Bishop of Chester speaks during Trade Bill amendments on Customs Union

On 23rd January 2019 the House of Lords considered the Government’s Trade Bill during its Committee stage.  The Bishop of Chester, Rt Revd Peter Forster, spoke during debate on Amendment 24, moved by Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, which sought to keep the UK in a customs union with the European Union.

After Clause 5, insert the following new Clause—“Customs union​. It shall be the objective of Her Majesty’s Government to take all necessary steps to implement an international trade agreement which enables the United Kingdom to participate after exit day in a customs union with the European Union.”

The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, it is always a pleasure to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, especially when religious imagery creeps into his speech with gospel truth and sacerdotal approaches. His opening remark reminded me of Trollope’s definition of hell: an eternity of listening to one’s own sermons. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, has similar feelings about his speeches, but they are always wonderful to hear.

I wonder what this amendment really means. The noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, said that happiness is a relative concept, but it seems to me that the term “customs union” can mean more than one thing. The very fact that the amendment refers not to “the customs union” but “a customs union” prompts me to ask what it means precisely.
If one looks, as I just have, at the WTO website and how it defines a customs union, it is not a hard-and-fast term and allows for exceptions, up to a point, to be made in an agreement. It refers to “substantial agreement” on issues of trade.When one comes to the political declaration, what is the real difference between the following aspiration in the political declaration and a customs union?
“The Parties will put in place ambitious customs arrangements, in pursuit of their overall objectives … making use of all available facilitative arrangements … ensure no tariffs, fees, charges or”,
​so on in the trading arrangements. It seems to me that that is not far from describing what might be called a customs union. No doubt the devil will be in the detail as to precisely what is included or excluded, but it seems to me that the Government’s intentions, and the agreement’s intentions in the joint political declaration, are not far off what one might describe as a customs union.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: …My Lords, I will not go into the matter of the definite or the indefinite article, which I think is getting a little abstruse. The right reverend Prelate asked why there was a focus on the words “customs union”. It is because that is one of the two ways under article 24 of the World Trade Organization’s rules—a free trade area, or a customs union covering substantially all the trade—which permits a member of the WTO in good standing to derogate from the most favoured nation provisions. It is as simple as that. All that waffle in the political declaration, which had to be put in because “customs union” would have frightened too many horses, is quite meaningless. “Customs union” is totally meaningful.

The Lord Bishop of Chester: Could I check with the noble Lord: is he agreeing with me that the political declaration actually describes what might equally be described as a customs union?

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: That question should perhaps be addressed to the Prime Minster, who might find some difficulty answering it because it would cause such ructions on the Back Benches of her own party. I do not think it is a question for me: I would have no problem putting “customs union” in. That is why I am standing here now, suggesting that this legislation should contain that phrase. If we leave the EU—if—on 29 March or at a later date, then the option of staying in a customs union is a compelling one, and it ought to figure in this legislation.