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Border: Use of Technology

Volume 653: debated on Wednesday 30 January 2019

1. What assessment she has made of the feasibility of using technology to avoid a hard border in the island of Ireland; and if she will make a statement. (908804)

Today marks the tragic anniversary of the events of 30 January 1972, a day more commonly known as Bloody Sunday. I am sure the entire House will want to join me in marking this day, and our thoughts are with everyone who lost loved ones or who was injured as a result of the troubles.

In answer to my hon. Friend’s question, everyone agrees that we have to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland, and I agree with him that technology will play a big part in doing so. In fact, in his excellent and thought-provoking report “Order at the Border”, he identified 25 systems that will have to be updated to cope with our new relationship with the EU. Those systems are owned and operated by different departments across government, particularly Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Cabinet Office. I am sure they will describe their progress to him should he ask.

I thank the Minister for that answer. What work, studies or advice the Northern Ireland Office has sought or commissioned to examine how existing techniques and processes within existing EU customs law can maintain the free flow of cross-border trade between the UK and Ireland? Will Ministers put a copy of this in the House of Commons Library?

I understand that the Cabinet Office commissioned work on what existing software and other technologies are available from other low-friction land borders around the world to see whether they could provide a solution to the problem. The conclusion was that no existing off-the-shelf package could deliver exactly what will be needed in Northern Ireland, so new solutions will be needed. That is why the political declaration outlines that there will be urgent work on alternative arrangements to permanently guarantee no hard border in Northern Ireland.

May I associate myself with the Minister’s remarks about Bloody Sunday? He will know that in that same city of Derry/Londonderry just a fortnight ago the dissident republicans tried to take more lives of Northern Irish citizens. Can he understand that the Chief Constable in Northern Ireland thinks that any infrastructure at the border—any technology—will be a target for those same dissidents? Will the Minister offer a guarantee here today that there will be no technology on or near the border, and therefore no violence at the border?

I am very happy to repeat what I said earlier: nobody, on any side—not just the police, as this is much more broad than that—wants a hard border in Northern Ireland. Ultimately, that is the best guarantee that there will not be one.

Will the Minister confirm that the alternative arrangements the Government will be pursuing in the next fortnight have to do with technology and systems, as evidenced in the European Parliament’s “Smart Border 2.0” report in 2017, rather than a customs union that may potentially tie the United Kingdom into an arrangement in perpetuity?

All I can do here is go back to the Prime Minister’s point of order after the votes last night, where she explicitly said that she was going to take the decisions that had commanded a majority in Parliament back in not only reaching out to people who tabled amendments yesterday, but in her discussions with the EU. I am sure that none of us would want to rule in or out any particular methods of achieving those outcomes that have mandated by Parliament. We need to make sure that those discussions can move forward as freely as possible while still delivering on the outcomes that Parliament has decided.

This week, the EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has indicated that he has a team studying how we could have checks without having any points along the border, including by paperless means and decentralisation—checks away from the border. Will the Minister confirm that he will be seeking to work with the EU to deliver on those things?

I can do better than that. The Prime Minister, in her comments last night, already made the point that she wishes to discuss all these things with the EU. I would regard it as immensely promising if such a team were indeed already working on it from the EU’s side.

I join the Minister in his commemoration of the tragic events of Bloody Sunday, but may I also use this opportunity to recognise the work of and thank the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland? As he announces his forthcoming retirement, I think the whole House will agree that we owe him a debt of gratitude.

The Minister and the Secretary of State know that there is no operable technology anywhere in the world in current use that would not of itself become a target for the terrorists. The Prime Minister has said this in the past. We have to rule out the idea that a technological solution is available. If the Minister and the Secretary of State are going to use their influence to say that there can be no hard border across the island of Ireland, they have to say that they will abandon the attempts to placate those in favour of a no-deal Brexit on their own side and move towards a customs union.

All I think I can do is repeat my earlier comments. After examination, there are no currently available, off-the-shelf solutions, which is why the political declaration says that new solutions will be required. I would not want to rule out what those will be and what they will include or not include at this stage, because clearly they will need to be innovative.