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UK-EU Future Relationship: Businesses

Volume 685: debated on Wednesday 2 December 2020

What assessment he has made of the effect on businesses in Northern Ireland of negotiations on the future relationship between the UK and the EU. (909535)

We want a relationship with the European Union that is based on friendly co-operation between sovereign equals and centred on free trade. We will have a relationship with our European friends—one that is inspired by our shared history and values. The whole of the United Kingdom, including, of course, Northern Ireland, stands to benefit from such a trading relationship with the European Union. In fact, Northern Ireland businesses have a huge potential under the Northern Ireland protocol, and of course Northern Ireland will continue to enjoy tariff-free access to the EU market, alongside unfettered access to the whole of the UK.

I hope you are well, Mr Speaker.

Scotland is the largest exporter of seed potatoes in the single market. It is a product on which a great many Northern Irish potato farmers rely. This has been placed under threat by the lack of equivalence between the UK and the EU after the transition period. When will the Minister confirm a date on our attaining equivalence on seed products? If he cannot give us a date, is that not more evidence that the Government do not care about Scotland’s farming communities?

Actually, it is quite the contrary.  The hon. Gentleman can look at the delivery of money last week, for farmers particularly. That is evidence of the Government’s determination to deliver on our commitment to, and our understanding of the importance of, the agriculture and farming community across the United Kingdom, with £315 million going to Northern Ireland farmers. Through the Joint Committee, we are working with the European Union on some of these final issues to ensure that we do have that free flow. We have been saying to our partners and colleagues in the EU that they need to play their part in being pragmatic about ensuring that we continue to see that sensible free flow of trade across the United Kingdom, as a sovereign nation.

You look well, Mr Speaker.

The Secretary of State will recognise the importance to Northern Ireland businesses of getting agreement on the classification of qualifying goods and qualifying businesses as they relate to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland within the UK single market. What progress has been made on securing such agreement and on defining at-risk goods, and what measures will the Government bring forward in legislation to ensure that Northern Ireland businesses really do have unfettered access to the UK internal market?

I should put it on record that I also think you look well, Mr Speaker.

On an equally serious note, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, this Government are committed to ensuring that Northern Ireland businesses have unfettered access to the rest of the United Kingdom. That is why we have taken the steps that we have taken in legislating for the first phase of unfettered access; that is what those clauses in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill are for. We are building on and learning from the discussions that we have had with businesses and the Northern Ireland Executive. We are pushing hard to secure agreement with the EU on a number of outstanding issues that relate to the protocol, including that of at-risk goods. We accept that tariffs should be paid on goods moving from Great Britain into the EU, but there should not be any tariffs on internal UK movements that begin in Great Britain and end in Northern Ireland; they are internal movements. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will understand that I am not able to comment on the progress of the negotiations, although we are keen to move through them as quickly as possible. I reassure him that we are focused on those issues and are determined to deliver in full on our commitments to the people of Northern Ireland.

I thank the Secretary of State for that helpful response. I am sure that he will agree that those who talk loudly about the Good Friday agreement are the people who are threatening the economic prosperity of Northern Ireland by insisting on measures that are completely unnecessary in terms of protecting the agreement. Will he therefore indicate what progress has been made in securing a commitment from the EU to a significant grace period to allow Northern Ireland businesses sufficient time to adjust to the new arrangements that will be introduced when the transition period ends on 31 December?

The right hon. Gentleman identifies, quite rightly, the importance of ensuring that there is no border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We have accepted the sanitary and phytosanitary checks. We are working with the EU, and both the UK and EU have committed to that intensified process, as colleagues will have seen, and to resolving all outstanding issues with the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, including securing the flexibilities that we need for trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

As I said, the discussions are ongoing. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will continue to understand that I am limited in what I can say as I do not want to pre-empt the outcome of those discussions, but we continue to work closely with the Northern Ireland Executive around the practical implications and operational delivery. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been working with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland, and with industry, traders, representative bodies and local authorities to ensure that they are engaged, supported and ready for trading from January 2021. I encourage any business that has not already done so to sign up free with the Trader Support Service.

The Secretary of State will know of the anger among Northern Irish businesspeople over the accusation by the ironically titled Minister for Efficiency and Transformation that they have their

“head stuck in the sand”

on Brexit. Only 30 days from the hard Brexit cliff edge, does the Secretary of State appreciate that most people will have far more sympathy with Northern Irish businessman, Stephen Kelly, who suggests that it is the Government who have their “head stuck somewhere else”? Is it not the case that Northern Ireland businesses have simply been an afterthought in his Government’s chaotic hard Brexit?

If only the hon. Lady was talking to Northern Ireland businesses directly, as my team and I do regularly, most weeks. The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), also engages with businesses in Northern Ireland, as we have been doing consistently throughout this process—including Stephen Kelly, who I do know. It is the information from businesses that fed into the Command Paper that we issued earlier in the year, as well as the guidance that we issued and the work that we are doing to ensure not just that we have unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to mainland Great Britain—I hope that she and other colleagues will support us in ensuring that it is in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill to deliver unfettered access, which she claims in her question to support—but also that we get a good free flow of access to ensure that the whole UK internal market can work together, including Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Given the fact that the Secretary of State has already admitted that the clauses removed by the Lords from the UK Internal Market Bill will break international law, and that the Irish Government, the new US President-elect and the people of Northern Ireland believe that those clauses breach the Northern Ireland protocol, will he commit today to not reinstating them in the Bill next week?

Actually, what those clauses have been about is ensuring that we have unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to Great Britain. That is something inherent in the protocol. It plays a part in delivering on one of the key sentences in the first few paragraphs in the Northern Ireland protocol that says we will ensure that we do not disrupt the everyday lives of people in their communities. I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman would support us in ensuring the Northern Ireland businesses can trade in mainland Great Britain as part of the United Kingdom. That is what those clauses are about, as an insurance policy, but obviously our main focus and aim is to secure the right agreement for a wider free trade agreement with the EU, and, indeed, to work with the specialist Joint Committee.