issue should be pushed, when to play hard ball and when to turn up the charm.
That brings me back to the “notwithstanding” clauses. I strongly welcome the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster announcing this agreement on all the Joint Committee issues with the European Commission. That protects the Good Friday agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol, and it will protect peace in Northern Ireland.
Those “notwithstanding” clauses were needed only in case the Joint Committee did not reach agreement. It has reached agreement, and therefore those clauses are not needed. The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South said that the damage is done, but it is not. Often in negotiations, we need to play hardball to get an agreement. It is entirely plausible that if we had not had those clauses, this agreement would not have been reached. We have that agreement, and the whole House should welcome it.
But it’s not all over till it’s over. We do not have the trade deal yet. There are still negotiations going on. I hope that we do get a trade deal, as I think the whole House does; very few people do not want that. It is very much in both sides’ interests that we get an agreement. It is in President Macron’s interest as well. I would not like to see him have to tell his entire fishing industry that it is about to lose 100% of its access to British fishing waters. Until we have a trade deal, the Government have to negotiate for all the different scenarios of having or not having a trade deal. We do not have to legislate for the Joint Committee not reaching an agreement, because it has done so. Therefore, we do not need those “notwithstanding” clauses in the Bill.
The Government have an absolute duty to ensure the integrity of the UK and its internal market and to do everything they can to ensure as much continuity as possible for businesses affected by this. The Government have an absolute obligation to the people of Northern Ireland—I speak as someone with a lot of family in Northern Ireland—to ensure that they have unfettered access to the UK in all circumstances. There must be no tariffs on goods from Northern Ireland to GB or GB to Northern Ireland, so long as those goods are consumed in the UK.
I welcome the agreement on the Northern Ireland border, which is be welcomed, but there is still the possibility of a no-deal scenario, and there might therefore be tariffs. It would be a dereliction of the Government’s duty if they did not legislate to have a tariff regime in Northern Ireland, which is what the Bill does.
The Government have a duty to ensure as much continuity as possible for businesses. The Bill ensures continuity of administration for VAT and excise duty in Northern Ireland, so that businesses in Northern Ireland know that they will still be part of the VAT and excise duty regime in the UK.
There are two provisions on tax evasion in the Bill that are very welcome. The first is on ensuring that VAT is paid on goods bought online from overseas. We all know the scenario, and I am sure we have all done it: we order goods online from overseas and they are delivered through the post. The VAT payment is not made in the UK—it is often made overseas—or often not made at all. That mattered less when we were part of the EU, because we had an agreement with the EU under which VAT was charged. Following Brexit, it is even more important that we have a system where there is proper, robust payment of VAT. This is really important for high streets in Britain. The high streets in my constituency have really suffered from the coronavirus closures and lockdowns and from people moving to e-commerce. More than ever, we need a level playing field between the high streets and e-commerce, so I fully support that provision.
The second tax evasion provision is on the insurance premium tax. Again, this was less of an issue when we were in the EU. It is about whether somebody who buys insurance from other countries pays the insurance premium tax that insurance companies in the UK are required to pay. We had an assistance agreement with the EU to ensure that EU insurance companies paid that insurance premium tax. At the end of the transition period, that comes to an end, and this provision fills that gap, so I very much welcome it. This Bill is absolutely necessary. It would be a dereliction of the Government’s duty to ensure the integrity of the UK if we did not pass it, and I fully commend it.