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House of Commons Hansard
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Leaving the EU: Alignment
20 December 2017
Volume 633
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2. What assessment he has made of the potential economic benefits to Northern Ireland of maintaining full alignment with the rules of the customs union and single market after the UK leaves the EU. [902964]

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8. What assessment he has made of the potential economic benefits to Northern Ireland of maintaining full alignment with the rules of the customs union and single market after the UK leaves the EU. [902970]

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We have been clear that the UK as a whole will be leaving the customs union and single market. We want our future relationship with the EU to be a deep and special partnership that works for all parts of the UK, while recognising Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances.

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If, at the end of this process, Northern Ireland remains aligned with the single market and customs union while the rest of the UK is not, what impact do the Government believe that will have on the Northern Irish economy?

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As the joint report highlighted last week, there are three steps: reaching a free trade agreement; then providing responses that meet the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland; and, finally, the issue of alignment. We believe that it is possible and that we will address all these issues to ensure that we have not a hard border but a frictionless border that maximises the trading relationship without creating any new barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, where there is a reliance on trade, which is so important to the economy.

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Has the Secretary of State’s office shown more diligence than the Department for Exiting the European Union in producing impact assessments on the effects to the Northern Ireland economy of all eventualities of leaving the European Union—and if not, why not?

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I know this issue of impact assessments has been debated in this House previously. There are no formal impact assessments. Obviously, the Department for Exiting the European Union has provided detailed reports for the Select Committee, and it will be for the Committee to determine what happens with them. I can assure the hon. Gentleman of the joint working across government of assessing the implications and informing those negotiations, so that we get the right deal for Northern Ireland and for the UK as a whole.

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Will the Secretary of State confirm that trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain within the UK single market is worth five times as much as trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic?

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Yes, trade—economic activity—between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is several times more than that in relation to Ireland. But the point is that we look to strengthen the whole economy. Indeed, as the UK leaves the European Union, we want to see the Irish economy equally having that access to Great Britain. A reliance is placed upon that. We want to succeed and prosper as we leave the European Union.

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Is the Secretary of State not right to highlight that Northern Ireland’s rightful place is to make sure it is aligned with the rules of the rest of the UK, which is why Conservative Members had a clear manifesto commitment to do nothing to damage the single market of the United Kingdom?

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I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend on that. Indeed, that principle was firmly enunciated through the provisions in the joint report, and that is the approach we will take as we move into phase 2 of the negotiations.

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As we prepare to exit the EU, it would be far better if the Northern Ireland Assembly were in place. In the light of that, will the Secretary of State comment on the report by Trevor Rainey on the pay of Members of the Legislative Assembly? Secondly, will the Secretary of State bear in mind that the same principles that apply to MLA pay should also apply to Members of Parliament who do not fulfil their functions in this place?

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I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we want to see the Executive restored, and we will be approaching this in earnest in the new year to seek to see that re-established. That matters on so many different levels. He highlights the issue raised in Trevor Rainey’s report. I commend Mr Rainey for providing the report and I will be considering the responses carefully.

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As well as not having the Assembly, not having Executive Ministers in place is of course a major disadvantage to Northern Ireland. As the Secretary of State knows, if the Assembly were called tomorrow, the Democratic Unionist party would re-enter government, as would many of the other parties, apart from Sinn Féin. That is a dereliction of duty on its part, for which it has to answer. Does he accept that if we do not have an Executive up and running quickly, he will have to step in and provide Ministers from the Northern Ireland Office to direct Departments in the Province?

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I know firmly that an increasing number of decisions need to be taken. That has been highlighted this week by the Northern Ireland civil service publishing a consultation on budgetary issues, showing some of the determinations that need to be made. I want to see Ministers and an Executive up and running as quickly as possible to do those things. Obviously, it needs to happen quickly, given the decisions that need to be taken.

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If the Irish border deal means no regulatory divergence after Brexit, can the Secretary of State tell us where the regulatory divergence between the UK and the EU will be? Will it be in the Irish sea? Does this mean Northern Ireland is staying in the customs union and single market, or will the UK simply adhere to the rules of the customs union and single market after Brexit, without having any input into the rules?

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I know the Prime Minister dealt with this in her statement on Monday, but let me say that we will be leaving the customs union and the single market. The hon. Lady talks about divergence, but actually the joint report talks about alignment, which is about pursuing the same objectives. That could be the same way, but it could be different. That is the whole point. It is about achieving those positive objectives, and that is what we will do.

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As you know, Mr Speaker, agriculture is more important in Northern Ireland than in any other part of the UK, and Northern Ireland is more reliant on EU farm payments than any other part of the UK, so 30,000 Ulster farmers need certainty about what Brexit is going to mean for them. In her Florence speech, the Prime Minister reassured them that transition would occur under

“the existing structure of EU rules and regulations”—

including, I presume, the common agricultural policy—but on Monday she said the opposite. She said that on 29 March 2019, we will be leaving the common agricultural policy. Which one is right?

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They are both right. We have said clearly that yes, we are leaving the common agricultural policy, but we have also said that we will maintain payments in relation to those arrangements through to 2020. Indeed, if the hon. Gentleman wants to look back at what the Prime Minister said about maintaining the same arrangements during the implementation period, that will answer his question.

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That cannot be correct. It cannot be right both that we will be under exactly the same EU rules and regulations, which is what the Prime Minister said in Florence, and that we will be leaving the common agricultural policy. If it is true that we are leaving the common agricultural policy, those 30,000 Ulster farmers and their families need to know how they are going to pay their mortgages and meet their other commitments in just 15 months’ time. This is a complete shambles. The Prime Minister is going to be here in a minute—can the Secretary of State tell her to sort this out?

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The only shambles is the Opposition’s approach to Brexit. At this time of the year, many people will mark the 12 days of Christmas; we have had at least 12 different approaches to Brexit from Labour. Yes, we will be leaving the common agricultural policy, as the Prime Minister said on Monday, but she also underlined clearly our commitment in respect of those direct payments and, as I say, the transition and the need to provide certainty. The hon. Gentleman’s scaremongering does nothing to add to this—

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Order. The trouble with these answers is that they are too long.