Lib Dem Lords vs the Article 50 Bill: Jenny Randerson: Transport industry can’t cope with hard brexit

The Lib Dem Lords have made some cracking contributions to the debate on the Article 50 Bill. Ahead of its next Lords stages, we’re bringing you all the Lib Dem contributions over the course of this weekend. That’s no mean feat. There were 32 of them and cover more than 30,000 words. You are not expected to read every single one of them as they appear. Nobody’s going to be testing you or anything. However, they will be there to refer to in the future. 

Our Lords excelled themselves. Their contributions were thoughtful, individual, well-researched and wide-ranging and it’s right that we present them in full on this site to help the historian of the future. 

Transport spokesperson Jenny Randerson made the point that it was going to be much more difficult to transport goods across Europe – giving the example of the 88 documents it took in 1988 to export something to Italy. At the moment it’s just 1, but if that increases, business will suffer.

My Lords, I start by making a point about the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Robathan. I just want to clarify that the Liberal Democrats are not asking for a second referendum; we are asking for a first referendum on the outcome of the Government’s negotiations. I see nothing at odds with democracy in the electorate changing their mind. In my experience, they change their minds every four or five years.

I am a member of one of the EU sub-committees of this House, and week after week we take evidence from major British businesses. When asked what sort of trading arrangements they would like to see in the future, almost without exception they have said, “Something as close to what we have at present if possible, please”. They want, and indeed expect, the Government to honour the promise in their manifesto to remain in the single market.

We must accept the decision of the referendum but I will not accept the Government’s interpretation of that result. It was a clear result but a narrow one. Therefore, the Government’s winner-takes-all approach to the result is completely unacceptable. The 52% should be respected but so should the 48%. The Government are intent on ignoring the views of the 48% so it falls to this House to give them our full attention. The Government’s White Paper was one of the most depressing documents I have read in many years. The view expressed throughout it was that we are the best; that the world owes us a living. The fatal hubris shines from every page.

I speak on transport. Time and again I have heard the Secretary of State for Transport tell gatherings of transport professionals that all will be well because they need us more than we need them. What is not factored in is that there are 27 of them and only one of us—for each individual EU country, trade with us is a relatively small part of their economy. Our EU sub-committee has taken evidence from Ministers too, of course. Depressingly, they speak only in percentages and billions of pounds. They fail to speak of hundreds of jobs or of individual companies. I have no doubt that over time our industries will adapt to the change but individual businesses will go to the wall and there will be casualties along the way. Transport is heavily integrated across the EU. Across the various modes, from aviation to road haulage, transport businesses can operate freely from one EU country to another. We have a huge stake in this. We have, for example, the EU’s largest aviation sector and the Government cite this as a strength. In fact, it is a point of weakness. There is much for the rest of the EU countries to gain if we were to be removed from a fully competitive position. There is no reason why Germany or France, for example, should not mop up our markets if, for example, easyJet could no longer fly easily and freely from one EU country to another or within any individual EU country.

Trade in all industrial sectors stands on the shoulders of the transport industry. We cannot succeed if we cannot transport our goods or personnel. I remind your Lordships’ House that in 1988 it required 88 separate documents to transport goods from London to Rome. It now takes one document. If we go back even a few steps towards 1988 it will cost time and money and increase complexity. There will be a huge impact on our ports, on Eurotunnel and on the individual businesses and industries that create the goods that the lorries and so on are transporting. The Government talk of friends across the other side of the world, with exotic trade deals in China, South America and so on. The large shipping lines and airlines will adapt, but parts of the transport sector cannot adapt. For the bus operator taking tourists down the Rhine valley, for instance, a thriving tourist trade in China is no use at all. Ferries cannot operate on the other side of the world, across long distances. HGV operators can operate only with neighbouring countries, and Eurostar and the Channel Tunnel are pretty immovable. So for these reasons, the transport industry can cope with the single market but not a hard Brexit.

Across the world, countries trade most intensively with their neighbours. The reasons are obvious: distance costs time and money and makes your goods less competitive. Despite the vote on 23 June, we cannot ignore the realities of geography. The EU countries are our neighbours and it would be economic suicide to abandon them. We must remain part of the single market.

The Government need to see the reality of this. They need to recognise the dangers of a hard border in Northern Ireland. They need to recognise the rights of EU citizens living here and they must acknowledge that the referendum gave them the power to negotiate and not to decide our final destination. The voters must decide that.

This journey started with the people and it must end with the people. I will vote in due course for amendments that implement that.


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