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Leaving the EU without a Deal

Volume 683: debated on Wednesday 4 November 2020

What recent assessment his Department has made of the potential effect on Northern Ireland of the UK leaving the EU without a deal. (908107)

The UK left the EU on 31 January 2020 on the basis of the deal set out in the withdrawal agreement, including the Northern Ireland protocol, which will apply in all circumstances. The question now is whether we can agree a deeper trading relationship with the EU, similar to the one that it has with Canada, or whether our trading arrangements will be more comparable to those the EU has with countries such as Australia. We have taken extensive steps, in close co-operation with the EU, to implement the protocol, and we continue to work with the Northern Ireland Executive and a wide range of stakeholders across Northern Ireland to deliver this by the end of the transition period.

The health service in Northern Ireland is facing incredible pressure from the pandemic, with warnings from some hospitals about running out of beds and key supplies for covid and non-covid patients. The Minister will know that our health service relies on medicines from across the EU and on co-operation with the health service in the Republic of Ireland, which is made possible through the EU common framework. Does the Minister agree that the disruptive end of the transition—right in the middle of this battle with the pandemic and winter pressures—is bad enough, but that leaving without a deal would be downright dangerous for people’s health in Northern Ireland?

Let me agree with the hon. Lady about the huge importance of the national health service, which benefits Northern Ireland enormously, and the enormous importance of access to supplies of medicines, both through the Republic of Ireland and from the rest of the UK. It is important that Northern Ireland’s position and the supply of goods to Northern Ireland are protected by the protocol and that unfettered access is delivered both in terms of north-south movements and of access to the rest of the United Kingdom, which provides crucial support to Northern Ireland.

May I wish you a happy first anniversary in the Chair, Mr Speaker?

Criminality, smuggling and modern slavery, as my hon. Friend knows, cannot be the winners in a no-deal Brexit scenario at the end of this year. Can he assure me that the importance of these issues with regard to Northern Ireland are well understood at the heart of government and that he and the Secretary of State are doing all they can to combat them going forward?

Absolutely. I recognise that the Chair of the Select Committee is doing an important inquiry into these issues. I have written to him with some initial written evidence, and I look forward to giving more detailed evidence in due course. The protocol does preserve the huge gains of the peace process and the Good Friday agreement by removing the major security risks associated with any requirement for checks at the land border and by providing a practical solution to avoid such processes on the island of Ireland. All the way through the implementation of the protocol, we have remained very aware of other potential security implications, including in the event of a non-negotiated outcome with the EU. We have well-developed and well-rehearsed plans in place, and we believe that the excellent working relationship between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and An Garda Síochána will continue, but I absolutely recognise the importance of the issues that he raises.

The Minister, Lord Agnew, said that there had been a “head-in-the-sand” approach by traders to the Brexit changes to come, but less than 60 days until the protocol comes into force, the IT system to underpin custom declarations is not fully operational, the border operating model has not been published and the port infrastructure needed is now rated undeliverable by the Department in charge. This is a monumental failure of preparation, but it is not the fault of business; it is the fault of this Government— the only people to have their head in the sand. Will the Minister now apologise to Northern Ireland businesses for the worry, the stress and the additional burdens that they are having to bear?

I recognise the importance of providing certainty and information to Northern Ireland businesses. We have set up the business engagement forum through which we have been engaging with businesses large and small to provide them with the detail, but, as the hon. Lady will recognise, talks are ongoing in the Joint Committee. What we need to do is ensure that we deliver the smoothest access to protect unfettered access, as we are doing through the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, and to deliver on the protocol for those businesses to provide the certainty that they need.

The leaders of the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Church of Scotland, the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, the United Reform Church Scotland, the Methodist Church Scotland and Quakers in Scotland are united in their concern over the UK Government’s actions on Brexit, with their plan to break international law, to act on devolved matters against the wishes of devolved Administrations and to place the peace of Northern Ireland in peril. That concern, they say, is shared by church leaders across the Irish sea. What can the Minister say to reassure these representatives of Scotland’s faith communities that his Government are listening to anyone as they career forward on their misguided path?

I reiterate to the hon. Lady the answer that I gave earlier that we have already left the European Union with a deal and that we want to make sure that we deliver on our commitments under the protocol, absolutely protecting our commitment to the peace process and the Good Friday agreement. I am afraid that, rather than raising concerns about the reality of the Government’s intention, some of these people may have been misled by some of the statements from the SNP.