My Secretary of State is on the way to Northern Ireland this afternoon, and has asked me to respond to this question on his behalf. We continue our work to implement the protocol in a pragmatic and proportionate way that minimises the disruption to people’s day-to-day lives and preserves the gains of the 22 years since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement was signed. We are helping traders to prepare for the end of the transition period. We published business guidance in August, and are updating it all the time as arrangements are finalised. We have established the trader support scheme, backed by £200 million of Government funding. More than 7,000 businesses have signed up, and hundreds more are joining them every day. We are considering further support measures for agrifood traders, with further details to be announced shortly.
We are getting on with the work that we need to do so that our systems and facilities are ready. We are putting in place the IT systems that are needed to process goods movements, supported by £155 million, which we announced in August. We are working with the Northern Ireland Executive on the delivery of expanded points of entry for agrifood, with the contract now awarded and work under way on arrangements on day one and thereafter.
We are getting on with putting the legislative framework in place for manufactured goods and food safety among many other issues, and our programme is well on track to be delivered in full by the end of the year. We are delivering on our unequivocal commitment to unfettered access. We have provided for robust protections in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill for mutual recognition and a prohibition on new checks and controls. We will re-table those clauses when the Bill returns to the House.
We laid a draft statutory instrument in Parliament, which was approved on 10 November by this House, and is scheduled for debate in the other place on 30 November. That will ensure that on 1 January Northern Ireland businesses can continue to move their goods as they do now. We are working with the Executive to introduce a longer-lasting second phase of that system, to focus its benefits on Northern Ireland businesses, to be introduced in the course of 2021.
We are working intensively and in good faith through the Joint Committee to pursue the solutions that we need to support our approach. We have already agreed a phased approach for medicines rules in Northern Ireland, ensuring that those critical goods can continue to flow. We have agreed an approach to scoping the application of the electricity directive in respect of Northern Ireland’s single electricity market that will ensure that the single electricity market continues to deliver for Northern Ireland.
We are working to ensure that UK internal freight is not subject to tariffs, and to remove export declarations from Northern Ireland to GB trade. We continue to pursue specific solutions for supermarket trade, noting the huge social and economic importance of avoiding disruption. That essential work will continue at pace in the coming days but, of course, I cannot give a running commentary on discussions with the European Union.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. There are 43 days until the end of the transition period, and it is hard to express the frustration, anxiety and fears that have been relayed to me and to the Minister by countless businesses and communities in Northern Ireland, as the clock has started to tick. Northern Ireland needed every second of this transition year to get ready for the biggest changes to its trading relationship that it has ever known, but vital time has been squandered, first with the denial that any checks would take place at all and then with the extraordinary spectacle of the Government threatening to tear up their own oven-ready deal and breach international treaties that they had signed into law—an approach that the Minister has just confirmed they are sticking to when the Bill returns to the House from the other place.
The result of that recklessness and incompetence is that thousands of businesses still do not know the bare basics of how they will trade with Great Britain in just six weeks’ time. As the president of the Ulster Farmers Union said this morning, we are in a transition, but we do not know what we are transitioning to. The whole purpose of the protocol was to protect the Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions, and the relationship east-west is as important as the relationship north-south. The Government’s reckless approach to negotiations and their incompetent failure to prepare risk significant disruption, a maximalist interpretation of the protocol and completely unnecessary checks. Ministers should take their heads out of the sand and give businesses the answers for which they have been begging throughout this transition year.
First, on the customs declaration service, which will handle over 1 million declarations in January alone, experts say that they need 18 months to get traders ready for the new system, so why has the industry not had the final version? Given that those experts now say that it is simply too late for the system to work, what are the contingency plans to avoid widespread disruption on 1 January? Will there be flexibility to allow businesses to adapt to new systems? What is plan B?
On the trader support service, which the Minister mentioned and which is supposed to guide businesses through the complex new customs arrangements, can he confirm that the Government are not seriously considering leaving it until 21 December for that system to go live? Why have businesses had no information whatsoever on the tariff rebate system, as confirmed by the chief executive of Manufacturing NI this morning? Where is the border operator model promised by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster over summer? Without it, traders are completely in the dark on what data they will need to provide in order to move goods.
Finally, on food imports, which the Minister referenced, a compromise is now desperately needed—and the EU has a huge responsibility of its own to deliver this—in order to reduce checks that some supermarkets and food producers say could lead them to pull out of Northern Ireland altogether. It is absurd that food destined for Northern Ireland supermarkets should be considered a risk to the EU single market, so is either a temporary waiver requirement or a permanent trusted trader scheme about to be confirmed? Again, why have the Government refused to engage directly with Northern Ireland retailers?
Northern Ireland desperately—
Delivering on the protocol is a crucial part of operations for the end of the transition period. Providing certainty is urgent and we will continue to prioritise this. As we implement the protocol, it is important to keep in mind that it was designed as a way of implementing the needs of our exit from the EU in a way that works for Northern Ireland and, in particular, as the hon. Lady says, maintaining the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions—the gains of the peace process and the delicate balance across communities that explicitly depends on the consent of the people of Northern Ireland for its continued existence.
For the protocol to work, it must respect the needs of all Northern Ireland’s people, respect the fact that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the customs territory of the UK, and be implemented in a way that protects Northern Ireland’s economy. Our approach does that, focusing on implementing the protocol in a way that is flexible and proportionate, and protecting the interests of both the whole of the United Kingdom and the EU. As I have already referred to, the Government have already taken practical steps to do this, working in partnership with the devolved Administration.
The hon. Lady referred to the delivery of IT systems. I can confirm that the delivery of IT systems necessary for the end of the transition period is on track. The recent National Audit report confirms that since May, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has made progress, putting in place the core elements of the IT services required. As a responsible Government, however, we continue to make extensive preparations for a range of fall-back scenarios. We have been working with key delivery partners to support preparations for IT systems delivery, and we will continue to support their preparations for the end of the transition period.
We are reaching agreement with the EU on individual areas of approach—for instance, the phased approach to medicines that I referred to, and agreement on the process for identifying Northern Ireland traders for VAT purposes and enabling them to reclaim VAT through existing IT databases when trading in goods with the EU. However, the hon. Lady is right to reflect that there remain important outstanding issues to be resolved in discussion with the EU. For example, we are seeking, through the Joint Committee, specific solutions to supermarkets and on the classification of which goods are at genuine and substantial risk of entering the EU market. Those are still subject to discussion and need to be agreed with the EU. There are real-world consequences for businesses and consumers if they are not, which we believe would be contrary to the intentions of the protocol. We have agreed with the EU to intensify the process of engagement, to resolve all outstanding issues. These discussions are ongoing and we continue to act in good faith and in line with the approach we have adopted throughout.
The Government are committed to ensuring that businesses and communities are ready for the end of the transition period, and our intensive programme of engagement with industry has continued at pace. The business engagement forum has now met 20 times since May, and this month the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster formed a UK-wide business readiness task- force. The hon. Lady talked about the importance of supermarkets and food producers, and I can confirm to her that one of the most recent meetings was between the Secretary of State and supermarkets in the industry.
We have also made considerable progress in the provision of guidance, publishing over 25 pieces of sectoral guidance in recent weeks for moving goods between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. We will continue to work with businesses in this manner and ensure that they are provided with the guidance and support they need to be ready.
It is 43 days until 31 December and covid-hit businesses are exasperated —and I share that exasperation. Every witness the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs has heard from says that they wish to obey the rules, whatever they are. When are they going to know definitively what they have to do and how they have to do it, in order to keep themselves in business and on the right side of the law?
I absolutely recognise the concern that businesses have, which has been reflected to me and to the Secretary of State in our meetings, and their desire to have absolute certainty on this. As my hon. Friend will recognise, some of these things are still subject to ongoing negotiations with the EU; of course, I would much rather that those things had already been resolved, as I know he would. However, we want to ensure that for those things that are within our gift, we provide that certainty, and the UK Government are doing that when it comes to unfettered access. For those things that stand to be resolved, we continue to negotiate in good faith to resolve them so that we can put that information in front of businesses, but what we are doing already is progressively providing guidance where agreements have been reached. We will continue to pursue that.
I really am appalled by the lack of seriousness with which the UK Government are taking issues in Northern Ireland. We have warned about it for long enough: even this morning, this House’s Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union heard from Victor Chestnutt, the president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, who has no axe to grind politically in this. He said that we are approaching 1 January
“with both arms tied behind our back and a blindfold on.”
The other place heard last week from the Police Service of Northern Ireland that there is a real risk that there are bad men on all sides of the discussion in Northern Ireland ready to take advantage of chaos, and that internationally, we could see organised crime focusing on Northern Ireland because of the lack of preparation and uncertainty. This just is not ready yet, Minister. Northern Ireland needs an adjustment period: are preparations ready for that? Failing that, what plans are there for a relocation of police officers to Northern Ireland on a massive scale, in order to assist with such procedures as will need to be enforced because of his Government’s failure?
I simply do not recognise the picture that the hon. Gentleman paints. The protocol will ensure that many of the key issues about which his party has warned over the years are addressed with respect to the end of the transition period, and that there be no disruption at the border, as some have suggested in the past that there could be. We will absolutely deliver on that, and I am looking forward to giving evidence to the Select Committee on the issue of cross-border co-operation. I am convinced that strong co-operation to tackle crime, including organised crime, can continue between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
This morning, the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union took evidence from the Ulster Farmers’ Union, the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium and Manufacturing NI. Their message was clear: Northern Ireland businesses and the supply chain will not be ready for 1 January, because they do not know what to plan for, they do not know what goods will be identified as being at risk, and they are not confident that customs facilities, checks and software will be ready in time. As the Minister knows, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs itself says that it will not be possible to complete the necessary work by 1 January. Given the length of time the Government have had to prepare for the bits they do control, how on earth has it come to this?
I recognise the meticulous and detailed work that the right hon. Gentleman does on his Select Committee, and the importance of all those stakeholders he has mentioned. We do want to provide the certainty and the structure, and I have already given an update in my statement on IT systems and some of the support we are providing through the trader support service. However, he will recognise that some of these issues are not yet resolved due to ongoing negotiations with the EU, and I am sure he would join me and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland in urging them to work with us to resolve those in a pragmatic manner.
The very point of the protocol is to uphold the Good Friday agreement, and also to protect consumers in Northern Ireland. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister recently made this clear when they wrote to the European Union. Does my hon. Friend agree that if the EU is as serious as we are about peace, prosperity and the people of Northern Ireland, it must take a pragmatic and proportionate approach to all negotiations?
My hon. Friend is spot on. It is also important that both parties to the protocol bear in mind the wording in that protocol about protecting the everyday life of people in Northern Ireland. That is absolutely crucial to this, and it is something that we should both be working to deliver.
The Minister will be aware that the protocol enables the UK Government to act unilaterally where that is necessary to protect the economy of Northern Ireland. In relation to the single market Bill and the Finance Bill, will he assure the House that he will bring forward those proposals and measures that are necessary to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the internal market? Does he recognise that there is cross-party and cross-community support for a period of time for the implementation of those measures, to allow our businesses, supermarkets, and others to prepare properly?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly important point. He mentioned our approach to the return of the UK Internal Market Bill to the Commons and a Finance Bill later this year, and although I do not have specific control of that, I am happy to make those commitments to him and to all parties in Northern Ireland. It is crucial that we resolve these issues, and he has set out one of the most sensible ways to do that.
Does the Minister agree that the European Union’s threat to refuse to list the UK as a fit country to export food to the European Union, and the de facto ban that that would involve on transporting food between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, contravenes its duty of good faith towards the withdrawal agreement and the protocol? Will he press strongly in the Joint Committee for the EU to take the proportionate approach to sanitary and phytosanitary checks that is required of it by its international WTO obligations?
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point, and in fairness, it is right to acknowledge that some of the threat that she talks about has since been withdrawn. We must ensure that the EU meets its commitments—again, I return to the point about protecting people in Northern Ireland from the impact of the protocol on everyday life, and flows of food are incredibly important in that respect.
I congratulate the Minister on a bravura performance today. It is absolutely without parallel, and Sir Humphrey himself would be proud of what we have heard from the Dispatch Box. Essentially, he is telling us that those farmers, business organisations and everybody else who say that they are not ready for this move are wrong and that he is right. If, come January, it turns out that they are right and he is wrong, will he resign?
The right hon. Gentleman is typically charming in the way he asks his question. We all ought to focus on delivering what the protocol promised in the first place to the people of Northern Ireland and, accepting its unique circumstances, on delivering the flow of goods north, south, east and west, and protecting and respecting its place in the UK internal market. That is what businesses want, and that is what I want.
Work is continuing at pace to get Northern Irish businesses to sign up to the trader support service, but how confident is the Minister that all qualifying businesses will have signed up by the deadline? Will he consider a temporary concession for any businesses that, come January, say that—for whatever reason—they were unaware of this service, or failed to sign up in time?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting suggestion that I will happily take away and consider. Progress so far with 7,000 businesses having signed up is good, but of course we want to see more. She is right to say it is important that all businesses in Northern Ireland, particularly the many small businesses that form the backbone of the economy, are aware of this scheme, and we should continue to encourage them to sign up.
If there is no deal on data sharing with the EU by the end of the transition period, there is a real risk that health services in Ireland will not be able to carry out cross-border contact tracing. Brexit is a total mess of this Government’s making. The pandemic—covid—is a mess and a crisis made worse by this Government’s handling of it. Lives and livelihoods are at real risk because of the ineptitude of this Government. When will people in Northern Ireland have some confidence that contact tracing will be able to continue across the border?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the importance of north-south co-operation, and east-west co-operation, with the Republic of Ireland in dealing with the covid pandemic, and we should continue to support that. The UK Government are clear that we will give data adequacy to the EU, and given that all the legal instruments are in place to meet its requirements, we think there is no reason for there not to be a joint agreement on data adequacy. I hope that will be achieved in the weeks to come.
Edwin Poots, Northern Ireland’s Agriculture Minister, has made it clear that he does not believe that the new border control posts necessary to control the movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will be in place by 1 January. The Association of Freight Software Suppliers has made it clear that it does not believe that the customs declaration service will be operable by 1 January. That would be massively disruptive for businesses on both sides of the Irish sea, in Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Who will take responsibility if those who fear this is going wrong prove to be right?
I have worked closely with Minister Poots, and I recognise that he comes at this with a very different attitude to the protocol—it is not something that he necessarily wanted in the first place—but he and his Department are working pragmatically to deliver on this. We will continue to work with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to ensure that the requirements are met and that, where necessary, infrastructure is upgraded. The UK Government have offered to cover the cost of some of that, because we recognise that this relates to an international agreement for which we are responsible. With regard to customs systems, it is for the Treasury to respond on the detail, but I reiterate what I said in my statement: IT systems are on track.
Can the Minister confirm that the Irish tax authorities and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are working together to put in place common-sense arrangements that can help to address the unique issues arising from Northern Ireland’s status in both the UK and the EU customs areas? Some sensible interpretations and information sharing could avoid some of the more extreme proposals being put forward by one side or another in this debate.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting proposal. In the absence of an agreement and a deal between the UK and the EU, clearly we would need to explore everything that could be done at a bilateral level. I am not aware of those discussions as of now, but I am happy to discuss that with Treasury colleagues and write back to him if that is the case.
I am concerned that the conclusion of the Joint Committee work is being overly conflated with the future relationship negotiations. There is also an emerging issue around the loss of access to the VAT margin scheme for used cars sourced in Great Britain for sale in Northern Ireland, which entails VAT on the full value, rather than just the profit margin. Will the Minister undertake to have urgent discussions with HMRC to find a resolution to that problem?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about not conflating the future relationship with delivery of the protocol. The protocol is agreed between the parties, and we need to deliver on it in all circumstances. I think that many of us in this House hope that an agreement on the future relationship will make that more straightforward. On his point about VAT, I am happy to have those discussions with HMRC and look into that issue in more detail.
Northern Ireland will always be as much a part of our United Kingdom as my constituency, so the notion of businesses in Ulster facing barriers to trade with those in Blackpool and elsewhere is completely unacceptable. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need “flexible and imaginative solutions” around Northern Ireland to ensure that we can maintain unfettered access? Those are not my words, but those of the EU’s negotiating team.
My hon. Friend is right about the huge importance of flexible and imaginative solutions to deliver on this. That is something to which the EU is committed and the UK is absolutely committed. He is right, of course, that Northern Ireland is as much a part of this United Kingdom as his constituency.
Under this protocol, the European Union appears to have even more say on trade and services within the United Kingdom than when we were actually members of the EU. It is dictating that Northern Ireland cannot benefit from VAT margins, as already discussed. It is dictating higher food prices to Northern Ireland, which will increase poverty. Unfettered access will be hindered because of more red tape and the additional costs outlined today. Indeed, in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, we heard this morning from the Justice Minister in Northern Ireland about how she is completely out of the loop when it comes to the negotiations on how we manage criminality and justice matters. Will the Minister admit that this protocol is a complete and total disaster and that it should be set aside if it damages good business between Northern Ireland and GB? The Secretary of State previously spoke on this matter. Will he match his busting at words with busting at action?
We cannot talk about the Good Friday or Belfast agreement without thinking of my predecessor Dr Mo Mowlam, who was instrumental in achieving the agreement in 1998. Today, preventing a hard border east-west in the Irish sea is just as important as preventing one north-south on the island of Ireland. Does my hon. Friend agree that the EU must take a pragmatic and proportionate approach to any discussions to ensure continued peace and prosperity for all parts of our United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he is right to pay tribute to his constituency predecessor in this respect. The Good Friday agreement has always been a careful balance of the interests of the communities in Northern Ireland and the importance of east-west and north-south co-operation. It is vital in delivering the protocol that all parties should continue to respect that.
Peter MacSwiney, the chief executive of a customs agency, has said there is a
“totally unacceptable level of risk”
in getting the vital customs declaration service ready for 1 January and that it risks paralysing all of Northern Ireland’s trade movements. Ministers were warned in summer 2019 that industry will need a year to test, trial and implement this new system, so how can it be right, with 43 days left, that the final version has still not been delivered?
The hon. Gentleman will recognise that, when we talk about customs, the protocol is there, in part, to ensure the absence of customs requirements on goods going between GB and Northern Ireland and on goods coming from Northern Ireland into GB. It is essential that we deliver on that. His question on implementation could perhaps more appropriately be discussed with Treasury Ministers. However, I refer him to the point I made in my statement about the IT systems being on track.
For all the issues that the Government face on the protocol—caused by Brexit, it should be said—and all the concerns raised by Members in the House this afternoon, are they now tempted to agree with the comments made by their own Brexit negotiator, David Frost, who concluded in 2016 that it
“simply isn’t worth jeopardising access to the single market for the sake of global trade”?
The First Ministers wrote jointly to the EU regarding the application of the protocol, saying it was not intended to impose new costs on food for consumers in Northern Ireland. Will my hon. Friend tell the House when the First Ministers last agreed on a matter relating to Brexit?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Executive have always taken a responsible approach to working together in the interests of Northern Ireland. It says something that there is cross-community agreement on the importance of addressing this. It is therefore vital that both parties work as hard as they can to resolve the issue and make sure that the protocol delivers on what it promised about not impacting everyday life for people in Northern Ireland.
Can I say to the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) that it is not up to him whether Northern Ireland remains in the UK in perpetuity? That is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland under the Good Friday agreement.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster told the Future Relationship with the European Union Committee on 8 October that border infrastructure in Northern Ireland would be ready for exit day, but the permanent secretary in charge of the project to deliver that infra- structure in Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs has said that the project is unachievable and will not be finished until June by 2021. What is the Minister’s explanation for the difference between those two statements?
All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that we continue to work closely with DAERA both at ministerial and official level to deliver the necessary arrangements. He will recognise that we are not talking about new customs infrastructure. We are talking about an expansion of existing facilities to make sure that we can meet the SPS requirements, and I think that it is something on which we can absolutely deliver.
Assuming there was a free trade agreement, I suppose there will still have to be some checks—for example, on quality of goods—within the United Kingdom. Will the Minister reassure me that any official who works doing such minimal checks is actually British?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. The UK is responsible for the implementation of the protocol in the United Kingdom, and therefore we want to make sure that any checks and processes are streamlined and do not interfere with unfettered access for Northern Ireland goods coming into GB. Any internal checks are the responsibility of the UK Government and their employees.
I am sorry that the Prime Minister and the Minister still seem to be living in some sort of Trumpian fantasy land about the consequences of the clauses in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. I would urge them to listen to the voices on all sides in both Houses and, indeed, President-elect Biden on that issue. It is absolutely crucial that they do that.
Will the Minister give me a cast-iron guarantee that traders operating between the Welsh ports—Pembroke, Fishguard and Holyhead on Anglesey—and either the Republic of Ireland or with Northern Ireland in internal UK trade that transits the Republic of Ireland in either direction will not face any difficulties with IT systems, checks or processes come the end of the transition period?
As the hon. Member knows very well, I would love to be able to give him that cast-iron guarantee, but some of it is dependent on negotiations that are ongoing with the European Union. He is talking about trade between the UK and an EU member state. What we will ensure is that we meet our commitment to unfettered access. In that respect, I think his comments on the UKIM Bill are a little naive. We have to ensure that we can deliver on that commitment under all circumstances.
As someone who has links to South Down, can I ask my hon. Friend to assure me that everything is being done to ensure a smooth transition both for businesses and for individuals, and that we are trying to reach agreement with the EU as soon as possible?
Yes, I can give that assurance. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point to the importance for real people living in the real world in places such as South Down. We want to ensure that there is delivery on the intentions of the protocol, and that it can be seen through so that people can go about their lives and their business without having been impacted negatively.
The agrifood sector in my constituency provides some 3,000 production jobs, so it is very important. Can the Minister of State outline what specific inroads have been made on information for agrifood producers about the Northern Ireland protocol to ensure that, in six weeks’ time, their perishable valuable goods can continue their journeys in a smooth manner not only to EU countries, but to the UK mainland? Furthermore, what discussions have taken place with DAERA for that very smooth transition?
The hon. Gentleman raises a hugely important point. I have met many farmers and agrifood producers in Northern Ireland, and I recognise the crucial importance of that industry. The protocol ensures that movements of Northern Ireland produce into the European Union—into the Republic of Ireland—are protected. We deliver on the movement into the rest of the UK through our unfettered access commitment, and we continue to work very closely with DAERA on all these issues.
The Government frequently claim that Brexit will not lead to a lowering of standards on foods, medicines and rights, so presumably the resistance to agreeing a level playing field is just to have the theoretical power to lower standards. We have just been hearing how Northern Ireland is grappling with the protocol, which is, of course, a necessary consequence of Brexit. Is the risk of such deep economic damage and political instability really a price worth paying just so that this Government can have a power that they can boast about, but which they claim they are not going to use?
I recognise that the hon. Lady has strong views against our leaving the EU which she has been consistent in demonstrating. It is essential that we deliver on a protocol that is there to protect the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland, and that is absolutely what we will do.
I recently visited a manufacturer in my constituency called Thumbs Up, which highlighted its concerns about export summary declarations and their impact not only on its business, but on its customers. What work is the Department doing to maintain the frictionless and unfettered movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland to mitigate any impact on businesses such as Thumbs Up in Radcliffe?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Where British businesses are selling into Northern Ireland and the intended use of their goods is clearly in the Northern Ireland market, it is, of course, important that we do everything we can to protect them from unnecessary bureaucracy. Discussions on this issue are ongoing with the Joint Committee, and I assure him that we will do whatever is in our power to deliver that frictionless access for businesses in order to ensure that the crucial trade between Britain and Northern Ireland can continue.
There was a time when the Conservative party was proud of the fact that it was the party of business, but those days seem to be long gone: we have a situation where business is telling the Government about the problems that these arrangements will cause. Businesses need certainty and time to put in place measures to make such fundamental changes. We have a Government who seem to be passionate about the fact of Brexit, but ignorant of the facts around it. Will the Minister just come to the Dispatch Box, take seriously the concerns that have been put in front of him by a whole array of business bodies, and try to sort this out?
We absolutely take seriously the concerns of business. We are engaging with businesses all the time on this and we want to deliver for them. One of the key concerns is the delivery of unfettered access. That is one of the issues on which businesses in Northern Ireland have repeatedly pressed me and my colleagues. The hon. Gentleman’s party is currently failing to support that in its approach to the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill.
Any assistance by the EU on the need for export summary declarations for goods moving from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK would not only be contrary to the Good Friday agreement and the 1800 Acts of Union, but would fly in the face of the clear commitment in the withdrawal agreement to ensure unfettered access to such movement. Will my hon. Friend ensure that this unfettered access is protected in all circumstances, whether or not we conclude a trade agreement with the European Union?
What assessment has the Minister made of the remarks of Northern Ireland’s chief veterinary officer, who has said that it would be impossible to check all food products after exit day given that construction has not even begun on any of the three new border control posts in Northern Ireland? What contingency plans are being put in place for SPS controls for goods entering Northern Ireland from GB, specifically if there is no waiver or no phased implementation from 1 January?
It is not my role to make assessments of officials, but let me be clear that we are working with DAERA on delivery of these SPS checks. We are talking not about building totally new infrastructure, but upgrading existing arrangements. As the hon. Member will know, there are already arrangements in place in some respects between Great Britain and Northern Ireland to protect the single epidemiological unit of the island of Ireland. Work is continuing, and we will continue to work hand in hand with DAERA and its officials to deliver it.
My hon. Friend is right to point out that it is crucial that the UK should be able to determine how goods move within its own customs area and internal market. That is why we have taken the steps that we have in respect of the UK internal market to make sure that we have a fall-back and an absolute guarantee that we can deliver unfettered access. I am hopeful that we will be able to reach agreement with the EU on the outstanding issues, and we continue to negotiate in good faith in order to do so and to make sure that unfettered access, as was envisaged in the protocol, is delivered.
Notwithstanding the fact that the abilities of this Government are clearly quite limited, will the Minister outline specifically how he expects this Government to make trade deals with the likes of the United States while simultaneously seeking to break international law in respect of the Northern Ireland protocol and putting at risk the Good Friday agreement?
I have been clear on our intention to deliver on the protocol and to meet both our international commitments and our commitments to the people of Northern Ireland in that regard. Indeed, we have already discussed in these exchanges the fact that the protocol is there to protect the Good Friday agreement and the peace arrangements. That is exactly what the US Government have urged us to do, and we shall continue to discuss with them how we are absolutely determined to protect the peace process.
The recent focus on the Northern Ireland protocol has not just raised questions about our commitment to uphold international law but shone a light on our wider commitment to play a more influential role on the international stage. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, when it comes to re-establishing greater western resolve, 2021 could be a big year for the United Kingdom, as we host COP26 and take on the presidency of the G7, but that that can happen only if we secure a trade deal with the EU, protect our overseas aid budget, complete a costed integrated review and bury the myth that we might consider deliberately breaching international law?
My right hon. Friend is very kind not only to promote me to right hon. but to try to give me responsibility for things way beyond my brief. The UK has a vital role to play on the international scene and it is vital that we meet our commitments with regard to the protocol, which I believe we will do.
The Minister has assured us that he wants the Government to meet their international commitments, their commitments to the Northern Ireland protocol and their commitments to the Good Friday agreement, and to maintain their relationship with the United States. Will he tell us, then, what the Government have done in reconsidering their position since President-elect Biden has made it absolutely clear that he is not happy with the current situation and that that will be taken into account in any trade talks once he enters the White House in January?
Although, again, I am not responsible for trade negotiations or the relationship with the United States, I recognise that the United States is a crucial investor and partner in Northern Ireland: more than almost any other country, it has invested in the peace process and provided jobs and prosperity in Northern Ireland. We should continue to support that, to work closely with the United States and to make absolutely clear to them our determination to support the peace process and the Good Friday agreement, part of the principles of which the protocol is delivering in terms of the importance of both east-west and north-south arrangements.
The protocol anticipates progress by the Joint Committee on the issue of fisheries relating to Northern Ireland and Ireland; what assurances does the Minister anticipate will be forthcoming on the future relationship that will ensure that UK boats that land fish and shellfish in Northern Ireland will not be subject to tariffs, customs demands or other technical impediments?
My right hon. Friend raises an important point. We will pursue specific solutions for Great Britain vessels with the EU separately. The approach to landing for GB vessels in Northern Ireland is linked to, but not subject to, ongoing discussions with the EU regarding Northern Ireland landings for Northern Ireland vessels within the Joint Committee process.
When I was a shadow Transport Minister, I debated the significant risk of documentation, IT infrastructure and systems not being ready at the end of the transition period. My concerns were dismissed, but here we are in a state of chaos, 43 days before we leave the current arrangements. Further to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), in light of the fact that the Northern Ireland Department for the Economy has said that 20% of Northern Ireland trade with Great Britain transits via Dublin port, what facilitations are the UK planning to ensure unfettered access for Northern Ireland goods arriving into Holyhead from Dublin port?
The hon. Lady raises an important point, and we want to ensure that all Northern Ireland goods that are coming to GB to be used in GB can have that unfettered access. This is still subject to discussions with the EU, and we would hope to make progress on that front, but in the meantime we are delivering on our commitments legislatively through bringing forward the statutory instrument on the definition of Northern Ireland qualifying goods. That will be the first stage in a process to make sure that all Northern Ireland qualifying goods can enjoy unfettered access to the rest of the UK.
The SNP is always seeking to exploit this issue just to further its separatist agenda. Does my hon. Friend agree that the SNP should welcome the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, which will protect over half a million jobs in Scotland that rely on trade with the rest of the UK, particularly north-east England?
My hon. Friend is right that Scotland, like Northern Ireland, benefits enormously from its trade with the rest of the United Kingdom. It is incumbent on Members from all parts of the House to work together to make sure that we protect and increase that trade.
Will the Minister confirm that the vital trader support service, desperately needed to remove the burden on businesses from custom checks, will launch only on 21 December? Does he accept that leaving seven working days is an insult to businesses whose livelihoods depend on this system working seamlessly?
The service is already signing businesses up, and as I said earlier, more than 7,000 businesses across Great Britain and Northern Ireland have signed up so far. We are seeing hundreds more registrations every day, so I do not recognise the point that the hon. Lady makes, but it is vital that the service is in place for the end of the transition period and the beginning of the new arrangements, and it is vital that it reaches as many businesses as it possibly can.
There are concerns that the end of the margin scheme could destroy the Northern Irish second-hand car market because VAT would then have to be paid on the full purchase price of cars from GB, not just the profit. Does the Minister think that we can expect this to be resolved during negotiations, or if not, what impact does he think that it will have on the car market in Northern Ireland?
Will my hon. Friend update the House and clarify for us what the position will be on live animal exports from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland, and from Northern Ireland to the rest of Great Britain, following 1 January?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We want to ensure—and the protocol will ensure—that animals can continue to move between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. That is important and reflects existing patterns of trade between the two. With regard to goods coming from Northern Ireland into Great Britain, we of course want to make sure that we provide unfettered access for Northern Ireland qualifying goods, and the definition of that is the crux of my hon. Friend’s question. That is an issue on which we continue to work closely with the agriculture and agrifood industry.
The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee was today warned by Aodhán Connolly and Stephen Kelly, who represent sectors of business in Northern Ireland, of the great difficulties that their sectors are going to face. Ironically, both gentlemen are partly to blame for the restrictions that they are now complaining about, because they led the charge in propagating the mythical problems that will exist across the Irish border after Brexit. Will the Minister give us an assurance that if the EU insists on its interpretation of the withdrawal agreement—which will disrupt food supplies, supplies to farmers and supplies to manufacturers in Northern Ireland—as it is entitled to under article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, the Government will act unilaterally to protect the Northern Ireland economy and Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the concerns of those businesses. We share those concerns and we want to resolve them through the Joint Committee, but as he knows, and as we have shown through the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, where we need to take steps to protect our commitment to unfettered access and the UK internal market, we will.
With over 25 years of working, living and breathing importing and exporting, I understand the importance of protecting the unfettered access between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I thank the Minister for his guarantee that it will be protected. Does he agree that all the naysayers do is bring uncertainty to businesses and local economies, and that they need to get on board with the fact that unfettered access will be protected by the UK Government?
If anything will be disastrous for devolution, it is the Government’s United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, but the Minister does not seem to get the point put to him by several Members. How is the Government’s determination to reinstate the clauses that allow them to break international law compatible with the assurance that the Prime Minister gave President-elect Biden that he would not allow Brexit to undermine the Good Friday agreement?
Absolutely explicitly, there is nothing in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill that in any way contradicts the Good Friday agreement or our delivery on it. We want to ensure that we can protect the unfettered access to the rest of the UK on which the Northern Ireland economy depends. That is something that the hon. Member and his party should be working with us to deliver.
I thank the Minister for his answers. Perhaps if we were having this question in a week’s time, we would have some more clarity, because the negotiations are clearly moving to a conclusion. We all hope it will be a successful one. While I recognise that the Minister cannot comment on the details, will he confirm that any permanent EU presence in Northern Ireland will be resisted by the Government and that, while the Commission will have rights of supervision, all checks on agrifood entering Northern Ireland will be conducted by British authorities?
I confirm to my hon. Friend that this is something on which we have taken a clear position in the UK-EU Joint Committee. It is for the UK to implement the protocol. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), the details of that implementation should be for UK officials, employees of the UK Government and their partners in the devolved Administrations, not for the EU.
I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for seeking the urgent question. As it draws to a close, the questions remain many, yet the answers are few. I make no apology for raising again the VAT margins issue raised on three occasions thus far. With 43 days to go, it simply is not good enough for the Minister to say that he will now have a conversation with HMRC and the Treasury. Will he commit today that, if this issue is not resolved in the overarching agreements with the European Union, the Government will rectify it through a finance Bill?
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is in fact because of the necessary measures brought forward by the Government in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill that there will be legal certainty around the integrity of our Union at the end of the transition and not, as Opposition Members have argued, the other way round?
Yes, I wholly agree. It is crucial that we provide that certainty. I have heard time and time again from Northern Ireland businesses about the importance of that certainty to their biggest single market: the rest of the UK. We must deliver on that as we deliver on the wider protocol.