Northern Ireland Protocol: Implementation

Tuesday 2nd February 2021

(2 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber

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Cabinet Office
Louise Haigh Portrait Louise Haigh (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab)
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(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster if he will make a statement on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol.

Michael Gove Portrait The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office (Michael Gove)
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I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) for the chance to update the House on recent developments on the Northern Ireland protocol.

On Friday afternoon, the European Commission, without prior consultation, published a regulation to enable restrictions on the export of vaccines from the EU. That regulation also invoked article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, barring the free movement of medicines from Ireland into Northern Ireland.

It is important to be clear about what was proposed: not only plans to stop vaccines being delivered through legally binding contracts, at the height of a pandemic, but critically, a unilateral suspension of the painstakingly designed and carefully negotiated provisions of the protocol, which the EU has always maintained was critical to safeguarding the gains of the Northern Ireland peace process.

Article 16 exists for good reasons, but it is meant to be invoked only after notification and only after all other options are exhausted, and in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. None of those conditions was met. Worse still, neither the UK Government, representing the people of Northern Ireland, nor the Irish Government, an EU member, were informed. The Commission’s move has provoked anger and concern across all the parties and throughout civil society in Northern Ireland, as well as international condemnation.

Following the reaction, the Commission did withdraw its invocation of article 16 and subsequently clarified, in conversations with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, that it would not interfere with vaccine supplies to Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I am grateful to the Prime Minister for his robust and sensitive intervention, and also to the Taoiseach, the Northern Ireland Executive and Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič for moving quickly to resolve the situation on Friday evening, but trust has been eroded, damage has been done and urgent action is therefore needed.

Peace, progress and strong community relations in Northern Ireland have been hard won, but in recent days we have seen an increase in community tension and, as was reported last night, port staff in Belfast and Larne have been kept away from work following concerns for their safety. The decision was taken by Northern Ireland’s Agriculture Minister, Edwin Poots, and the local council. My right hon. Friend the Northern Ireland Secretary is engaging closely with the police and authorities on this issue, and of course, the safety and security of staff are the absolute priority.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Edwin Poots for his dedicated work. He is, coincidentally, stepping down from his post for health reasons this week, and I am sure all of us in the House would want to send him every good wish.

Fixing problems on the ground now requires us all to work calmly. The EU needs to work with us, at speed and with determination, to resolve a series of outstanding issues with the protocol. I am grateful to Vice-President Šefčovič for his understanding of the need to make progress to see these problems resolved and to ensure that the protocol does what it was designed to do: avoid disruption to everyday lives while protecting Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market and our customs territory.

I am also grateful to the First Minister of Northern Ireland and her Executive colleagues for their close working with the UK Government and their shared determination to resolve these issues. We will work over coming days to fix the difficulties on the ground, preserve the gains of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and, of course, uphold Northern Ireland’s place as an integral part of our United Kingdom.

Louise Haigh Portrait Louise Haigh
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May I join the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in sending all our best wishes to Minister Edwin Poots for a speedy recovery?

The European Commission’s actions on Friday night were a serious mistake. Of that there can be absolutely no doubt, and I very much welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s response, but they must not be used as an excuse to go back to square one and undermine the protocol, with all the damage and instability that that would cause. Yesterday, as he has said, we saw staff withdrawn from the ports of Larne and Belfast because of alleged threats to their safety. This is totally unacceptable, and we all have a responsibility to dial down our rhetoric and to ensure that people in Northern Ireland are safe.

After the difficult past few days, calm heads must now prevail and serious, pragmatic, practical politics must begin to find shared solutions to the legitimate concerns and to ease tensions. With those practical solutions in mind, the looming end of the grace periods in April and July is causing serious concern for businesses, so will the right hon. Gentleman convene urgent sessions of the Specialised and Joint Committees to secure long-term mitigations of unnecessary red tape? Does he agree that an extension to those grace periods might be necessary?

Will the right hon. Gentleman update the House on the work that the Government have been doing to get British-based businesses up to speed on new requirements? Can he confirm that EU officials have all the access necessary to the databases they need to do their work? Will he ensure the joint consultative working group is urgently established so that politicians, industry and civil society in Northern Ireland have a formal structure to engage with? Finally, will he advise on how he will ensure that the protocol is never again undermined and that the political realities he has outlined regarding its existence are well understood by all concerned? What steps have been taken to reassure all communities in Northern Ireland that their lives and livelihoods will be protected?

The events of the last few days demonstrate that all sides have a profound responsibility to uphold the protocol and ensure that it works for all communities. They showed the dangers of unilateral action. It is now vital that, together, shared solutions are found that ease disruption, preserve stability and protect the gains of peace.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments, which I wholeheartedly endorse. She is absolutely right to say that it was a serious mistake on the part of the Commission; I think everyone recognises that now. I also underline her words that it is completely unacceptable to place anyone in Northern Ireland in the position in which the port workers in Belfast and Larne have been placed, so it is vital that everyone in Northern Ireland and indeed in the UK exercises calmness and moderation as well as resolution in seeking to resolve the problems that she outlined.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that the end of grace periods for export health certificates and other issues do need to be addressed. I will be writing to Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič later today to outline some specific steps that we believe we need to take. Tomorrow, I will meet him and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive in order to ensure that we can make rapid progress through the Joint Committee.

We are also communicating with UK businesses to stress that they have an obligation to ensure that their goods are available for the citizens of Northern Ireland in the same way as they are available to her and my own constituents. It is not just the Government’s responsibility but the responsibility of all of us to work together to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland recognise that they are valued citizens of one United Kingdom.

Simon Hoare Portrait Simon Hoare (North Dorset) (Con) [V]
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I am sure my right hon. Friend will agree that we have to make the protocol work and work well, but the window for doing so is small and shrinking. May I urge him during this month, with Exocet focus and precision, to iron out speedily with the Joint Committee those creases and teething problems that have been identified in order to spend next month—March—explaining those solutions to businesses across the United Kingdom and what they need to do? My judgment is that to extend the grace period would not be desirable, but business needs to have confidence and certainty, so all power to the Joint Committee for speedy and focused work.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the work that he and his Committee have done to help ensure that the protocol is well understood and to resolve some of the problems that have arisen. There are a number of specific issues. I alluded earlier to the requirement that export health certificates are provided, but, as his Committee well knows, there are other issues such as the grace period covering the supply of chilled meats to Northern Ireland and the movement of pets between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. All those issues and more are ways in which the protocol is having an impact on people in Northern Ireland that is not in the interests of Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom or, indeed, good relations between us and the EU. Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič totally understands the need to resolve these issues and, with good will, I believe that we can do so speedily, as my hon. Friend rightly points out that we need to.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP) [V]
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I extend my best wishes to Mr Poots for a speedy recovery. The indication from the EU that it was considering triggering article 16 was a significant error of judgment—albeit one that was quickly walked back. Nevertheless, it was a mis-step that has followed significant problems with the Northern Ireland protocol, with businesses facing delays—and perhaps not helped by the Prime Minister saying that he would have no hesitation in triggering article 16 after spending months denying that there would be any kind of post-Brexit checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

We now have a situation that has escalated to the point that port inspection staff have needed to be withdrawn from their duties over concerns for their safety, which is completely unacceptable. Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster give me an assurance and explain how he intends to work with the Northern Ireland Executive, the Irish Government and the EU to de-escalate all the issues around this matter and explain what further steps he will take to ensure that the protocol—an agreement entered into freely—works as it needs to for the benefit of all in Northern Ireland?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his elevation to the Front Bench in the SNP shadow Cabinet reshuffle that has just taken place. I look forward to working with him, as, I know, does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on one point. I think the Prime Minister was absolutely right to say that, if necessary, article 16 can be invoked. There is a difference between recognising that it is there as an emergency cord to pull if we need to in order to ensure that the rights and interests of the people in Northern Ireland are protected, but it can be invoked only in specific circumstances, none of which, as the hon. Gentleman knows and has acknowledged, were in place when the European Commission invoked it. More broadly, we all want to make sure that the lives of people in Northern Ireland can be as safe, secure, prosperous and free as possible, in the same way as any other citizen of the United Kingdom. I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues in the Scottish Government to ensure, through provisions such as the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, that we continue to do everything necessary to safeguard our precious Union.

Iain Duncan Smith Portrait Sir Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con) [V]
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Does my right hon. Friend not agree that the reality is that the protocol is simply not working? These are not teething problems. He mentioned article 16, but article 16 is very clear that it can be invoked if the protocol leads to “economic, societal and environmental problems” leading, for example, to a “diversion of trade”. We have already seen companies that normally ship to Northern Ireland now saying publicly that they will not bother to do so any more if it is too difficult. We are also seeing diversion: some supermarkets and others are talking about depots in southern Ireland rather than in mainland GB. Therefore, for all the talks about teething problems, what will he do in the short term to rectify this terrible disaster, with advertisers now saying that they simply cannot supply goods to people in Northern Ireland? What will he do both in the short term and the longer term to rectify the mess that is becoming obvious with this particular protocol?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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My right hon. Friend is right that the problem needs to be addressed both in the short and in the medium to long term. In the short term, there are a number of issues that I would not describe as teething problems; they are significant issues that bear on the lives of people in Northern Ireland, which do need to be resolved. We need to make sure that grace periods are extended. We need to make sure that supermarkets and other traders can continue—as they are at the moment—to be able to supply consumers with the goods that they need. There are a number of specific issues and they extend, as I mentioned earlier, to everything from pet transport to the provision of plants and seeds to gardens in Northern Ireland. The daily life of our fellow citizens does need to be protected and we must deal with all those questions. In the medium to long term, it is important that we take all the steps required to ensure that citizens in Northern Ireland recognise that they are an integral part of the UK and that their daily lives and the way in which this Parliament works reflect that fully.

Jeffrey M Donaldson Portrait Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP) [V]
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May I express my appreciation to the Minister and colleagues for their kind words about my constituency colleague and friend, Edwin Poots?

The Democratic Unionist party opposed this protocol from the outset because we recognised that it would cause societal and economic problems for Northern Ireland—for businesses and consumers—and would lead to a significant diversion of trade, as has been evident in its first month of operation. Fundamentally, this protocol upsets the very delicate balance of relationships that were provided for under the Belfast agreement. There is no Unionist supporting this protocol. What we need is not tinkering around the edges but a recognition that Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market must be restored, and this protocol is preventing that from happening.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I entirely appreciate and understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point of view. He is right: he and his party colleagues issued consistent warnings and concerns about the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol. At the same time, he and his party have been working in the context of a protocol with which they disagree and which has uncomfortable aspects for many of us, in order to ensure that we can address specific issues to improve the lives of people in Northern Ireland. I want to continue to work with him and his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Executive. Thanks to him and his party colleagues making representations, questions on, for example, the import of steel from the rest of the world and VAT on cars have already been addressed. It is in that spirit that we will continue to work with him and his colleagues to address these issues. Of course, he is right: if necessary, article 16 is there, and it can be invoked. But I want to ensure that in the days ahead, we make a practical and beneficial difference to his constituents and others in Northern Ireland.

Aaron Bell Portrait Aaron Bell (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Con) [V]
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I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. The actions of the European Commission on Friday not only worried my constituents about vaccine supplies but worried everybody on the island of Ireland. Does he share my view that its actions not only constituted a clear breach of the rules set out in annex 7 of the Northern Ireland protocol but risked cutting across the Belfast agreement itself?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is striking that every political party in Northern Ireland, every political party in the Irish Republic and every political party in this House recognises that a mistake was made. It is important that we take this opportunity to recognise that trust has been eroded, and rapid work to restore that trust needs to be undertaken.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD) [V]
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On behalf of my party, I join those who have expressed sympathies and sent good wishes to Edwin Poots.

May I invite the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to join me in condemning those who were responsible for the attacks yesterday on Alliance party offices in Northern Ireland, including those of the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry), and to make it clear that there is no place in our politics in any part of this United Kingdom for that sort of intimidation? Do those attacks not illustrate the importance of using the time available to us in the grace period to get things right, so that we do not see what his colleagues elsewhere in government have called “teething problems”, come the end of that grace period? So much of this paperwork can now be done digitally. Are the Government going ahead in that direction?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I am always grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his interventions, because he so often talks good sense, and I find myself uncomfortably agreeing with him—not all the time, but a lot of time. He is absolutely right: the threats that have been issued to Alliance party and other political and community leaders in Northern Ireland are totally unacceptable, and we need to stand together against that sort of behaviour. He is also right that we need to help business to use the online and digital facilities that the Trader Support Service provides, to ensure that commerce can be as trouble-free commerce as possible across the whole United Kingdom.

William Cash Portrait Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con) [V]
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My right hon. Friend is at last coming to the European Scrutiny Committee on 8 February. The European Commission outrageously enacted this regulation last week, which even today hypocritically asserts that it would create a hard border through article 16 and, moreover, continues even now the prohibition of the delivery of vaccines from member states to the United Kingdom. Does he accept that this demonstrates that the protocol is not fit for purpose as it stands and that this cannot be resolved without revocation of the regulation itself? Will he take this up with Mr Šefčovič in his meeting tomorrow?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I look forward to appearing in front of my hon. Friend’s Committee next week. He is right: it is important to recognise that the regulation as laid places within the Commission’s hands the capacity to restrict exports. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister secured a commitment from the President of the Commission that there would be no interruption in vaccine supplies, but, like my hon. Friend, I deprecate the fact that this regulation was introduced in the first place.

Colum Eastwood Portrait Colum Eastwood (Foyle) (SDLP) [V]
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First, I express my solidarity with the politicians in Northern Ireland—including, of course, the hon. Members for North Down (Stephen Farry) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—whose offices were attacked last night.

In Northern Ireland, words can have very dangerous consequences, so does the Cabinet Secretary agree that it is now time for all political leaders to dial down the rhetoric and deal with the actual issues that exist around the protocol, while of course recognising that the protocol is a direct consequence of Britain’s leaving the customs union and single market?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s expressions of solidarity and I agree with him: politicians and civil leaders from all parties and all parts of society should not have to face that sort of despicable behaviour. He is also right that it is incumbent on us all to seek calmly and purposefully to resolve the issues on the ground. I am grateful to all the parties in the Northern Ireland Executive, and to the First Minister in particular, for the calm and purposeful way in which they have addressed the challenges that we share.

Antony Higginbotham Portrait Antony Higginbotham (Burnley) (Con)
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The European Commission’s actions on Friday were deeply irresponsible. Although the Commission might want to cast them aside as a mistake, they would have had serious implications for the UK and Northern Ireland’s place in it.

On vaccines in particular, will my right hon. Friend assure me that whatever action the EU takes, our supply of vaccines to every part of the UK is secure?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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Yes, absolutely—my hon. Friend is completely right. On Friday evening, immediately following the publication of the EU’s regulations, the Prime Minister was on the phone to Commission President von der Leyen to make it crystal clear that contracts had to be honoured and there could be no interruption of the supply to the UK during a pandemic of vaccines that had been legally secured in a fair way. The Prime Minister received that absolute assurance; it is just a pity that the Commission acted in such a way in the first place.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry (North Down) (Alliance) [V]
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First, I thank colleagues for their solidarity in respect of last night’s graffiti attack on my office, from which I am currently speaking, and join the wider condemnation of threats to staff at the ports.

Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster confirm that violence, or the threat of violence, will not be allowed to influence Government policy, and that the central means of addressing issues relating to the protocol is through the UK and the EU working to address issues, such as by developing a wider veterinary agreement?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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Again, I offer my sympathy to the hon. Gentleman and his staff who have faced this intimidation and graffiti. Members across the House stand fully in solidarity with him. He is right that it is vital that we work to ensure that the real issues are dealt with and that we say and demonstrate that we are not influenced by intimidation, violence or extra-parliamentary action. What we do is in the interests of the people he represents, and I look forward to working with him, his party colleagues and others to make sure that we resolve these questions.

Julian Smith Portrait Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con) [V]
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The action taken last week follows the EU’s track record of a lack of understanding of the sensitivities in Northern Ireland. We saw it during the Brexit process, with the EU’s intransigence about not providing the then Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), with an exit mechanism to the backstop, and we saw it again in the run-up to the protocol, with the EU ignoring our requests for trusted-trader schemes and other flexibilities.

I urge my right hon. Friend to take this discussion out of the purely technical discussions around the Northern Ireland protocol and transform it into a more strategic discussion with the EU. What does the EU need in return from the UK on other fronts to resolve these issues in the long term, and what does the EU need to do to give confidence, particularly to Unionists across Northern Ireland, that it understands that the Good Friday agreement and the protocol are matters of a joint duty of care for both the EU and the UK?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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My right hon. Friend is absolutely spot on and makes the central point. People in Northern Ireland will have heard, during the whole Brexit process, professions of care and concern from EU politicians about Northern Ireland. Some of those were sincere, but the way in which the Commission has behaved in the course of the past week is of deep concern. I should say that I absolutely exempt Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič from this: he completely understands the need to make sure that we have a pragmatic resolution to this problem. But not every European politician understands the situation in Northern Ireland anything like as well as my right hon. Friend does, and we do need to make sure that we have a resolution that recognises Northern Ireland’s integral place in the UK, while also ensuring that we have the best possible relationship with all our neighbours.

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab) [V]
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The right hon. Gentleman has just said that he would like to see the grace periods extended, but the Northern Ireland Secretary recently told the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs that

“we are not at the moment in a position where we want to be looking at extending the grace period.”

Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster therefore explain what Government policy actually is on this? Given that UK supermarkets have expressed grave concerns about having to provide export health certificates for each food item in their lorries heading for Northern Ireland supermarkets, do the proposals that he will be putting to the Joint Committee involve doing away with export health certificates on such goods altogether?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that. We want to work through the Joint Committee to address precisely the issues that he raised. It is important that in that Joint Committee we have a practical, step-by-step analysis of the disruption and difficulties that are currently faced, and we judge which of those issues can best be resolved either through an extension of the grace period or by revisiting the operational aspects of the protocol. The Joint Committee exists for that purpose, and even though his Select Committee no longer exists in its current form, I look forward to having the opportunity to update him and others in the House about the progress that we make.

Laurence Robertson Portrait Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con) [V]
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At such meetings, will my right hon. Friend raise the issue of food producers in Great Britain already having had their standards approved by the BRCGS, under the global standards for food safety? When they are approved at the place of manufacture, there is no need to check each and every case of food products when they reach Northern Ireland. We could, thus, end the totally unnecessary disruption when they reach those ports and the delays to fresh food.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right: there is no need at all for that level of physical inspection. I will continue to work with those on the ground to reinforce that point.

Mary Kelly Foy Portrait Mary Kelly Foy (City of Durham) (Lab) [V]
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Does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agree that last Friday’s disarray demonstrates the real danger to stability in Northern Ireland of triggering article 16 and the profound uncertainty it would create for businesses? Does he agree that the focus should instead be on making the protocol work and on finding long-term solutions that will avoid disruption caused when the grace period comes to an end and minimise the disruption of trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady that in the hours and days ahead the focus should be on making life better for the people of Northern Ireland by making sure that goods can flow freely and that their lives are not affected in the way that they have been. As I mentioned, it is appropriate to recognise that there may be circumstances in which article 16 may need to be invoked or deployed—it exists for a purpose. However, the Commission invoked it in a way that was completely outside the rule book.

Suzanne Webb Portrait Suzanne Webb (Stourbridge) (Con) [V]
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Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to confirm that the UK Government will never tolerate any attempt by the European Commission or any other foreign authority to deny the people of Northern Ireland access to the covid vaccines, which this Government have been so successful in securing?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I entirely agree with my hon. Friend on that. It gives me an opportunity to say thank you to everyone who has been involved in the vaccine roll-out across the UK. Our national health service is a precious aspect of our citizenship of the UK. It is NHS personnel who have been responsible for making sure that our vaccination programme has, so far, gone so well. They deserve the credit and it is the Government’s job to make sure that people in Northern Ireland can continue to receive the vaccines that they deserve.

Gavin Robinson Portrait Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) (DUP) [V]
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May I extend my appreciation to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and, indeed, the Prime Minister for their continued engagement in seeking resolutions to what appear to be intractable problems? The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has helpfully suggested that the grace period for pets, and the work on seeds and plants, can be solved not through continual extensions of those grace periods, but with a practical and workable solution that balances the zero risk associated with those sectors. I also thank him for his comments about the threats and intimidation to the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry), my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and Assembly colleagues in east Belfast and north Belfast. What we need to see, and what we need to demonstrate clearly and quickly, is that constitutional politics works, and that we need to get those solutions through constitutional politics.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I could not agree more. The hon. Gentleman and his party colleagues have been assiduous in bringing to my attention and to the attention of the Secretary of State each of their individual concerns, and they have done so in a speedy, effective and low-key way, which has reflected their desire to resolve these problems. He is absolutely right; we need to see that resolution in order to ensure that people’s electoral representatives are heard and are effective.

Andrew Rosindell Portrait Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con)
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As someone who cares passionately about our United Kingdom and Northern Ireland’s permanent place within it, does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agree that the European Union’s willingness to trigger article 16 as soon as it was in its interests clearly undermines its claims during the negotiations that a border in Northern Ireland was not something that it could tolerate? Does he also agree that the Government should now seek to replace the Northern Ireland protocol with the EU because the EU has clearly shown that it was not simply about the interests of Northern Ireland, but more about its own economic and political control? The EU has been shown up for what it really is, and it is time that we put the interests of the United Kingdom and the people of Northern Ireland first.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that we have to put the interests of all the citizens of the United Kingdom, including the citizens of Northern Ireland, absolutely first. I also agree that it was regrettable that just 28 days after the protocol came into effect, it was the EU that decided to trigger article 16 in the way in which it did. I want to work with those in the EU who are genuinely committed to the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, such as Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, because the most important thing for me now is to do everything I can to help ensure that the lives of people in Northern Ireland are improved. My hon. Friend makes a fair point about the need to take a step back and look at all these issues in the round.

Margaret Ferrier Portrait Margaret Ferrier (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Ind) [V]
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Recently it has been reported that the Ministry of Defence will have to complete customs forms before moving equipment or personnel to Northern Ireland. Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster assure us that this will not impede UK military support to the Police Service of Northern Ireland under Operation Helvetic?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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Absolutely. The very idea that the UK armed forces should be prevented in any way from operating in any part of the United Kingdom is utterly unacceptable.

Mark Francois Portrait Mr Mark Francois (Rayleigh and Wickford) (Con)
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The whole point of the Northern Ireland protocol was to avoid the creation of a hard border on the island of Ireland; and yet, late last week the European Commission—in an act of stunning hypocrisy—attempted to do exactly that, affecting medicines and critical vaccines. It has blown up in the Commission’s face, but if it ever doubles down and tries it again, the President of the Commission would unquestionably have to resign. In the meantime, will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster work with Mr Šefčovič in the Joint Committee to try to really rip back these problems? In particular can we narrow down the goods at risk to a very, very small number instead of, as is the case at the moment, virtually everything being treated as if it were at risk, with all the attendant bureaucracy?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I mentioned briefly in my response to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), the whole point of the Joint Committee is that it is there to safeguard the interests of the people of Northern Ireland; it is not there to ensure that we can somehow control the export of vaccines from Belgium and the Netherlands. That is not appropriate. His broader point is absolutely right: we do need to make sure that we work rapidly within the Joint Committee to address those issues, and, once we have done so, take a step back and look at how we can safeguard Northern Ireland’s position in the round.

Feryal Clark Portrait Feryal Clark (Enfield North) (Lab) [V]
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Does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agree that the protocol is the best way to ensure stability in Northern Ireland and that it must work for businesses and communities? Does he therefore also agree that further joint steps are needed with the European Union to reduce the potential mountain of red tape on food products when the grace period ends in April?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We must make that progress.

Karl McCartney Portrait Karl MᶜCartney (Lincoln) (Con) [V]
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How can my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents in Lincoln and all Northern Ireland citizens that article 16 is not triggered as lightly by the European Commission in the future? It took less than a month for it to be triggered, with little realisation of the potential ramifications by anonymous foolish actors in the European Commission, but thankfully ministerial colleagues, including the Prime Minister, saw to it that the European Commission made a swift U-turn on this occasion. Do the Government intend to revisit the arrangements, as after recent events this would be a justified request?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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My hon. Friend makes a very important point. One can never predict the future with accuracy, but I think, given the universal condemnation with which the Commission’s actions were met, that it knows that it has to step away. It is remarkable; the Archbishop of Canterbury, Carl Bildt, Alexander Stubb—the former Finnish Prime Minister—all the parties in Northern Ireland, the Taoiseach and the Irish Foreign Minister were all critical of the decision that was made. This is not some sort of gaggle of Eurosceptics rehearsing traditional lines—it is a recognition that the Commission mucked up.

Jerome Mayhew Portrait Jerome Mayhew (Broadland) (Con) [V]
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The Joint Committee is empowered to determine the practical arrangements relating to the UK’s implementation of the protocol. Given this morning’s need to suspend animal-based food checks at the port of Larne because of paramilitary threats, it is clear that these decisions have real physical consequences. What conversations has my right hon. Friend been able to have with his counterparts in the Joint Committee on the practical steps not only to de-escalate the situation but to ensure that food supplies are maintained and eased in future?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I had the opportunity to talk to Vice-President Šefčovič over the course of the weekend, on Friday night and on Saturday afternoon as well. As I mentioned earlier, he is very conscious of these questions. Although criticisms might be directed at some, he should be exempt from criticism because he is absolutely committed to working to resolve these issues in a practical way.

Carla Lockhart Portrait Carla Lockhart (Upper Bann) (DUP) [V]
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I join others in the House today in condemning the attacks on the parliamentary office of the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) and indeed my own party colleagues.

The Minister will know that Unionism is looking closely at how the Government address our very valid and principled opposition to the protocol. These are not teething problems, and the Chair of the Northern Ireland Committee should desist from using such dismissive language. Does the Minister agree that continuing to ignore one section of our community would be reckless when the foundation of political progress in Northern Ireland, which I want to see protected, is predicated on cross-community consent? Does he also agree that as the mechanics of east-west are broken by this protocol, it is inconceivable that north-south mechanics will continue to operate with the consent of the wider Unionist community?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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The hon. Lady makes a very important point. In reflecting on the gains that have been made since the Belfast agreement was secured, we need to recognise that that agreement underpins the principle of consent. It made certain that Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom would be respected by all. It requires respect for every citizen in Northern Ireland, all communities, and all traditions. As a committed Unionist and as a Government who are committed to the United Kingdom, it is vital we demonstrate that daily. That is why appropriate action needs to be taken of the kind we outlined earlier. Every day, UK Government officials, national health service doctors and nurses, and people working in every aspect of government are working to serve the people of Northern Ireland as UK citizens. That is absolutely integral to the mission of this Government. I look forward to working with her and her colleagues to make sure that we move forward in the right way.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I am suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.