Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 18 November.
“We continue our work to implement the protocol in a pragmatic and proportionate way that minimises the disruption to people’s day-to-day lives and preserves the gains of the 22 years since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement was signed. We are helping traders to prepare for the end of the transition period. We published business guidance in August and are updating it all the time as arrangements are finalised. We have established the trader support scheme, backed by £200 million of Government funding. More than 7,000 businesses have signed up, and hundreds more are joining them every day. We are considering further support measures for agri-food traders, with further details to be announced shortly.
We are getting on with the work that we need to do so that our systems and facilities are ready. We are putting in place the IT systems that are needed to process goods movements, supported by £155 million, which we announced in August. We are working with the Northern Ireland Executive on the delivery of expanded points of entry for agri-food, with the contract now awarded and work under way on arrangements on day one and thereafter.
We are getting on with putting the legislative framework in place for manufactured goods and food safety among many other issues, and our programme is well on track to be delivered in full by the end of the year. We are delivering on our unequivocal commitment to unfettered access. We have provided for robust protections in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill for mutual recognition and a prohibition on new checks and controls. We will re-table those clauses when the Bill returns to the House.
We laid a draft statutory instrument in Parliament, which was approved on 10 November by this House and is scheduled for debate in the other place on 30 November. That will ensure that on 1 January Northern Ireland businesses can continue to move their goods as they do now. We are working with the Executive to introduce a longer-lasting second phase of that system, to focus its benefits on Northern Ireland businesses, to be introduced in the course of 2021.
We are working intensively and in good faith through the Joint Committee to pursue the solutions that we need to support our approach. We have already agreed a phased approach for medicines rules in Northern Ireland, ensuring that those critical goods can continue to flow. We have agreed an approach to scoping the application of the electricity directive in respect of Northern Ireland’s single electricity market that will ensure that the single electricity market continues to deliver for Northern Ireland.
We are working to ensure that UK internal freight is not subject to tariffs, and to remove export declarations from Northern Ireland to GB trade. We continue to pursue specific solutions for supermarket trade, noting the huge social and economic importance of avoiding disruption. That essential work will continue at pace in the coming days but, of course, I cannot give a running commentary on discussions with the European Union.”
My Lords, yesterday Northern Ireland business leaders told Members of Parliament that the Government have left them without clarity, details or time to deal with the huge change that is coming. The president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union said they are being asked to prepare with both arms tied behind their back and a blindfold on. So what are the contingency plans for business if the customs declaration service is not available by 1 January? Why have businesses had no information on how a tariff rebate system would work? As noble Lords know, businesses always need certainty, and certainty here is absolutely lacking.
My Lords, the Government are committed to ensuring that businesses and communities are ready for the end of the transition period. I am sorry to hear of the remarks reported by the noble Lord, but our intensive programme of engagement with industry continues at pace. The Business Engagement Forum has now met 20 times since May, and this month the Chancellor of the Duchy formed a UK-wide business readiness task force. We have also made considerable progress on the provision of guidance, publishing over 25 pieces of sectoral guidance for businesses moving goods between Northern Ireland and GB in recent weeks.
Yesterday’s Statement in in the House of Commons was a bravura performance, but completely out of touch with reality. Is it not the case that any small business in Northern Ireland planning for Brexit is faced with a nightmare of distraction, with few hard facts on which to base any decisions? The five essential steps on InterTradeIreland pose detailed questions on the supply chain, customs, people and data, to which answers are not available. If you ask your supply chain, they do not yet have the answers; if you ask customs, neither do they, and so on. When will the trader support service be in a position to deliver to businesses that register? Does the Minister accept that, given the continuing uncertainty, services in support of the trader support service will be needed for years to come?
My Lords, in relation to the trader support service, I can report to the House that, whereas my honourable friend in the House of Commons said that 7,000 businesses had signed up, 9,000 businesses have now signed up, with hundreds more joining every day. We will shortly set out further support for agri-food producers engaging with new SPS processes.
My Lords, does my noble friend share my concern that far too many people see this issue solely through the prism of strand 2 of the Belfast agreement and of avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland? Will he confirm that the 1998 agreement contains three strands, while the consent principle underpins Northern Ireland’s position as an integral part of our United Kingdom? As such, is it not imperative that Northern Ireland continues to benefit from free and unfettered access to what is by far its largest single market?
My noble friend raises an important point and I can certainly reassure him that the Government remain committed to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in its entirety, including all three strands; east-west is vital, as he says. We are delivering on our unequivocal commitment to deliver unfettered access, and I hope very much that noble Lords will reconsider their obstruction of the legislation on that subject.
My Lords, I warmly welcome the joint letter of 5 November from the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to Commissioner Šefčovič. In view of the significant concerns that they jointly expressed, what is being done to allow supermarkets to continue to service Northern Ireland from Great Britain? Can the Minister confirm reports that the UK and the EU are considering agreeing a grace period to allow supermarkets time to adapt to the protocols approach, which is still under discussion in the Joint Committee?
My Lords, the noble Earl raises an extremely important point. I cannot go into matters that are, as he implies, under active discussion, but we have certainly committed to an intensified process of engagement with the EU to resolve all outstanding issues such as this, which includes securing flexibilities for trade from GB to NI. That is particularly important for supermarkets, where we have been clear that specific solutions are required. The recent joint letter from the First Minister and Deputy First Minister reflects how important that issue is for Northern Ireland, and we will continue to work closely with the Executive to get a solution to this problem.
Agreement with the EU is key for the sustainability and implementation of the protocol. As president of the CBI, I hear from businesses on a daily basis about the urgent need for the clarity that is needed on the transfer of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Businesses want clarity, but they also want to ensure that the protocol works long-term for peace, trade and investment—and this starts with a deal. Does the Minister agree that clarity is needed to ensure the continued flow of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
I certainly agree on the importance of clarity. As I have said, certain matters are still under discussion in the joint committee, but the Government have already issued 25 documents of sectoral guidance. We are actively engaged with business in Northern Ireland and we attach the highest importance to these points.
This situation threatens the rights and equality clauses in the Belfast agreement, because European law has long been crucial to support those rights. At the time of the Belfast agreement, it was guaranteed that there would be no diminution of such rights as a result of Brexit. These rights are also threatened with regard to Britain’s future membership of the European Convention on Human Rights. In addition, the UK Government’s lack of commitment to guaranteed labour, anti-discrimination and environmental rights in Northern Ireland equal to those enjoyed during the EU membership suggests that they are also under threat.
My Lords, the Northern Ireland protocol commits to “unfettered” access for all goods, including agri-foods. Does my noble friend accept that there will be a new legal obligation for submitting a customs declaration for import and export purposes that will both take time and incur expense to fill in? How does that square with the commitment to unfettered access?
My Lords, would the Minister agree that we are being a little hypocritical in admonishing China over Hong Kong while preparing to renege on provisions in the EU withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol? Would he also agree that trying to get the best of all worlds in trade could seriously affect progress under the Good Friday agreement?
No, I do not. The maintenance of the Good Friday agreement requires unfettered access, which was committed to by the EU and in the reformation of the Northern Ireland Executive. So far as comparing the actions of the UK Government with those of communist China, I indignantly reject the parallel.
My Lords, does Her Majesty’s Government consider that both sides in the negotiations regarding the protocol and the withdrawal agreement are acting in good faith? Would it not cause much greater harm to, and further undermine, the Belfast agreement if we were to separate Great Britain from Northern Ireland, contrary to the wishes, or without the consent, of all the people in Northern Ireland?
My Lords, consent—and the consent of both communities—is absolutely fundamental to this whole process. I agree with my noble friend that it would be to the benefit of all if a reasonable agreement could be reached sooner, as the UK Government hope is still possible.
My Lords, has the Minister any idea of how desperate businesses in Northern Ireland, especially those trading across the Irish Sea—as many do—are to know what their future will be in a month’s time? I say bluntly: please do not give us the same old warm waffle about how it will be all right on the night. People’s jobs and livelihoods are at stake here, and they have no idea what the future holds for them.
My Lords, to say that the Government are wholly committed to the future security and prosperity of business in Northern Ireland is not “warm waffle”; it is the truth of the matter. We are providing extensive support through the trader support service. I have referred to other measures, including the £150 million that has been put into IT systems, and we are working at pace to deliver all that is necessary. I hope that agreement can be reached in the joint committee and that any uncertainties there can be resolved.