Industry’s reaction to today’s Queen’s speech was lukewarm, with calls for more clarity on what post-Brexit customs and trade arrangements will look like.
In the ceremonial address outlining the government’s agenda for the new parliament, the Queen announced a flurry of new bills to ensure the UK has the necessary legal framework to handle its own customs and international trade agreements when it leaves the EU.
Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the CBI, welcomed the positive tone of the speech but said it needed to be “backed by clarity and action”.
“Businesses will welcome the ambitions set out in the Trade Bill… but will want to see a clear strategy for achieving this,” she said. The collection of bills addressing Brexit would “go some way to providing the framework” for the UK she said, but added: “What matters now is meaningful progress in the negotiations.”
The prime minister’s office, in its official background briefing, said the Customs Bill would “allow the UK to continue to provide a world-leading customs service after the UK exits the EU”, while the Trade Bill will support a smooth exit and cement the UK’s leading role as a trading nation.
Robert Keen, director general of the British International Freight Association, echoed the CBI’s call for clarity and said: “The real details of the government’s approach to Brexit, and whether it will be hard or soft, was noticeably absent.” A standalone customs regime would “mean difficulties for any of our member’s clients” that were hoping to see limited change to the current, tariff free, arrangement, he said.
Similarly, David Jinks, head of consumer research at e-commerce firm Fastlane International, said the Customs Bill was “not entirely good news for exporters and logistics companies hoping to see few significant changes to current tariff free exports and imports”, but added it “perhaps” made room for a soft Brexit.
The Queen's speech marks the start the first parliamentary session since the general election in which prime minister Theresa May maintained her tenure but lost her party’s Commons majority. May is planning for this parliamentary session to last two years, instead of the usual one.
In total 27 new bills were introduced, eight of them relating to Brexit. At the top of the speech was the Repeal Bill that would repeal the European Communities Act and transpose EU law into domestic UK law. The bill will ensure that the rules and laws remain the same after Brexit where practical, “therefore maximising certainty for individuals and businesses”, the prime minister’s office said.
Some of the bills not related to Brexit included the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill, to encourage the technology’s development; the Smart Meter Bill, to increase energy bill transparency for business and homes; and the Space Industry Bill to develop the UK’s commercial rocket and satellite capabilities.
These bills aim to “ensure the United Kingdom remains a world leader in new industries, including electric cars and commercial satellites”, the Queen said in her speech.
A bill was also introduced to launch the next phase of the HS2 rail link.
Matt Sutherland, chief operating officer of fleet specialist Alphabet said he welcomed the push for electric vehicles but called the bill “just a starting point”. “The fleet industry is seeking clarity from the government about the taxation framework around company vehicles beyond April 2020, so that businesses can effectively plan their longer-term mobility strategies and further support the movement towards [electric vehicles],” he said.
Jinks said the electric vehicles bill was good news for UK logistics companies, and the continuation of HS2 would mean more freight would be able to use the existing West Coast Mainline route.
In his response to the speech Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the UK needed to retain full access to the European single market and a customs arrangement that provided the same benefits the UK currently enjoys.
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