The Paymaster General (Penny Mordaunt)
I thank all Members who have spoken in this debate from all parts of the UK, from Essex to Edinburgh, from Lagan Valley to Clwyd West, and from Sheffield to Stone.
As Members of this House, we represent more than a geography; we represent the ambitions of our constituents—ambitions for themselves and their families and businesses, and their ambitions for our country. All of us in this place are ambitious on behalf of those who placed us here. It is those ambitions that the past few years have been about. Echoing what my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) said when he opened this debate, there are some who still have not come to terms with the fact that we have left the EU and wish to relive the past. They did not understand those ambitions of the British people and it baffles them still. The decision our country took showed faith in democracy and a trust in all of us here to deliver. When people trust us in this way, we cannot let them down.
That is why many Members have been right to focus on the future. That is why we have stayed the course as a country and why we will continue to do so. It took principle, courage and determination, and it took us making an exceptional compromise. We agreed to apply EU law and to control the movement of goods within our own country without any democratic say beyond a vote in four years’ time—all in the interests of peace. No other country has agreed to such a thing. It was a hard thing to do. Brexit was an ambitious decision by an ambitious country. We believe, however, that we share many ambitions with our EU friends. My hon. Friend pointed out why that ought to be the case. We have ambitions to maximise peace, prosperity and security for us all as we emerge from a turbulent few years and from this terrible pandemic.
The protocol specifically states that the Belfast/Good Friday agreement should be
“protected in all its parts”
“the application of this Protocol should impact as little as possible on the everyday life of communities in both Ireland and Northern Ireland”.If the situation in Northern Ireland is to be sustainable, it must be compatible with those principles, and in theory there is no good reason why that should not be the case. Look at how other trade boundaries operate. Look at how trade can be facilitated through a risk-based approach and through the use of technology. Look at the exceptional case that the UK is, having traded as part of the EU bloc for decades. Look at the obligations and commitments from all parties concerned—the commitments they made to protect
“the essential State functions and territorial integrity of the United Kingdom”,
as stated in article 1 and repeated in article 6, which underlined
“the importance of maintaining the integral place of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom’s internal market”,
and said that the UK and the EU
“shall use their best endeavours to facilitate the trade between Northern Ireland and other parts of the United Kingdom…with a view to avoiding controls at the ports and airports of Northern Ireland to the extent possible.”
The trade and co-operation agreement said that any measures to protect the integrity of the EU’s single market should be pragmatic and risk-based.
Those principles and provisions are not being reflected in practice. Members have raised the issues this afternoon: Northern Ireland officials processing 20% of the EU’s total checks and controls on consignments from third countries of products of animal origin for a population of 0.5% of the EU’s; critical medicines at risk of being discontinued; companies who have given up delivering; unique disadvantages for Northern Ireland in facing little access to UK or EU tariff rate quotas for certain important products; long-standing trade flows being disrupted and firms struggling to cope with increased bureaucracy and costs, despite facilitations and grace periods; and the absurd prospect of a ban on chilled meats moving within the UK.
How is that situation compatible with those shared principles of ambition and pragmatism to promote prosperity and peace? How were the commitments that the EU made in 2017 and 2019 to specific solutions and alternative arrangements, and that the protocol could be superseded, compatible with the refusal to replace the Northern Ireland protocol or engage on alternative arrangements? How is this compatible with those principles in granting extension periods only the day before, or not extending the trusted trader scheme, or not focusing on goods at risk, or insisting that the only way to reduce burdens on the movement of food products is for us to accept EU law outright on SPS despite, as my hon. Friend has said, our putting an ambitious veterinary agreement on the table based on our respective high standards? I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) for her support for the Government’s proposals on that measure.
How is it compatible with, perhaps worst of all, triggering article 16 with no notice to create a hard border on the island of Ireland for the most sensitive of products—vaccines—feeding the perception that the EU’s years of claims to be prioritising the delicate balance in Northern Ireland were little more than lip service, and fundamentally undermining the confidence of many in Northern Ireland that the protocol could be made to work, or threatening legal action at the first sign of any disagreement instead of seeking to resolve problems consensually, or saying that Northern Ireland must be the price of Brexit? Never, Madam Deputy Speaker.
In contrast, we have worked hard to support those ambitions on prosperity and peace. For our part, we have honoured our commitments, with new IT systems as part of a world-leading customs system; £500 million for a range of support schemes—the trader support service, the movement assistance scheme, the digital assistance scheme—new facilitations by 1 January, such as the UK trader scheme, even though they were only agreed in December last year; temporary facilities for agrifood goods entering Northern Ireland and £60 million for the Northern Ireland Executive to administer them; and access to several UK customs databases, despite the technical challenges associated with data protection. The UK Government are working hard and in good faith to find solutions to the problems that many have mentioned. Those problems, as the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) said, cannot stand.
We have provided over a dozen papers with detailed proposals on how these problems can be addressed. In addition to that, we have made numerous proposals in other areas, including on tariff rate quotas and customs, and we have had a very limited reaction from the EU to these proposals. We have done all this because we know that we need to show that politics works. We must respond to people’s concerns and that means the EU working with us to ease the burdens on Northern Ireland, not prioritising the single market.