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Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland Border

Volume 640: debated on Thursday 3 May 2018

3. What recent progress he has made on securing an agreement with his EU counterparts on border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after the UK leaves the EU. (905110)

Officials are undertaking an intensive work programme with the European Commission and the Republic of Ireland to negotiate in detail all the issues and scenarios set out in the joint report at the March Council. As the Government made clear in the joint report published in December, we are absolutely committed to avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, including any related checks and controls, as the UK leaves the EU.

At the previous DExEU questions, my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) and I generously invited the Secretary of State to visit Northern Ireland. It was a bitter blow that he refused our offer, but we were pleased that he did manage to visit. Will he or the Minister tell us what people on the border thought about his proposed solution?

As the hon. Lady acknowledged, the Secretary of State did indeed visit Northern Ireland last week, as did the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister. I have also visited on several occasions, including visiting the border and speaking to cross-border businesses. Everyone understands the importance of having frictionless movement of people and goods across that border. That is the aspiration of both the UK and the Republic of Ireland, and it is something that we will continue to pursue through the talks.

Monsieur Barnier was at the border last week, and I am afraid that his diplomatic skills were found wanting yet again. Does the Minister agree that Monsieur Barnier should, in the intensive discussions that he is having, take some time to look at the massive hole that will be left in the EU budget after we leave and perhaps turn his mind to the political problems that there will be in Hungary, France, Germany, Poland and elsewhere, with the far right turning away from Europe, after he is done with ours?

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. We need to ensure that we progress the negotiations in the interests of the United Kingdom and have a strong, friendly partnership with the EU after we leave. That should be our focus, and issues relating to the Irish border are a key part of that engagement.

It is now over 15 months since the Prime Minister promised that the Government would as a priority bring forward a practical solution to the question of the Irish border. Will the Minister enlighten us on when we might get that practical solution to consider?

We have put forward several proposals, which we are still in the process of discussing with the Commission. It is vital that we have agreed on a number of key areas in the joint report, such as the common travel area, the single electricity market and funding in Ireland, and it is right that we get the talks right so that the right language is written into law at the end of the process for both sides to follow.

The Minister and his colleagues are good at telling us what the Irish border will not be, but we are still no closer to having any idea about what it will be. This question could easily have been linked to the previous one, because the Government’s proposed solution still belongs in the realms of science fiction. If the Minister cannot tell us when we will get to see the practical solution that was promised as a priority, will he at least give us an end date—an absolute guarantee—by which, as a matter of confidence, the Government will have brought forward something that is practical or, at the very least, credible?

As I said, the talks are continuing, and we are seeking to reach agreement on the full text of the withdrawal agreement by October this year, as has been set out many times by both the Commission and the UK Government.

Has any expenditure been made or contracts entered into by any Department in relation to any equipment that might constitute monitoring at the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland?

We have been absolutely clear about there being no infrastructure at the border, so I am pretty certain that the answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question is no.

Sixty Conservative MPs are attempting to determine the outcome of this decision. They are attempting to bully the Prime Minister into their preferred option. Will the Minister, who I know approaches this issue with particular care, take this opportunity to explain to his colleagues why their preferred option, the so-called “max fac” or maximum facilitation option, is not suitable?

I simply do not recognise the hon. Lady’s characterisation of the discussion. The reality is that we have put forward two options in the customs paper, both of which are designed to facilitate the most frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The max fac option, combined with issues such as the local trade exemption, could provide a solution in that respect. As the Secretary of State has said, both options are still under consideration.