Wednesday 15th December 2021

(5 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall
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[Christina Rees in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Oral evidence taken before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on 21 April, 28 April, 16 June and 15 July 2021 on Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol, HC676.]
14:30
Christina Rees Portrait Christina Rees (in the Chair)
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Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking in the debate, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. This can be done either at the testing centre in the House, or at home. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.

Tony Lloyd Portrait Tony Lloyd (Rochdale) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of securing a veterinary agreement in the Northern Ireland Protocol.

It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your auspices, Ms Rees, and I am delighted to speak on this really important issue.

I want to go back a little over two years and quote what the Prime Minister said when asked about form-filling as a result of the Johnson protocol, which he paraded as a triumph of his negotiating skills. He told the world:

“If somebody asks you to do that, tell them to ring up the Prime Minister and I will direct them to throw that form in the bin…There will be no forms, no checks, no barriers of any kind. You will have unfettered access.”

Two years have gone by. If it were two days, perhaps we would all say, “Let’s just wait and see.” If it were even two weeks or two months, we might say, “We’ll give the Prime Minister a chance to negotiate a solution.” But two years is outrageous.

This debate is not about the Johnson protocol, about which I know those hon. Members present have different views. I say to my friends in the Democratic Unionist party that the majority of people in Northern Ireland are in favour of the protocol, but I know that there are serious doubts about it. This debate is not about the protocol but about the operation of the protocol, an issue on which there is widespread agreement in Northern Ireland.

The situation in Northern Ireland at the moment is quite dangerous. It is building up tensions and concerns, and is possibly being manipulated to the extent that the loyalist community in particular fear for their future. That is why it is irresponsible that, two years on, we have no solution.

The sanitary and phytosanitary controls, which will come fully into operation at some point, are already having an impact, but it is important to acknowledge the very welcome grace periods for chilled meats and medicines. Lord Frost told the Lords last week that he expects those grace periods to continue at least until the end of the year and beyond if negotiations are constructive. Does the Minister expect the grace periods to continue? That really does matter.

Export health certificates have already come into operation for goods being transported from Great Britain to the European Union, and from GB to Northern Ireland. Aodhán Connolly, convenor of the Northern Ireland Business Brexit Working Group, told both the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and the International Trade Committee that there is no food shortage—that has to be acknowledged—but that not everything is perfect. Big supermarkets in Northern Ireland usually stock between 40,000 to 50,000 lines; in the worst case there was a shortage of 600 lines, but in better cases the figure is in the tens. Therefore, there is no food shortage, but there are some specific shortages. A friend told me recently that she could not get flour or vanilla. Such things are important for some people, and we ought to acknowledge that there are shortages.

Of course, trade volumes are down. Earlier this year, pork sales from GB were down some 70%, and piglets were going to be slaughtered because farmers simply could not sell them on the open market. That was some time ago, but can the Minister provide an update on how trade has been affected. Even with the grace periods, and even though the export health certificates have come into operation only recently, the reality is that the volume of sales has gone down. I have heard very different estimates, so it would be helpful if the Minister could update us?

Under the SPS regime there is a need for forms and documents. Vets have to certify the fitness of animals, either live or slaughtered, and there is a certification process for food products as well. Vets also have to check the registration number of vehicles, to guarantee that they are the same ones that originally carried the food. We do not know exactly how that will work for GB to Northern Ireland. We do know, however, how it works for GB into the European Union, because at the port of Dublin there are physical checks on 4% to 5% of goods, and documentary checks on up to 30%. That is a major barrier to trade for GB producers.

The chief veterinary officer for Northern Ireland says that they need 27 vets to do the checking work that will now be required at the ports, but only half that number are available. There is a real question for the Minister about the number of vets available—not simply at the ports in Northern Ireland, but across GB—to ensure that GB producers can sell to Northern Ireland.

There is already a cost to us in Great Britain and to the EU, and this does not just apply to Northern Ireland. Welsh lamb and Scottish fishery products are also affected, as are the processed foods that the whole of Great Britain sells in considerable numbers. There are, however, real questions, which my Northern Ireland colleagues will want to hear addressed, about whether GB producers will consider it worth selling to Northern Ireland in particular. Supply chains already face challenges and the biggest issue is that of uncertainty. I do not know how much of an answer the Minister will be able to give us but, two years on, producers still have uncertainty hanging over them and are asking whether it is reasonable for them to sell to a relatively small market in Northern Ireland when the alternative is simply not to go through the hassle involved.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank the hon. Member for introducing the debate. The very point that he is making is one that is obvious to us. Certainly for my party, including my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart), who is sitting here beside me, the problem is one not only of cost but of bureaucracy, and people are just turned off. In the past they had a simple system allowing them to bring stuff from the UK mainland to Northern Ireland, but suddenly there are all these difficulties. One quick example is the seeds sector for plants and flowers. If someone wants to buy a wee packet of seeds, there is an added £10 or £15 charge, which is ridiculous for a seed packet that costs about £2.50.

Tony Lloyd Portrait Tony Lloyd
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The hon. Member is absolutely right. It is possible to transport used farm equipment without the need for many checks, and yet a packet of seeds, which is produced in a controlled way, has to have that bureaucracy and those checks, so he is right to be concerned. The central point is that is the bureaucracy that is frustrating for businesses in Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

There is a question for the Minister about the uncertainty. Traders have told us that the trader support service is working well. I am sure that is true, but they also make the point that an education process is needed for producers in Great Britain. How far along are we in securing that process of public education?

As I have said, the damage is already here and now. The sheep industry in Northern Ireland, for example, faces scrapie controls, which means that it will be three years before some sheep farmers can sell their goods into the GB market. Cattle breeders also face uncertainty because of the new regulatory regime. That is not because they move cattle—generally they move fertilised products and suchlike—but because they cannot plan for the future. That is disastrous for the agricultural industry.

The chief executive of Lynas Foodservice, the biggest food processor in Northern Ireland, has pointed out that there are eight different bureaucratic processes to bring mozzarella from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. He estimates that it will cost the business some £50,000 a year to service that requirement. It can do that because it is big, but a small producer cannot compete with that, so supply is going to be a real issue.

The Conservative manifesto was clear—I hope there is still common ground on this—that there would be no

“compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.”

I hope the Minister will repeat that commitment, because I know it is the mantra that the Government insist on. If that is true, it should be very easy for us to move towards an SPS veterinary agreement. The CBI has talked about the need for a

“bespoke, modern UK-EU Veterinary Agreement”,

specific for Northern Ireland within the context of the protocol. That is supported by Retail NI, the Ulster Farmers Union and every party represented in Stormont. Oddly, it is one of the things that everyone agrees on—as well as that there should be no amnesty for those who committed murder during the troubles. It would be a great unifier if it was not such a negative thing. We should be able to get that agreement.

The Secretary of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said in February that the Government want to work on a veterinary agreement so that they can secure the flow of goods and improve the forms. Amen to that. The EU Vice-President told us that a veterinary agreement was “on the table”. Everybody is in favour of it, so what is stopping us? One thing that is stopping us—and the Minister has seen a way to address this—is the lack of trust and the lack of good faith that has been built up. The public diplomacy and rhetoric have been massively unhelpful. It is not something political or a shouting game, but that is what it has become. That has been very unhelpful and it has led to cynicism.

The Minister might want to say that the real ambition is to achieve a trade deal with the United States—not because that would compensate for the trade we have lost with the EU, but because it would allow the Prime Minister to stand up with the big banner headline and say, Donald Trump-style, “I have done a great trade deal”. That is not enough, however, if the price is lower food standards coming into our market, and it is certainly not enough if it prejudices our capacity to deliver a veterinary agreement that could make things easier. Ironically, even in the context of a US trade deal, President Biden has said that he sees no barrier to there being a veterinary agreement between the EU and the UK to protect the situation in Northern Ireland and the protocol.

There are two different models that we can look at. The first is probably a variation of the New Zealand deal, which I know is something that the Government have thought about. It has advantages. I have talked about between 4% and 5% of goods being subject to physical checks in Dublin. If the New Zealand example worked for us, that figure would go down to 2% and documentary checks would go from 30% to 10%. Those are still barriers, though, and the Minister should not underestimate that they would be real for businesses.

The other, much more attractive option is what the EU calls dynamic alignment. In actual fact, we are aligned at the moment. We have not moved our food standards, and nor has the EU. What people have talked about is the possibility of a temporary agreement, which could of course have a guillotine and could be terminated if we sign up to the Australian deal, the New Zealand deal or the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-pacific partnership. We could have a guillotine and move on, but let us have that temporary veterinary agreement, which would allow alignment and enable us to get rid of all the form-filling and other problems. That is the real thing we should play for. So, I ask the Minister, why not?

Well, to a degree we know why not—it is because Lord Frost has ruled it out, saying that he has grave doubts about how long it would take. Actually, that is nonsense—and I hope that the Minister in turn will also tell Lord Frost that it is nonsense—because it would take almost no time. It is the basis on which we were operating 12 months ago, and it would simply mean reverting to a reality already known to businesses in Northern Ireland, Great Britain and the EU.

If we can get this issue right, there is something enormous to be gained, because it would unlock not only the Northern Ireland protocol but the issues experienced GB businesses trading with the rest of the EU. That is something big and really important, and it would stop the erosion of trade.

My final point is that we need to move on to some form of trusted trader scheme. It ought to be easily achievable. It is not magic; it is a very easy thing to achieve. Of course it requires work but, two years on, that work should already have been done.

Perhaps what we really need is a trusted negotiator scheme, and perhaps that would not involve the current Prime Minister. That may sound trivial but this is a serious point, because as long as people play politics with this issue, they will get it wrong. If we can consider the needs of the people of Northern Ireland and the needs of businesses in both Great Britain and Northern Ireland, we can begin to come up with a real solution. It takes a little bit of imagination—not very much—but it takes a lot of political will, and that is what the Minister has to persuade us exists in the Government today.

14:44
Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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It is a pleasure to make a contribution, Ms Rees.

I thank the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) for giving us a chance to participate in this debate. To be fair to him, I think that he and I know these issues. On the Northern Ireland protocol we have very different points of view, but this debate is about the difficulties that the Northern Ireland protocol has brought in through the veterinary agreement. So I will speak about that, because that is perhaps where we will find the unified approach—which I think is what we are trying to do—to overcome the problems.

I am so pleased once again to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), and the Minister; it is always a pleasure to engage with the Minister in debates in this Chamber.

I will also pay a special tribute to the spokesperson for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson). I had the opportunity to invite him to my constituency and I must say that it was a wonderful chance to engage with him. He himself had asked for such an invitation and I was very pleased to make it happen. He could find out what the Unionist people were saying and thinking, which gave him, as he told me himself, the chance to understand better the psyche of those of us in Unionism and what the key issues for us are. By the way, he is a very engaging person—I say that very honestly—and I know that all the people from my constituency who met him were certainly impressed by him. I will just put that on the record. I have said it to him before, but now it will be in Hansard for the future.

This issue is a very evocative one for me, for my party and indeed for a huge majority of the people I represent. I will give just one example of the Northern Ireland protocol working. To be fair, it is not a veterinary issue, but in just the last week parents and children have been inconvenienced at Christmas—not my grandchildren, by the way, but other grandchildren. To get their Barbie Dream House on Amazon, people have to pay an extra £35 to buy it in Northern Ireland. It is not just the inconvenience but, as the hon. Member for Rochdale said, the cost. It is almost as though £35 or £40 was just added on.

Here is another example. A lady who wanted to buy a rug for her horse made inquiries, as she did every year, about buying it on the UK mainland, and was shocked to find that its price had suddenly jumped from £40 to £65. She was quite annoyed at having to spend the extra money; and when she agreed to pay the extra £25, she was then informed that they would not send the rug anyway—the paperwork and the bureaucracy was so great. That was a veterinary issue for a person who has horses and understands those issues—great difficulties.

To be fair, the Minister understands the issues; we will not be telling the hon. Lady anything that she does not already know, but these are our frustrations about the protocol. These issues are not just inconvenient for business people; they are challenging the viability of their very businesses, from those who cannot supply motor parts, parts for lawnmowers or parts for mobility scooters, to the businessman whose supplies have been cut by over a third because of paperwork.

The hon. Member for Rochdale referred to tractors and machinery, and I will provide some examples from my constituency. Tractors must be scrupulously cleaned. If they have any mud or muck on them they cannot come across, even though, on 31 December 2020, that was perfectly acceptable. Did the world change on 1 January 2021? This makes me think that it did. Although we obviously cannot see the change, the EU certainly found a reason to change. The central theme of my speech will be the EU’s attitude and the obstructions that it is putting in place in relation to this issue.

The Northern Ireland protocol is affecting every aspect of life, and as we have said before—and I must put it on record because it is our party’s position—it has to go. It is not fit for purpose; it is massively affecting the quality of life, the cost of living and the rights of people in my constituency of Strangford and across the whole of Northern Ireland. I could, although I will not, speak for days on this issue. Everyone would say, “Look: it’s getting dark, Jim.” I will not do that, but there are so many examples that I could cite to reinforce the points that the hon. Member for Rochdale has made. I am sure that all of my comments on this topic in the House could well amount to a day’s worth—I, at least, definitely sometimes felt as though I was going on for days and days. The reason that I did so, and will continue to do so, is simple: the protocol is unfair, discriminatory and constitutionally unacceptable.

I turn to the specifics of today’s debate, to which the hon. Member for Rochdale referred and about which I want to speak. I contacted the Ulster Farmers Union—I declare an interest as a member of the union—and they have said that we must have a veterinary agreement immediately to survive this impasse. So that is the Ulster Farmers Union, which represents the majority of farmers in Northern Ireland—not all, because, I believe, the Irish Farmers’ Association has a lot of members in the west of the Province. The Ulster Farmers Union said:

“A veterinary agreement could remove up to 80% of checks and documentation that would otherwise be needed. It will support the agri-food and retail industries as well as farming and will keep prices low and choice high for NI families…even a time-limited agreement would assist us in the short and medium term and provide some relief to the current pressures—both trade and social.”

The Ulster Farmers Union has a very large membership. All of my neighbours in the Ards peninsula—I live on a farm as well—are members. That is not just because the insurance premiums are fairly keen but because, in all honesty, it represents us very well.

Farmers cannot wait for further machinations as the Government attempt to reason with the unreasonable. It has been made abundantly clear by the treatment of the European Commission and the manner in which Unionist people are spoken of in those circles that this protocol is not a matter of practicality for the EU; for them it is a matter of pride. They are out to beat us and are using the Northern Ireland protocol as a method to do that. Their pride was hurt, and the saying that hurt people hurt other people is true here.

I have to put on record my disquiet and anger at the tone and the methodology of the EU and how they have treated us. They are determined to inflict as much pain on the Brits as they look upon it. I would just say this: I am a Brit. I am very proud to carry a British passport. I am very proud to be a member of this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. When they attack the Brits, they are attacking us as well, so I feel quite angered at how the EU have gone at this. We are not to be the conduit to inflict that pain.

I have two more examples—no more, because they all illustrate the same issue over and over. In his introduction, the hon. Member for Rochdale referred to the movement of cattle. I have been incredulous to hear some of these things. My farmers on the Ards peninsula have cows of a very high pedigree. They sell their bulls and cows all over the United Kingdom. This year, some of them phoned me as they were taking their bulls to market. These bulls are worth about £20,000 or £25,000 on the market when they take them across to the mainland and to Scotland. They informed me that if they went to the market sale on the mainland and they did not perchance happen to sell that bull or cow, they would have to then apply for a licence to keep there the bull or cow that they were hoping to sell. It would have to stay in quarantine for five to six weeks. Fortunately, they did sell them, but the possibility of not selling them meant that the cost factor arose, and that is something that I have great concerns over. The situation is affecting agriculture. It is affecting cattle. I am very concerned.

Carla Lockhart Portrait Carla Lockhart (Upper Bann) (DUP)
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My hon. Friend is making extremely valid points and has raised a number of issues. Daily, businesses highlight to us that they cannot get seed potatoes into Northern Ireland; we cannot get approval for plant protection products; more recently, the Woodland Trust cannot bring its community tree packs into Northern Ireland for the Queen’s Green Canopy because it creates some sort of a risk. How is a tree coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland a risk? It is not; it needs sorted.

I have sympathy with what is being proposed here today. A common SPS area would be beneficial. However, it does not deal with the protocol regulations in their entirety. The message today, if my hon. Friend agrees, is that the protocol needs to go. It needs to be fixed, and it therefore needs to go in its entirety. We need to enter new negotiations and try to get a sensible, common-sense way forward.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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I thank my hon. Friend and colleague for that intervention. I absolutely agree. I know this debate is about the machinations of the protocol, but we are very clear where we stand. We are against the protocol per se, for the reasons covered in this debate, but also for reasons far beyond them.

My hon. Friend has stolen two of my examples. The first was seed potatoes. Speaking in a debate here last week, the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) mentioned seed potatoes, where there are clear issues for us. My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) has been very much at the forefront of trying to address some of those issues. The seed potato sector in Northern Ireland was doing great, but it has lost its way because of the Northern Ireland protocol and veterinary issues.

On the trees, it seems unrealistic that we cannot get in Northern Ireland the trees that the Woodland Trust and others are planting on behalf of schools across the rest of the United Kingdom—in England, Scotland and Wales. Really? They were okay on 31 December 2020, but they did not seem to be okay on 1 January 2021.

I will give another example. I shall not go on too long about this, but I want to have it on the record. One of my constituents from Ballygowan in Strangford bought three horses from England in February or March this year. She was not aware that there would be any problems for them to come over, but when she got them to the harbour she was told she could not bring them in, even though the papers, pedigrees and licences on medical health were all right. She could not bring them in because of the veterinary arrangements in the Northern Ireland protocol. They were held in quarantine for five to six weeks. Only on the intervention of our colleague, Edwin Poots, the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, were they released from quarantine at the harbour to their new home in Ballygowan. Frustration does not get where we are on this.

I said at the start that we in Northern Ireland were being used as a stick to beat the British for daring to leave the EU. Nothing said or done since has altered that opinion. The path forward is clear—I put it on the record. It is to trigger article 16. Do it sooner rather than later; do it right away. The conditions have been met and these intensive talks, which were make or break, are now two months down the line. I am not involved in those negotiations, which may be a good thing, but something is glaringly obvious to those of us on the sidelines. The insulting play for power is not to be borne by us in Northern Ireland any longer. It cannot be borne any longer by anyone.

I thank everyone for their patience, and I will conclude with this. I am aware that discussions are ongoing but progress is not. In the absence of any clear progress, I believe—I say this with respect—that the Government are left with no option other than to trigger article 16. Fulfil your word. Refuse to be made fools of by the Europeans for one second longer. Bring Northern Ireland back from the sidelines and into the fold once more. I believe that “Grin and bear it” is no longer an option. I urge Government and my Minister to make the right choice. I know it may not be the Minister’s choice on the protocol, but I hope it is on the veterinary issue. Make it quick; enough is enough. Stop the toing and froing, knock the protocol on the head and make a final decision that the protocol can no longer rise again.

Christina Rees Portrait Christina Rees (in the Chair)
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Thank you, Jim Shannon. I think we are all grateful that you shortened your remarks by at least two minutes, because Christmas is coming, I have been told.

15:02
Claire Hanna Portrait Claire Hanna (Belfast South) (SDLP)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I thank the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) for bringing the debate and for his long-standing and genuine commitment to achieving good outcomes for Northern Ireland. I know that is a common cause for many hon. Members across the House, for which we are grateful.

Divergence and potential divergence on veterinary and SPS arrangements is the reason for the vast majority of checks between Britain and Northern Ireland since Brexit. Stripping out the politics, it is worth saying that the island of Ireland has always been counted as one single epidemiological and veterinary unit. That long predates Brexit and has offered protection for biodiversity, agri-foods and farming generally. Hon. Members will remember that foot and mouth disease did not ravage the island of Ireland because we were protected by those checks.

I will defer as always to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on farming matters—South Belfast is not a farming constituency—but moving organic material in the form of soil had not been allowed before Brexit, because of the SPS arrangement. Those high quality standards have offered protection and given a unique selling point to Northern Ireland farmers and producers for many years. That is what we do: we produce high-quality goods and sell them to people who wish to buy high-quality goods. As far as I am aware, there is no demand to drop those standards. For what it is worth, I do not see demand to drop those standards in Britain, either.

I am a member of the UK Trade and Business Commission, which has MPs from across the House, including from the Democratic Unionist party. Over the last year, we have heard evidence on all sorts of trading and business issues from all sorts of sectors. The clear message from a range of businesses is that they value those high standards and do not want to drop them. People say that we will have higher standards in Britain—knock yourself out. It is a bit like going to a museum where the minimum donation is £5. If someone wants to put £20 in there, that is absolutely fine. The minimum standards can still be agreed, and Britain can exceed them if it wants to. So it is genuinely perplexing to me that the UK Government would not consider a veterinary arrangement. The EU even offered to sunset it, so that in a few years, when Britain worked out what it wanted from Brexit, that agreement could dissolve and a different set of arrangements could exist. Genuinely, I can only put that decision down to ideological reasons, because I do not see a demand for it from UK businesses or consumers.

As for our obeying these rules until new year’s eve and the question of what the difference is now, the difference is that the UK spent five years saying, “We don’t play by anybody’s rules,” so it is difficult now to get everybody to stick by particular rules. This is not the time or place—Christmas is coming—to get into the minutiae of global trade rules, but it is around having an identifiable set of rules and it is around preventing a thousand cliff edges. If on 1 January the UK says it will no longer adhere to a standard on soil and on 2 January says it will no longer adhere to a standard on the temperature of cows or whatever, we will create cliff edge after cliff edge. In the absence of a set of rules, businesses cannot possibly compete.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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I thank the hon. Lady for her measured delivery of that point. The issue may not be as clear as she refers to. The soil was okay at Hillmount Nursery in my constituency before 31 December, and it was no different afterwards. The issue was not that the UK or Northern Ireland were going to do anything different. We want to obey the same rules. So the rules were there that we were going to adhere to.

Claire Hanna Portrait Claire Hanna
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The point is that the UK has made it very clear that it will not sign up to commit to those rules. That is fundamentally the issue—that the UK has not agreed, as a continuum, to adhere to those rules. Yes, obviously the soil has not changed over the new year, so I understand some of the frustrations, but those could be addressed by exactly the sort of veterinary arrangement that the hon. Member for Rochdale suggests, and that businesses across the UK have been suggesting. It is perplexing to me that all of the parties across the board in Northern Ireland did not get together to call for that, because at different times all of them said that an SPS arrangement would be acceptable. That unanimity and that consistency of message from Northern Ireland’s political representatives would have been very powerful.

In the absence of that SPS arrangement, which I would love to see, the protocol is the show in town at the moment. It is nobody’s first choice; nobody loves it; nobody would have designed it. It is a bit like that thing about getting directions in Ireland—“I wouldn’t start from here,” and you would not start from the protocol, but the reality is that all the other options have been taken off the table. I genuinely understand the frustration and confusion of constituents and consumers, reflected by the hon. Members for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) and for Strangford. They say that all of a sudden the rules are different, but that is because of Brexit, which in every way was always going to mean barriers. Brexit is, by definition, a set of trade barriers. That is why some of the rules have changed. In Northern Ireland, businesses were clear before the referendum that they were very happy with the status quo—being able to trade north, south, east and west.

Carla Lockhart Portrait Carla Lockhart
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The hon. Lady makes a valid point. Some of the regulations and rules brought in at this point in time are Brexit-related. However, will she not accept that more are actually protocol-related? Had NI left the EU on the same grounds as GB, we would not be in this position and would not be dealing with issues such as seed potatoes, the Queen’s canopy and all the others listed here today.

Claire Hanna Portrait Claire Hanna
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They are issues that flow from Brexit and from the trade and co-operation agreement voted through by a large majority in the sovereign Parliament of the UK. I did not support it. The hon. Member did not support it. But that was the settled arrangement.

Tony Lloyd Portrait Tony Lloyd
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Could the hon. Member remind us who negotiated the trade and co-operation agreement? Who put the protocol into it?

Claire Hanna Portrait Claire Hanna
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I am happy to remind the hon. Member. It is all over Hansard and in TV clips. I think it was one Mr Boris Johnson and one Lord David Frost. I believe that at Christmas-time they told us that it was oven ready and ready to go, but it was clearly not. These are all consequences that flowed from a series of decisions.

As I say, business did not want to change the status quo. Businesses outlined their preferences for any solution that would mean no barriers in either direction. The Social Democratic and Labour party and I personally campaigned exhaustively over those five years, begging those people who were voting to not choose a solution that created a barrier either between north and south or east and west. Not alone did no business I have ever met want to choose between their trade with the single market and their trade with the GB market, but because we are a fragile and interdependent region that was always going to create the perception of winners and losers. That will have come to pass.

Members will be aware of some of the sporadic unrest that was seen in and around Belfast in the spring. For what it is worth, I think it was fairly contrived. Riots and bus burnings that switch on and off like an appointment are not very organic. I say that having spent all my life in a fragile region. I think they were part of a campaign to project an aura of chaos. I really felt for one young man, who was arrested at the riots in April and quoted on BBC TV. He said, “I don’t know what the protocol is, but my leaders keep telling me I am losing.” That is at the root of this Brexit problem. It created a barrier in one direction and created the perception of winners and losers.

Unfortunately, the protocol has been spun by many not to be a consequence of a series of decisions that the UK made for its own reasons. It is fair enough; they are a sovereign Government and are entitled to make decisions, but the perception has been given that it was because of Dublin or the EU. I have had the police round twice at my door with death threats because people have been told, “She brought you the protocol,” when these are the consequences of the UK’s decisions. Unfortunately, that is what we are working around.

I do not love the protocol, but we are now in the business of trying to make it work. At the moment, there are a variety of discussions between the EU and the UK to talk about how we can make the operation smoother based on the reality of how it works. The fact is that if the two jurisdictions have a different trading and customs regime, a border will have to go somewhere. That has been a fact since long before the Brexit referendum. It says it all over leaflets that I spread in 2016: that border will have to go somewhere, and it will create the headache of all headaches for this region.

According to recent polls by Queen's University Belfast and the University of Liverpool, people are saying, “No, I want a different solution.” That is a consequence of years of misinformation and deflection. I want a different solution too, but there is not one. We have spent five years discussing all the different ways to skin this cat, and the protocol was the outcome. The Commission and the UK Government, in conjunction with business and civil society, are trying to work through and find a way that works best for businesses.

There are a lot of challenges for businesses. There is no doubt about that. Brexit equals friction, and friction equals cost for business. Particularly for very small businesses that are moving low-value items and do not have a procurement or logistics department or whatever, it is worth saying that it has always been the case that there are different costs for some businesses between Britain and Northern Ireland. I have numerous examples. I become the most Unionist little warrior on Amazon when somebody tries to charge me a big fee. I have many email exchanges long predating 2016 where GB businesses are saying, “If is going to the highlands and islands, then it is going to be a different price.” I say, “No. It should be subject to the same rules.”

That issue predates Brexit. It has gotten worse after Brexit—there is no doubt about it—but that is a consequence of the failure of the UK Government to explain and prepare GB businesses for the changes that were going to come their way. That I am aware of, there is not one single product that is unavailable now in Northern Ireland. I hope my children do not read Hansard, because I am the Santa at home. I, too, have been trying to procure items for three children, and there was nothing I could get here that I was not able to get in Northern Ireland.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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Did they ask for seed potatoes though?

Claire Hanna Portrait Claire Hanna
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

No, my children are not seed potato fans. As I said, we are dealing with a series of responses—the consequences of the UK’s decisions and, as I said, they are the UK’s decisions. I do not agree with them. It is very clear that people in Northern Ireland wanted something different. That is a fact. I do not want to get into—we are talking about the practical issues and I am aware that it is difficult to divorce the practical, the emotional, the political and the constitutional, but the discussions under way are about tackling the practical outcomes of the pandemic.

However, there will be differences for Northern Ireland—that is a fact. We have always been a different SPS zone. Even those people who were behind the alternative arrangements commission, and all of those kind of Brexiteer leading lights, have been very clear that there will always need to be some form of protocol to address that situation.

I will not get into all of the issues around consent, but the people of Northern Ireland rejected Brexit and, at every subsequent election, they have chosen parties that reject Brexit and want to try to find a way to make it work for our particular circumstances. That has been very clear in poll after poll; even among those who voted for Brexit, many of them do not want Brexit on exactly the same terms as people on this island. People want that dual market access.

I will briefly address that. There are huge opportunities for Northern Ireland, which has not had a unique selling point in many decades, to trade equally into the UK single market and into the EU single market. That could create jobs, create prosperity and change our futures. The founder of our party, John Hume, said, many times, that the best peace process is a job. We finally have the opportunity to say to businesses, from wherever, that if they want to have a foot in both markets, Northern Ireland should be the place to invest.

However, investors need stability. They need clear rules and to know that there will not be unrest about all of those things. Businesses are very clear that this situation is not perfect, but they have solutions—they have ways to try to make it work. They do not talk about trusted traders, but they talk about data-based solutions. They are also very clear that they do not want the hard Brexit that Britain has; they do not want article 16 to be triggered. They know that it is not the silver bullet that it has been presented as, and that it just brings us back to the table, which is where we are now.

Brexit was always going to be bad news for Northern Ireland. It was always going to insert all of the difficult things for us—sovereignty, identity and borders—into our everyday conversations. That is driving real polarisation. Sovereignty is different in Northern Ireland because people voted for the Good Friday agreement 23 years ago, and it does not operate in the same hard way as it does in other nation states. The protocol, imperfect though it is, is how we will chart our course through this situation.

It is important that the EU and the UK can get around to the solutions. What people in Northern Ireland want, more than anything, is to not have to talk about this any more—not have to turn on the radio and hear this all day long, all year long. The only way to ensure that is to make the protocol work and agree that these are the choices that were made by the people of Northern Ireland and by the UK Government, and to try to make them work.

15:18
Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I thank the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) for securing the debate, and for the interest that he has shown. I see that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is not with us at the moment, but I would like to also thank him for his generous tribute. I learned many things on my visit to Northern Ireland, and perhaps one of the most important ones was that, even though a Northern Ireland fishing boat is fishing just a few miles off the Scottish coast, by the time it has caught its haul of prawns and taken them back to Portavogie, it is a Portavogie prawn and has had its passport.

I also concur heartily with the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna), who I also met when I was in Northern Ireland. Her constituency is many things. It is very beautiful, in parts, but it is certainly not an agricultural constituency—I certainly did not run out of fingers and toes counting all of the tractors I saw on the Malone Road of a morning.

The very simple reason we are here is because of another one of those familiar three-word slogans, which are so beloved by the Prime Minister: “Get Brexit done”. Of course, what he could not admit at the time was that his particular manner of choosing to get Brexit done would create a trade and regulatory border right down the Irish sea. Those frictions, which are already there, are only set to increase when the UK has to begin enforcing sanitary and phytosanitary checks on imports to GB from the EU and Northern Ireland.

As the hon. Member for Belfast South said, quite accurately, that is happening as a result of the negotiating objectives that Her Majesty’s Government had at the time. The only rationale I can think of for having those objectives was the need to keep options open about the level at which we were willing to impose animal welfare and food standards, in order to open up the possibility of trade deals with other jurisdictions. I know that the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart), who made a couple of very telling interventions earlier, has to be on her way to get back home now. If she were still in the Chamber I would have said to her that, for all the issues around the Northern Ireland protocol, the terms on which the UK as a whole has left the European Union do not work for agricultural producers across the UK either. They certainly do not work for my constituents, and I represent a highly agricultural constituency in the north-east of Scotland. Simply put, the terms that we have agreed to are not working for us either.

While I take a keen interest in Northern Irish politics, I do not take any sides. Let me say that I do understand, I hope, and can sympathise with those in Northern Ireland who feel that they have been distanced or separated from Great Britain as a result of the manner in which we left the European Union. Although I am very clear that a protocol is required, it does not need to be on the terms of the current protocol; if we are going to renegotiate the terms of whatever protocol is there, it has to be done in a constructive way that keeps in mind the objectives of all parts of our jurisdiction. I understand the importance of having seamless trade east to west, as well as north to south, on the island of Ireland. However, we cannot get away from the fact that the very reason that we no longer have that is a function of the choices made by the UK Government.

Tony Lloyd Portrait Tony Lloyd
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I am following the hon. Member’s speech very carefully. When he talks about the renegotiation of the protocol, even if that is desirable that will probably be a very long-term effort. Would he agree that what would be easier for his own constituents would be a SPS agreement that would allow GB trade from Scotland, England and Wales into the EU, and, of course, from GB into Northern Ireland? That is easy to achieve.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I agree with the hon. Member’s intervention, and if he will allow me, I will go on to develop some of the many reasons why I believe that to be the case. We should be looking for the most pragmatic solutions in the short term to minimise those self-inflicted obstacles that we now have to trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and also between Great Britain and the European Union.

Businesses have been calling for a veterinary agreement for as long as the Brexit deal has been in place; it is now more important than ever that we get one. Before I was elected to this place I was a local authority councillor. One thing that we had blinking aggressively on our radar was that if there was a no-deal Brexit or something like that, the sheer amount of pressure that would be put our environmental health officers and local vets to try and provide export health certificates to be able to certify goods that were of an appropriate standard for export would be huge. We could not just wave a magic wand a create these environmental health officers overnight. They need a bachelor of science degree, I understand, which takes at least three years, and then they need two years of practical experience on the job. It takes five years from when someone walks through the doors of whatever institution they are studying at until they can sign off their first consignment of fish from Peterhead market. We were very worried about that, and those fears have not gone away.

I find it very difficult to disagree with James Withers, the chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink, when he said at the UK Trade and Business Commission’s session on the UK-EU TCA:

“A veterinary agreement is the single most important step that could be taken to improve exports to the EU, red meat and seafood, two of our most important animal product exports, are caught in a tsunami of bureaucracy and paperwork.”

Let us consider some of the evidence. For a dairy in Galloway in the south-west of Scotland—famed rightly for the quality of its agricultural produce, particularly in the dairy sector—it is easier to export a shipping container of ice cream to South Korea than it is to send a block of cheese across to Northern Ireland to somebody who wishes to buy it. Our food and drink exports to the EU were down 16% at the start of the year, and over the first half of the year they dropped by almost half. Filling out the additional forms that are required takes hours every morning, and businesses are incurring tens of thousands of pounds in additional costs to ensure that they comply with them. Some businesses need to hire customs agents that they did not before.

Adding to the delays are problems with the documentation, which is obviously very complex and takes a long time to fill out. If someone gets something wrong, it banjaxes the whole thing. Sometimes they need to fill out up to 80 pages of documentation compared with the one-page delivery note and invoice that went with shipping pre Brexit. We have heard the saga of seed potatoes. I have some seed potato growers in my constituency. Their standards were already the highest in the world, and they have not diminished, but because the UK is not prepared to sign up to the same level of obligation and standards, they are virtually unable to export to what were always their most productive markets, even though those markets are desperate for the disease-free quality that those potatoes can bring.

If there is an area crying out for pragmatism it is that multi-million pound trade. Europe needs our Scottish seed potatoes—we have always exported them—as does Ireland. There is a reason our producers did not take up the opportunity to export east of Aden despite being encouraged to do so: it is because it is so difficult to do that. They have had a ready market taken away from them. All it requires is a pragmatic realignment, which will once again allow that world-leading industry to get on with doing what it does best. Part of the problem will go away with an agreement on sanitary and phytosanitary standards. Such an agreement has widespread support. Back in June, the CBI was calling on both sides to negotiate a bespoke veterinary agreement, saying that it would end the friction that Brexit has caused, particularly to the food, drink and agri sector. The EU is clearly willing to sign up to such a deal; it has been signalling as far back as February that it would be open to signing that kind of bilateral deal with the UK.

I will cite a couple of business voices on how the matter is perceived in Northern Ireland. Richard Gray of the Carson McDowell law firm said that not one business has raised concerns about the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice or its role as the court of ultimate appeal under the Northern Ireland protocol; nor have any business organisations raised that issue on behalf of clients. Stephen Kelly, the chief executive of Manufacturing Northern Ireland, which represents 5,500 Northern Irish firms, has likewise said that not one of the businesses represented by it has raised issues with the ECJ position. He said:

“Everyone knows a treaty needs legal backup. There have been border problems with the rest of the UK”

but the ECJ is

“nothing but a Brexit purity issue”.

Again, I find that hard to disagree with.

I am sure that the noble Lord Frost has many estimable qualities, but as a negotiator he strikes me as the sort of person who seems to like to pour oil on troubled waters only to set fire to it later, when it suits his purposes to do so. The UK Government should look for pragmatic agreements, and focus on reaching agreements with the EU in this area. It is not just the UK that now has sovereignty; the EU has the sovereignty that it has always had, and nobody’s sovereignty should trump anyone else’s. It should be a pragmatic negotiation to achieve the best outcomes that we can.

The UK Government should focus on reaching the kind of agreement that businesses and the food industry are calling for, rather than focusing on artificial grievances that seem to be peripheral at best to the concerns of most people. The Government have a choice between ideological purity, and the accompanying impoverishment that it will cause for our businesses opportunities, or pragmatism. I dearly hope that the Minister will indicate that pragmatism is winning that battle.

15:29
Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Rees. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), who is an expert on this issue. He is a highly distinguished former Minister and shadow Secretary of State, among the many other roles he has carried out during his political career, so his words carry real weight. His introduction was exemplary and his critique was gentle and nuanced—I suspect I will be a little more aggressive, but I may make similar points.

The contributions from the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) and for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart), and the exchanges between them, were fascinating. In many ways, it was a résumé of the discussions we have, sadly, been having over many years. The almost intractable nature of some of the problems came out, but it is good that people are discussing them and pulling out the difficulties that we face as we try to find a constructive way forward. I was particularly struck by the idea that we would not start from here. Well, I do not think anybody would, and I have some sympathy for the Minister in trying to untie this knot at the end. These are not all problems of her making, but she is part of the Government so she bears the responsibility.

This is a hugely important issue for people in Northern Ireland, for the future of the United Kingdom and, as was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale, for trust in politics. Of course, it was the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), who famously said that no British Prime Minister would allow a border in the Irish sea. Sadly, it turned out that she was wrong. Despite all the promises, all the clever technical solutions and all the rest of it, the truth is that since the start of this year there have been additional checks. Despite the Northern Ireland protocol, life has been made much more difficult for everyone, which is why securing a veterinary agreement is such an important prize.

As others have said, a veterinary agreement would help not only the situation in Northern Ireland. Meat, dairy, fish and agrifood products accounted for over £11.3 billion of annual trade into the EU in 2019. Now, however, costly red tape in the form of burdensome SPS checks on every food and agrifood product entering the EU is costing British farmers, fishers and businesses dear, hampering their efforts to trade. Between 2019 and 2021, exports of beef to the EU fell by 37%, with a 34% fall in exports of cheese. Other products have been similarly affected, with a 19% drop in exports of milk, cream and chocolate. According to the Food and Drink Federation, this has led to almost £2 billion in lost sales. Its head of international trade, Dominic Goudie, commented:

“The return to growth in exports to non-EU markets is welcome news, but it doesn’t make up for the disastrous loss of £2bn in sales to the EU. It clearly demonstrates the serious difficulties manufacturers in our industry continue to face and the urgent need for additional specialist support.”

He is right.

The UK failed to secure an agreement on SPS standards with the EU, so each agrifood product entering the European Union has to be accompanied by an export health certificate costing £150 to £200, is subject to physical checks at ports of entry and requires veterinary sign-off. Exporters must also give EU border control posts advance notice of goods arriving—a process that The Guardian newspaper has estimated takes 26 steps. Full SPS checks are due to be introduced in 2022, risking the problem getting worse. The chair of the British Chambers of Commerce has said:

“it should not be the case that businesses simply have to give up on exporting to the EU”—

a point made earlier in the debate.

The fishing industry has warned that companies that have been around for 30 or 40 years and that relied on the export market are closing their doors, calling the experience “an unmitigated disaster”. Without an agreement on SPS standards, which the Government sought but failed to secure in the Brexit negotiations, British businesses and farmers face steep and permanent rises in the cost of trade.

For Northern Ireland, the deal the Prime Minister negotiated inevitably resulted in a barrier splitting our Union. This year has been miserable for many, with all the problems that we have read about and that people in Northern Ireland endured in the early months. There is a suite of regulatory checks on food products, including dairy, eggs, meat and other staples, and there is the vexed issue of chilled meat. Those checks are now a requirement on GB-NI trade. Once the grace periods expire—we were all glad to hear that they may continue—we will face costly EHCs and a requirement for vets to sign off the product. Some products, such as chilled meat, will likely be barred altogether. Given the flow of trade between GB and NI, that is the equivalent of having an international boundary on a main road. The chief executive of Northern Ireland’s largest food manufacturer, Lynas Foodservice, has been quoted giving the example of mozzarella cheese, which we heard earlier. He says that his business is often out of stock because of the wait for a vet to certify products.

Maybe all of this was an afterthought—maybe nobody considered it—but people in Northern Ireland have paid a high price for those rushed negotiations in the days before new year. I am sure the Minister recalls the phone briefing she did for Members to try to defend the Prime Minister’s ludicrous assertion that there were no non-tariff barriers. Like everything else, I am afraid, it did not survive the collision with reality on the ground.

It did not have to be like this. The UK’s negotiating position called for an SPS framework similar to that in the Canadian or New Zealand trade agreements. As we all know, the Conservative party manifesto said:

“we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards”,

so one might have expected something in any agreement to make sure that that happened. However, neither the UK-EU trade and co-operation agreement nor the Northern Ireland protocol includes a veterinary partnership agreement. That is failing Britain’s farmers, dividing our Union and undermining the trade that tens of thousands of businesses rely on.

That is not perhaps for want of trying. Back in February, the DEFRA Secretary committed to a veterinary agreement, saying:

“what we want to do, and we’re very open to do this, is to work on a Veterinary Partnership Agreement established under the FTA so we can get some easements and ensure goods can flow more smoothly and improve the forms.”

In April, the cross-party Select Committee specifically called for such an agreement as a priority. But here we are, almost a year on, still looking for it. We know that an agreement could reduce the mountain of red tape that businesses currently face, easing trade into the European Union, not just into Northern Ireland. Trade in food and drink amounted to over £14 billion last year and two thirds of that export market was in the European Union. That trade has been most affected by the new red tape.

The Conservative party manifesto promised to “increase trade and prosperity”, but the Government’s failure to agree common food standards, which are part and parcel of trade agreements around the world, is hampering British business. An agreement on common standards would reduce the friction and allow businesses to trade more freely with our largest export market. Currently, EU trade into Britain gets a free pass, while British businesses face costly burdens. An agreement on common veterinary standards would dramatically reduce the number of physical checks and streamline or remove altogether the costly paperwork requirements that so disrupt supply chains.

There is no shortage of organisations calling for an agreement. NFU Scotland has said:

“an agreement on equivalence on sanitary and phytosanitary trade standards...is critical to alleviate the problems of asymmetric trading”.

Glyn Roberts of Retail NI has said:

“veterinary alignment would take a lot of the hassle out of the food transit problem”.

The Northern Ireland Retail Consortium has called for a veterinary agreement to remove friction. The Ulster Farmers’ Union has backed such a move, saying:

“It would do away with a large percentage of the physical and documentary checks that are currently required, helping to ensure agri-food products and livestock can continue moving, flowing as freely as possible from GB to NI without extra complications and costs.”

I am afraid that the checks that the Prime Minister insisted on having down the middle of our Union are doing damage. He should get the agreement he promised on common food standards, which has overwhelming support in Northern Ireland. But that prompts the question, why can’t he? Why is it so difficult? I am afraid that—others have alluded to this—that the conclusion must be that the Government do not want to enter into an agreement that might reduce their scope to undermine the high food standards enjoyed in Britain in the trade deals they want to strike elsewhere. That is the truth of it. The Minister shakes her head, but burdensome regulation and red tape strangling our farmers and food producers are being exchanged for allowing cheap chlorinated chicken to flood our market.

Labour absolutely rejects that path. We are ambitious for this country and seek the highest food, environmental and welfare standards in the world. We need a veterinary agreement but frankly this Government are unlikely to achieve it. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale talked about having a trusted negotiator scheme. Well, I doubt that we could have one, because this Government are unable to maintain the trust of people in our own country, let alone in other countries. We may need a new Government to make that happen, and that cannot come soon enough.

15:39
Victoria Prentis Portrait The Minister for Farming, Fisheries and Food (Victoria Prentis)
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It is lovely to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees.

I, too, thank the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) for securing this debate and I echo the words of the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner): we have heard a résumé of the discussions that we have had for the last few years about this difficult and sensitive subject. It is always good to hear the first-hand experience of the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Belfast South (Claire Hanna), and it is also interesting when those experiences are somewhat different, not least on the issue of Christmas present availability.

Let me explain what the UK Government are seeking in the negotiations. Our Command Paper published in July proposed a new model for GB to NI movements where the product stays within the UK. We agree that additional confidence could be provided by a well-designed SPS agreement. I think we all agree that that would be a helpful step forward. I reassure the House, regardless of what the hon. Member for Cambridge thinks, that that would obviously cover GB to NI agrifood movements and would set out where both UK and EU legislation provides for the same high standards. That absolutely should be taken as read. The Government stand by our manifesto commitment to standards.

As hon. Members know, we are still in the midst of technical discussions with the Commission to try to find satisfactory solutions on the Northern Ireland protocol. There is some precedent, as has been rehearsed, for the EU making such agreements with other countries—one that has been suggested this afternoon is that between the EU and New Zealand, which has been in place for many years—or as part of wider agreements with trading partners such as Canada or Switzerland.

In the trade and co-operation agreement negotiations last year, the UK put forward an SPS model based on equivalence. That would have been very similar to the model agreed between New Zealand and the EU. Sadly, the EU absolutely and repeatedly rejected the possibility of an agreement based on equivalence. Instead, it has pushed for the Swiss-EU style of SPS arrangement, which is based on dynamic alignment. An agreement based on dynamic alignment is not acceptable to us, as it would compromise our sovereignty over our own laws and impact on our ability to strike trade deals or agree trade facilitations with non-EU countries.

Claire Hanna Portrait Claire Hanna
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does the Minister accept that the UK is a sovereign nation and that deciding—for the protection of all its businesses and particularly for the fragile area of Northern Ireland—to make sure there is no divergence between Britain and Northern Ireland and to have an SPS arrangement based on dynamic alignment would be a sovereign decision? That would be a decision of a responsible Government who said, “This is something we should do for all parts of the United Kingdom, for our businesses. This is a decision that we will make ourselves.” Is that not completely compatible with sovereignty? Otherwise, it is very, “I would do anything for Northern Ireland, but I won’t do that.” It is the act of a sovereign Government to act in the interests of all parts of their kingdom.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Dynamic alignment is not acceptable to this Government. The difficulty is that we are already starting to see some divergence. The hon. Member for Cambridge and I took part—oh, no, the hon. Gentleman was not there. One of his colleagues took part in an excellent debate earlier this week on getting rid of the VI-1 certification form for wine certification, which is an issue I have discussed with the hon. Gentleman on many occasions in the past.

We are in a position where our laws—not our standards, but our laws—have started to diverge from those of the EU. What we need to achieve, because of that, is an agreement that recognises the equivalence of mutual high standards, facilitates trade, reduces bureaucracy and maintains our regulatory autonomy. The VI-1 certification is just one of a very small number of issues on which we are starting to diverge. We need to start from where we are.

Tony Lloyd Portrait Tony Lloyd
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way?

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I was going to leave time for the hon. Gentleman to respond at the end of the debate, if that is all right. I have a great deal to get through.

Tony Lloyd Portrait Tony Lloyd
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I would like to intervene at this point.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

All right, as it is Christmas.

Tony Lloyd Portrait Tony Lloyd
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My dear deceased friend, Gerald Kaufman, once said, “Never kick a man until he’s down.” I appreciate that it is unfair to be kicking the Prime Minister at the moment of his maximum weakness—the Minister might not want to comment on that. But, seriously, is changing the VI-1 certification worth all the problems that we have heard about today? This is so trivial that I hope the Minister will say, “It isn’t worth it.”

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Of course all of this is not worth it for VI-1. I merely mentioned the VI-1 certification as one very small example of changes that have been made in recent days. It popped into my head because we have been able to achieve that through a statutory instrument that was passed earlier this week. The point is that we need to achieve an agreement that recognises equivalence of standards. We do intend to diverge from EU regulations in ways that we probably have not even thought of yet.

I can give a few more current examples. There are some more onerous organics regulations that the EU is bringing in early in the new year, which we do not intend to copy. There is a position on gene editing, for example, where we as a nation are extremely keen to forge ahead and look at how that could help with our plant breeding, and the EU is somewhat behind us. There are probably many other examples where we need to achieve an agreement that recognises equivalence of standards, not necessarily complete alignment.

We continue to discuss the Northern Ireland protocol with the EU. We published our proposals in July, as the hon. Gentleman knows. In response, the EU published a series of papers in October. Its suggestions were to do with simplified certification and reduced checks for retail goods, which are designed only for sale to end consumers in Northern Ireland. Our analysis and wide engagement with the industry and consumers in Northern Ireland throws into question the level of actual simplification achieved by the EU Commission’s proposals.

To give certainty and stability to businesses while the discussions continue, the Government have announced that they will maintain the grace periods—the standstill arrangements—and continue to operate the protocol on the current basis. This will include extending the grace periods and easements that are currently in force. The aim is to provide a clear basis on which businesses and citizens can operate while we wait for the discussions to conclude.

We really welcome the EU’s recognition that there are serious problems that cannot be solved simply through the full implementation of the protocol. That was very much a change of position for the EU. We do not, however, think its proposals provide the solution. For example, they do not eliminate even one customs declaration. The 50% reduction in declarations that the EU Commission briefed to the media is actually a 50% reduction in the number of fields in the declaration, with the most burdensome ones still remaining and every movement still requiring an individual declaration.

There are still substantial gaps between our two positions. The proposals do not free up goods movements between GB and NI to the extent necessary for a long-term solution. Nor do they engage with the changes needed in other areas, such as subsidy policy, VAT and governance of the protocol, including the role of the Court of Justice. We still think the gaps can be bridged through further intensive discussions, and those are going on today, probably as we speak. Our preference is still to find a consensual solution that protects the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the everyday lives of people in Northern Ireland.

In order to make progress it is important that the discussions continue with energy and impetus. There are real difficulties, some of which we have heard about today. More than half the food moving from GB to NI currently benefits from easements, as we have also heard. When we started this in January we hoped that it was a temporary solution for GB to NI movements, and it should have opened the door for a more long-term solution. The EU’s paper does not provide for that. Owing to the additional certification required, movements of chilled meats between GB and NI declined by 95% between January and July this year.

As we have heard, there is a complete prohibition on moving seed potatoes from Scotland to Northern Ireland, as well as on some traditional varieties of GB trees, as we heard from the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart). Under the protocol, moving livestock and pets to and from Northern Ireland requires additional, unnecessary and costly certification and border checks. Our Command Paper proposal puts forward a simple and effective solution to all of these. The EU’s paper on SPS sees minimal movement from the full protocol requirements, and we hope that the EU will be able to move. That said, the EU’s proposals show that what had previously been considered impossible by the EU has become possible: the EU has accepted reduced checks and global certification for retail goods, for example. The proposals demonstrate that the EU is able to move beyond a rigid application of single market rules towards bespoke arrangements for Northern Ireland. We welcome this creativity and flexibility, which show that, with ambition and imagination, we will find a solution.

The article 16 safeguards in the protocol are provided to deal with a situation in which the protocol ceases to support the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We must always bear that in mind, but we have, I emphasise, put forward a package that is capable of doing the job. It is ambitious because the problems are significant, but it is a genuine attempt to solve the problems, and we are genuinely, and with real enthusiasm, taking part in the discussions.

Unfortunately, the EU banned the import of seed potatoes from GB at the end of last year. We believe that equivalence is the answer here, but in the committee session in September, the EU reaffirmed its position that dynamic alignment is needed between the UK and the EU for equivalence to be agreed. Given that our regime already aligns substantially with the EU’s, we continue to challenge the Commission to reconsider its position. We are very keen to resolve this.

The hon. Member for Strangford mentioned cattle movements to shows and sales. The Government have negotiated new rules with the EU that provide for NI livestock to move into GB and return to NI within 15 days if they are not sold at a sale, without needing to serve residency periods. That is significant.

On borders, for agrifood products, the Command Paper proposal would operate through the same internal UK trade scheme proposed for customs. The full SPS requirements of EU law would be applied for goods going to the Republic, and the UK would undertake to enforce them. There would also still be the means to apply risk-based controls on consignments as they move into NI, but there would be no need for numerous certificates and checks for individual items that are intended only for consumption in NI.

Live animals pose a different order of risk and require a specific approach. As has been said, that was recognised in national rules before the UK left the EU: all movements, including internal UK movements, were pre-notified, accompanied by health documentation and subject to checks. We would propose, broadly, to maintain these arrangements in this model. Similarly, recognising the potential biosecurity risk posed by certain plants and plant products, there should be an appropriate regime for these movements that does not obstruct the movement of standard products, such as seeds and plants for garden centres or personal use.

To conclude, technical discussions with the European Commission continue. They have intensified over recent weeks as the reality of what businesses in GB face and the impact of trade diversion on businesses and consumers in NI have been fully realised. Our preferred solution remains, as July’s Command Paper states, to have proposals that work for all parts of the supply chain and all products. If an SPS agreement is required to support the aims of the Command Paper, we are ready to engage with the Commission on this—absolutely.

It has been a delight to serve under your chairmanship today, Ms Rees, and I wish all hon. Members who have taken part in this broadly good-humoured debate a very merry Christmas.

15:54
Tony Lloyd Portrait Tony Lloyd
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I thank hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has enormous experience of the situation in Northern Ireland, and both he and the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) made valid points about the disruptive effect from the failure of both the EU and the UK Government to properly negotiate an arrangement that made sense. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna), in her forthright style, made her views clear on the same problem while recognising, as we all must, that the situation is fraught with a danger that goes beyond the narrowness of a veterinary agreement and to the real sensitivities of people on both sides of the conversation in the north of Ireland. This issue is therefore both serious and urgent.

The hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson), on behalf of the SNP, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), on behalf of the Labour party, made similar points. Actually, there is enormous agreement among hon. Members. As I said to the Minister, at Christmas time, she may have gone into the stable in Bethlehem filled with straw and drawn the short straw in having to respond to the debate. Nevertheless—I say this kindly—while she gave a technically interesting answer, yes, some of the people at fault are in Brussels, but some are most certainly just down the road in Downing Street, possibly including the noble Lord Frost. The reality is that only a bumbling negotiator would end up in a situation without a plan for alignment of sanitary and phytosanitary products.

The Minister repeated Lord Frost’s words about dynamic alignment, but the marginal changes that we have made in the short run were not worth causing so much damage to the economy of Great Britain and the economy of Northern Ireland. As the hon. Member for Gordon said, it is not just about Northern Ireland; it is also about the ability of Scottish, English and Welsh agrifood and agribusiness to export not simply to Northern Ireland but to the whole of the EU. Failure to create such alignment is bumbling beyond belief. We do not need dynamic alignment; we simply needed to maintain the status quo until proper arrangements were made, and that is the Prime Minister’s failure. As I said, never kick a man until he is down. This Prime Minister is well down, and he most certainly deserves a good kicking for his failure on this important issue.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the matter of securing a veterinary agreement in the Northern Ireland Protocol.