(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office if he will make a statement on the disruption to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland as a result of the Northern Ireland protocol.
I am grateful for the chance to update the House on the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol. The protocol exists to recognise Northern Ireland’s unique position as the only part of our United Kingdom to have a land border with the EU. It was designed to ensure that no customs infrastructure is needed between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, while protecting unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the rest of the UK market and the gains of the peace process and, of course, respecting Northern Ireland’s position as an absolutely integral part of the United Kingdom.
As with any new trading arrangement, the protocol undoubtedly generates challenges as well as providing solutions. The Government are committed to addressing those challenges by providing pragmatic solutions to any problems that arise and working with the Northern Ireland Executive in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland.
UK Government Ministers are in daily contact with Ministers in the Executive, and with businesses in Northern Ireland and Great Britain, to ensure the effective operation of the protocol. Inevitably, the impact of covid and the steps taken by the French Government at their border have affected retail businesses across the United Kingdom, but it is important to stress that freight volumes into Northern Ireland’s ports are at normal levels for this time of year. There have been no significant queues, and supermarkets are now generally reporting healthy deliveries of supplies into Northern Ireland.
None the less, the new processes that the protocol asks of businesses that are moving goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland require the Government to do more. We are working with companies across Great Britain to help them understand the new requirements for moving goods, and the extensive Government support includes the trader support service, to which more than 25,000 businesses are now signed up, yet we know that still more needs to be done.
That is why we are stepping up direct engagement with suppliers to ensure they have access to the realtime guidance they need, and we are also working closely with industry to address specific problems of moving mixed food loads from Great Britain to Northern Ireland through the process known as groupage. In the coming days, the Government will issue new guidance on the practical mitigations that have been developed with industry to enable this important practice to continue and to support hauliers and suppliers.
We also recognise that a number of hauliers have been affected by significant issues at Dublin port. We welcome the easements that have been introduced by the Irish Government, but movements via Dublin are substantially lower than normal, so we have to intensify our engagement with the Irish authorities.
More broadly, the grace periods for supermarkets and their suppliers are now working well, but we are already planning for the streamlined replacements that will follow. A dedicated team within DEFRA, working with the Cabinet Office, is also in touch with the industry to promote readiness, supported by new specific Government funding.
Ultimately, the future of the protocol is in the hands of Northern Ireland’s people, and its renewal is a question of democratic consent. The responsibility of this Government is to ensure that it operates in an effective, legal and pragmatic way, and that is the spirit in which we approach its implementation.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to put this urgent question. I thank the Minister for his response. He has sought to address a number of the issues that I wish to raise. I have to say to him, however, that the difficulties encountered by Northern Ireland consumers and businesses may be greater than he recognises. I am still being contacted by constituents who are finding it difficult to order online items from Great Britain. There are many parcel companies and others that will not deliver to Northern Ireland and will not even accept orders from Northern Ireland as a result of the Northern Ireland protocol.
Businesses in Northern Ireland are also having difficulty ordering spare parts for equipment and importing raw materials. Just this week, our steel manufacturers in Northern Ireland have been informed that they face a 25% tariff on some steel imports as a direct result of the Northern Ireland protocol, because we cannot align with the UK quota on that.
Consumers continue to face difficulties in supermarkets. It is not the case that all supermarket shelves are fully stocked. Yesterday, we met some of the main supply chain people in Northern Ireland, who talk of ongoing difficulties in bringing goods in from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Those issues need to be resolved.
The Minister referred to haulage and specifically groupage. I welcome his commitment to find a practical solution to that with DEFRA. We need to continue to work on that, because we have seen at least 40% of hauliers returning to Northern Ireland with empty trailers because of the Northern Ireland protocol and its impact. Although the trader support scheme is welcome, more needs to be done to inform and assist businesses in Great Britain about the operation of the protocol and how they can continue to send goods into Northern Ireland, because our experience is that that is clearly not well understood.
What do we need the Government to do? We need immediate intervention on this matter. It is important for our economy. It is having an impact on the economy of Northern Ireland and, in some instances, it is resulting in a diversion of trade, so we need steps to be taken to address what is becoming a cliff edge at the end of March for our supermarkets and others. I welcome what the Minister has said about the ongoing discussions, but we need an assurance that it will be resolved before the end of March or that the grace period will be extended further. We also need to ensure that hauliers get the support they need and that we find practical solutions to the whole question of groupage. Above all else—
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising those issues. Members of Parliament from across Northern Ireland, representing all parties, and indeed Members of the Assembly and Northern Ireland businesses, have been in touch directly with me and others to provide detailed information about the challenges that individual companies face. We are grateful for that, because we want to do everything that we can to resolve those problems.
On the specific questions that the right hon. Gentleman raises, there have been some online sales organisations that temporarily paused the distribution of goods to Northern Ireland, but the majority of parcel distributors continue to distribute goods. We are working with those who have paused—a small number, admittedly—to ensure that they resume normal service. It is important to recognise, as he pointed out, that although Northern Ireland’s businesses have been well prepared for the protocol, there are businesses sited in Great Britain, which operate in Northern Ireland, that we need to work more closely with to acquaint them with the guidance to provide the necessary reassurance.
The right hon. Gentleman made a point about steel tariffs; those tariffs would provisionally apply only to steel from the rest of the world, not to steel from Britain or the EU entering Northern Ireland, but we are looking at ways in which we can provide, through either the quotas or appropriate rebates, an automatic guarantee that businesses will not pay those tariffs for the steel that they need.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the concern that customers have had about the shortage of specific goods in supermarkets. There was initial disruption, but I am pleased to say that Andrew Opie of the British Retail Consortium confirmed earlier today to the Future Relationship with the European Union Committee that those shortages have now been overcome, pretty much. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, though, that we need to make sure that we have a sustainable approach for the end of the grace period at the end of March, and I will be working with Helen Dickinson of the BRC, and others, to do just that.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned some of the difficulties that businesses have had with the trader support service; 95% of queries have been answered within 15 minutes, but we still must do better in order to ensure that every business gets the support that it needs. I have been in touch with the Road Haulage Association and Logistics UK to deal with some of the specific problems that hauliers face, and we are contemplating what more might be required to support them.
On one final point, I know that the right hon. Gentleman and a number of other Members have been deeply concerned about the operation of additional VAT costs on second-hand vehicles being sold in Northern Ireland. I can confirm today that Her Majesty’s Treasury and HMRC will reinstate a margin scheme in order to ensure that Northern Ireland customers need pay no more than those in any other part of the United Kingdom.
Will my right hon. Friend introduce urgent legislation to ensure the smooth flow of goods between Northern Ireland and GB? Is it not crucial to our Union, in respect of both Northern Ireland and Scotland, that the Government keep their promise to take control of our laws and borders and to demonstrate a more prosperous internal market for the whole UK?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We want, first of all, to make sure that we are doing everything technically and administratively in order to ensure the smooth flow of goods but, as the Prime Minister confirmed to the House earlier, if we need to take further legal steps, then of course we will.
The disruption to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is serious and it is unacceptable. We have seen the empty supermarket shelves, the lorries from Northern Ireland that have been stuck in Britain or that are returning empty, and the unnecessary checks on everything from guide dogs to people moving house. These problems were foreseen time and again in this House and elsewhere and they are, I am afraid to say, the inevitable consequence of the Government’s shambolic preparations for the protocol and the last-minute guidance given to business.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has acknowledged that British business was not prepared for the changes to the trading relationship—and little wonder, when the main Brexit advert running in Britain does not mention Northern Ireland at all, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland sends tweets denying that there is a border of any description, and the Prime Minister just claimed that there was no disruption whatsoever. This denialism is incredibly frustrating to those dealing with the consequences of this Government’s actions.
Although the protocol is far from perfect, it must be made to work, so I would be grateful if the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster could set out what explicit steps he is taking to support British businesses, and how many British-based businesses have accessed the trader support service. Will he set out the plan for the Joint Committee to resolve the many outstanding issues, and how he will avoid the cliff-edges to the grace periods in April and July? Will he confirm whether any easements have been sought with his counterparts on sanitary and phytosanitary or customs checks?
Of utmost importance to us today is that the protocol explicitly commits all parties to ensure that it impacts as little as possible on the everyday life of communities in Northern Ireland. As it stands, those communities are currently facing shortages and price rises, which will only get worse unless the Government are honest about the challenges that we face, engage with business and take the urgent action that is required.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for all the points that she raises; they are all legitimate. It is important, of course, to recognise that some of the problems that were identified in the very first few days of the operation of the protocol have been addressed. As I mentioned, Andrew Opie of the British Retail Consortium explained to the FREU Committee earlier today that the supply of goods to supermarket shelves is now pretty much as normal. It is also important to recall that, as the Prime Minister stated earlier, no trucks have been turned away and that we now have normal traffic for this time of year. But the hon. Lady is right to say that there are and will remain challenges that it is the Government’s responsibility to address.
The hon. Lady asked specifically about engagement with the trader support service. As I mentioned earlier, more than 25,000 businesses have engaged with TSS, but there is more that the Government must do to ensure that all businesses are acquainted with the new procedures that the protocol requires and that our departure from the European Union requires when it comes to trade across the short straits.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right: the protocol should impact as little as possible on the lives of the citizens of Northern Ireland. That is why I will be working not just with businesses and representatives in Northern Ireland, but through the Joint Committee to ensure that we have a pragmatic approach towards grace periods and the operation of the protocol, because we want to make sure that the citizens of Northern Ireland, who are integrally part of the United Kingdom, are valued in the same way as her own constituents and mine are by everyone in this House.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s remarks. I particularly welcome the confidence that he is planning to give to UK businesses to continue to trade in Northern Ireland—a fantastic base for their products and services. Will he confirm that the protocol is a joint UK-EU responsibility and, in that light, will he look at setting up immediately the joint working group, beneath the Joint Committee, and also use his negotiating talents and the relationships that he built up last year in completing the protocol to make 2021 a grace period for supermarkets in Northern Ireland? I think the EU will be up for that deal, so let us make it happen.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. No one has better negotiating skills than him. We remember that it is almost a year to the day since the “New Decade, New Approach” agreement was concluded, which restored democratic government to Northern Ireland. That was secured thanks to his leadership as a superb former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that the protocol is a joint responsibility and I will be talking to my colleagues in the Commission as well as to representatives of the Government in Dublin to ensure that we do everything possible to smooth life for citizens of Northern Ireland. He is absolutely right: it is a wonderful place in which to live and to do business, and in this year of all years we must do everything possible to support the citizens of Northern Ireland.
Having lectured businesses for months about being prepared, it seems that the UK Government themselves have failed to prepare for this hard Brexit. When the Minister promised Northern Ireland the best of both worlds in trade, I wonder whether he envisaged lorries trapped in red tape at a border that he and the Secretary of State have claimed does not exist.
Does the Minister accept that businesses are facing greater uncertainty and greater administrative burdens than promised? Will he explain what is being done to help Northern Ireland hauliers and facilitate groupage? Can he explain why Scottish Government warnings over the need for greater flexibility on grace periods are being ignored? That is particularly vexing considering the democratic outrage at the disregarding throughout of Scotland’s position.
Does the Minister acknowledge the difficulties being caused for businesses, consumers and communities in Northern Ireland, just like the grave damage being done to the Scottish seafood and food and drink industries among others, and what will he do to resolve these issues? Finally, will he commit the UK Government to working with all the devolved Administrations to address the damage being done to businesses across the UK?
I thank the hon. Lady for her points. It is important to stress that no lorries have been trapped in red tape. Lorries have been able to get into Northern Ireland without let or hindrance, which is why, as I mentioned earlier, Andrew Opie pointed out that supplies on supermarket shelves are as they should be. However, she is right to raise the question of groupage. It is a specific issue that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Cabinet Office are seeking to resolve when there are mixed loads from a number of different locations, all of which require appropriate SBS certification. We will be coming forward with proposals to address that specific problem in due course.
The hon. Lady is right to raise the specific issue of seafood supplies. Owing to their perishable nature, it is absolutely vital that we ensure the smoothest possible access to European and other markets. I am very grateful for the constructive approach that has been taken by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) who, unlike those in the SNP, has come forward with some specific pragmatic solutions to this issue.
The final thing I would say is that, although many of the hon. Lady’s points are legitimate, as I mentioned, I cannot help reflecting that there is a certain irony in the Scottish National party complaining about barriers to trade within the United Kingdom when its signature policy, which it is pursuing even at this time of covid, is to erect new trade barriers within the United Kingdom and, indeed, to impoverish Scotland’s people. I know that that is not what she wants, but it would be the effect of her policies.
Is this chiefly an issue of valid applicability of the protocol, or over-zealous—and perhaps erroneous—interpretation? If it is the former, when will my right hon. Friend take steps to address it with our European counterparts? If it is the latter, what will the Government do to better explain what hauliers and others in the industry can do to follow the rules and get it right?
The truth is that it is a combination of factors. The first and most important thing is to make sure that all businesses, particularly businesses in Great Britain that trade and do business in Northern Ireland, understand what is required of them. That responsibility rests on my shoulders and on the Government’s; that is the first and the single most important item. The second thing, as my hon. Friend quite rightly points out, is not so much that there is an over-zealous application—for example, by the Northern Ireland Executive—but that there is, in the way in which some of the rules apply, a rigidity, which we need to address. That is why we are taking the action that we are—for example on VAT, on steel imports and on groupage.
The right hon. Gentleman has received a letter from the big supermarkets warning of the risk of further disruption to Northern Ireland food supplies from April, and this morning the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union heard evidence from the British Retail Consortium that unless there are changes, the system will not be workable for supermarkets. Of course, he cannot guarantee that the current three-month grace period—in which, for example, export health certificates are not required—will be extended, because that is a matter for the Joint Committee. What will happen if it is not extended? What would that mean for choice and prices for consumers in Northern Ireland?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. As I mentioned earlier, I am grateful to his Select Committee for the exchanges with Andrew Opie, which provided reassurance about the operation of the protocol at the moment, but he is right to raise the letter that was sent to me by Helen Dickinson of the British Retail Consortium on behalf of a range of supermarkets. We are working intensively with those supermarkets and the Commission to address the problems. So far in my experience, Maroš Šefčovič, the Vice-President of the Commission, has always taken a pragmatic approach. As the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) reminded us, it is the responsibility of both the UK and the EU to ensure that the protocol impacts as little as possible on the lives of Northern Ireland citizens.
Given that almost 100% of the Republic’s roll-on roll-off lorry traffic to the rest of the EU travels through GB, how many of these problems have actually been caused by the protocol, or have they instead been caused by the French closure of trade across the short straits and the problems that my right hon. Friend identified at Dublin port?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. There have been problems at Dublin port, and the Irish Government have responded to concerns and introduced easements. His first point is an even more important one. I do not want to shift any responsibility away from my own shoulders and those of my colleagues in dealing with specific protocol issues, but he is absolutely right; covid—and, in particular, the French Government’s understandable but robust response to it—has affected trade overall. It is important that we put that into the picture in order to provide the necessary context.
I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that I have lost count of the number of occasions on which he has stood at the Dispatch Box and given us all sorts of assurances that there would be no barriers to the free movement of goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. It gives me no pleasure to reflect that that is manifestly now not the case. We do at least, though, have a grace period to get things right, and it is up to the right hon. Gentleman to ensure that that happens. Will he confirm whether the changes to groupage regulation to which he referred will also be effective for traders exporting from the rest of the United Kingdom to the European Union, especially for seafood exporters? And while he is at it, why did we not have a grace period for exporters of perishable goods such as seafood? Surely that would have been sensible—with the benefit of hindsight, at least.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his points. It is important to stress first that it is the case that there is unfettered access for goods going from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. The new processes that the protocol has created are about trade from Great Britain into Northern Ireland, and it is those specific challenges that we are addressing at the moment.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a point about groupage that is entirely right. Our response to the challenges faced by hauliers and traders must be one that works not just for access to Northern Ireland but for access to the rest of the EU. It applies particularly to those who are responsible for perishable goods, including the many outstanding companies in his constituency which, thanks to his kindness, I have had a chance to talk to about the challenges and opportunities of Brexit. On his final point about hindsight, let us wait and see for a wee while yet before we can all definitively say what has been successful and what has not.
I join my colleagues in thanking my right hon. Friend and his team for all the work they have done to secure a deal for the UK, which of course includes the residents and businesses of Northern Ireland. Many pressing operational considerations arise from that deal, but the withdrawal agreement was never intended as a final word. Indeed, an alternative arrangements commission reported favourably to Government in September 2019 on alternative deliverable measures. What progress are the Government making towards the delivery of alternative arrangements and any other complementary approaches, such as mutual enforcement?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Few people in this House are doing as much as he is doing at the moment to uphold the integrity of our United Kingdom. He is right that much work was done before the withdrawal agreement on different ways of resolving the challenges that we face on the island of Ireland, and some of those most intimately involved in that work, such as the distinguished trade expert Shanker Singham, are now involved in making sure that the trader support service delivers. He is also right that we will have to keep constantly under review, while respecting our legal obligations under the protocol, what more we can do to make sure that businesses in Northern Ireland can flourish and prosper.
People living in Northern Ireland—those living with the consequences of this protocol—will be amazed at the complacency that the Government have shown as to the economic damage that has been done by the wrecking ball of the protocol. This week, the Chancellor indicated that he had seen no problems. The Prime Minister has said that there are no problems. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland says that there is no border in the Irish sea. And yet my constituents are bringing me hundreds of examples on a daily basis of goods that they are denied by suppliers and of additional costs. We see empty supermarket shelves, lorries are being delayed for long periods and people cannot even move their furniture from a house in England to Northern Ireland. Will the Minister explain why the Irish Government could take immediate action to set aside some of the requirements of the protocol and the EU requirements, and yet our Government are still insisting that they have to obey the full legality of the protocol?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising these issues. I should stress that the Government are seeking to acknowledge that there are challenges but that some of those challenges are being overcome by good working by Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive and by businesses. As I mentioned earlier, some of the initial disruption in the first few days to supermarket supplies has now effectively been addressed, but there are a number of other issues that we are working through. I know that the right hon. Gentleman will, as other members of his party have been doing, be giving me granular information on precisely which businesses may have suffered from disruption, so that we can immediately act to support them and deal with any of the problems that they have identified. I look forward to carrying on that conversation.
I am afraid that this is an amplification of what the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) raised. The Minister is clearly aware of issues affecting GB to NI traffic, which I consider to be contrary to the guarantee of unfettered access in the Northern Ireland protocol, the Good Friday agreement and, indeed, the Act of Union. As he just heard, the Republic of Ireland is sensibly using a light-touch approach, but it seems that our HMRC is enforcing draconian customs measures on people simply trying to move home. Can he please ensure that HMRC does not gold-plate rules, that it acts sensibly and that the Joint Committee solves these issues forthwith?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I should say that colleagues in HMRC and other Government Departments have been working hard to meet the new requirements of the protocol, but I will be vigilant, and I know my colleagues will, for any unintentional inflexibility or gold-plating of any of these rules. That is why I am so grateful to him and others for bringing specific examples to my attention, because then we can act as an administrative Dyno-Rod in order to clear these blockages.
On 30 September, the Northern Ireland Secretary acknowledged to me in the House that there were going to be checks in Northern Ireland, but on 1 January he tweeted:
“There is no ‘Irish Sea Border’.”
Is not this default position of denial, denial, denial by Ministers hampering businesses in dealing with the reality of new checks and failing, failing, failing the people of Northern Ireland?
Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that we have to keep faith with the Northern Ireland protocol, which—long term—shows every sign of benefiting Northern Ireland in its commercial neighbourhood? Will he, however, signal early on to the Joint Committee our willingness to extend the grace period for food, noting the highly pragmatic easement that Dublin has applied? Long term, will he deal with the nonsense—the bureaucratic nonsense—of requiring highly qualified veterinary surgeons to do basic routine sanitary checks?
Very good points. It is in the interests of the European Union to make the protocol work because, as I mentioned earlier, it is subject to democratic consent, and if it is not working then the people of Northern Ireland will reject it, but it is important. It is my responsibility, in the meantime, to do everything possible to make the lives of people in Northern Ireland easier, and my right hon. Friend’s points both about easements and grace periods I entirely endorse.
The SDLP certainly did not wish for Brexit or its consequences, but in the interests of consumers and businesses we are working very hard to ensure that the protocol operates successfully. People here find it very difficult to listen to those Members who campaigned for Brexit and blocked every single alternative, and who explicitly said they do not care what the circumstances are so long as we are out of the EU.
Will the Minister take this opportunity to confirm that further disruption is not the answer and that he will not agree to the DUP’s reckless calls to trigger article 16 and end the protocol? While people here find it very difficult to know what they can believe from the Government, will he commit to close working with the EU, business groups and, indeed, the dedicated Cabinet Office working group to ensure we do not face a further cliff edge at the start of April?
I quite agree with the hon. Lady that we do need to work very closely to provide against the eventuality of the cliff edge she mentions. I should also say, however, that article 16 is part of the protocol, and it is there should circumstances require it, as the Prime Minister pointed out earlier.
The other thing I would say is that I do not believe that any member of my party has been reckless in their position on maintaining the integrity of the United Kingdom. That is absolutely what we have sought to do throughout. The protocol is a means of doing that, but of course we must work to make sure that it operates effectively every day.
Can the Minister confirm that anyone wanting to take personal goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will not be restricted in any way, and will he make sure that HMRC actually understands that that is an integral part of the Northern Ireland protocol?
Article 16 is a simplistic answer, and it is currently not being sought by the Northern Ireland business community. There is no solution apart from the EU and the UK working together to resolve problems. However, some of the issues also relate to the trade and co-operation agreement. It is a disappointment, for example, that the EU-New Zealand agreement on SPS checks was not replicated. Can the Minister confirm that this is something the UK Government will still continue to ask the EU to deploy, which would massively help movements across the Irish sea?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. Some of the specific aspects of the negotiation with the EU with regard to SPS matters meant that the EU was asking for dynamic alignment in specific areas, and that is not something that we can accept. However, more work can be done in order to smooth the passage of food into the European Union and vice versa.
Given that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said “No, no, no” a few moments ago, may I remind him that Margaret Thatcher once famously said that Northern Ireland was as British as Finchley? That must always remain the same. That being the case, can he reassure the House on three points?
First, if we find that the EU is responsible, perhaps even inadvertently, for some of these problems, will he raise those matters politely but firmly with Mr Šefčovič in the Joint Committee? Secondly, if, as some of my colleagues have suggested, some of these problems may be down to over-zealous interpretation by our own officials, will we stamp on that? Thirdly, as some firms in GB appear to be nervous about their legal position and are perhaps over-interpreting the situation, will the Government work very closely to consider easements to reassure them, as the excellent Shanker Singham has suggested, with my right hon. Friend’s very welcome announcement on cars being one good example?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right on those three things, which are absolutely at the heart of the approach that we are taking and that we have to take. We must make sure that there is no over-zealous interpretation on the ground; we must make sure that the European Union, along with the United Kingdom, lives up to its obligations to the people of Northern Ireland; and we must work with businesses in order to remove any misunderstandings and confusion that arises by affirming—as he did, quite rightly—the integral part of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom.
If the Minister says that much of the problem is businesses understanding what is expected of them, and that is a responsibility that falls squarely on his shoulders, then that does rather prompt the question of what he has been doing. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) suggested a working group. Why does he not bring one forward?
Can I ask the Minister about the issues raised by a number of Members about grace periods? How will he assess whether he thinks things are in a good enough state for him to press for those grace periods to be extended, which a number of Members have called for? It is fine for grace periods to expire if we are in good shape, but people will not understand if we are still having teething problems some way into this year.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The way of doing so is by working with supermarkets and other major suppliers in order to make sure that they are ready. Of course we will make it clear to the European Commission what the consequences would be if supermarkets were not in a position to carry on with the service they provide to Northern Ireland consumers.
Ferry traffic between Dublin and north Wales has diminished markedly as exporters apparently opt for alternative routes. Can the Minister tell me how many Northern Ireland exporters are now choosing direct ferry services from the Republic to the EU rather than using the UK land bridge? Is he aware of any Government assessment of the economic impact of this new routing on the port of Holyhead and on the wider economy of north-west Wales?
The hon. Gentleman is right. There is new route from the Republic of Ireland to France, but there is no evidence yet that it has taken anything but a small fraction of the trade that goes through the land bridge. I will be talking to colleagues in the Welsh Government later this afternoon about everything we can do to make sure that Holyhead flourishes in the future.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement—for the seriousness with which he is taking this, but also for the context that he set out. Does he agree that the issues we are experiencing, while regrettable, were actually anticipated by the Government, and that a limited degree of disruption was always going to be the inevitable consequence of unwinding our membership of the European Union after over four decades and delivering on the clear mandate of the 2016 referendum?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have tried throughout to stress that there would be some initial disruption—some teething problems or bumps in the road—as we left the European Union. Many of the predictions that many made about the consequences of leaving the European Union have not come to pass, and it is important to put that in context, but it is also important not to be in denial about any of these specific problems but to ensure that we smooth them away. So far we have been able to tackle these issues one by one, and we remain vigilant as we do so because we are making a success of our departure from the EU.
Brexit is not the problem; the problem is the implementation of the protocol. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster seems to be saying that there are fewer problems than we are experiencing on the ground. Will he indicate whether, in a socially distanced way, he will visit the ports in the next week or so, to see the problems at first hand? Will he then try to get a resolution, so that everyone can move forward with better security than they have had over the past few weeks?
No, the hon. Gentleman is right. We must ensure that we have granular information about what is happening on the ground. We are working with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive and with businesses in Northern Ireland to do that, and I will visit Northern Ireland at the earliest safe opportunity.
Thank you, Mr Speaker; I was slightly surprised and had to take my mask off.
There are six commercial ports and harbours in Northern Ireland. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the infrastructure is in place, as well as the Government officials required to ensure that traffic coming into or out of Northern Ireland is dealt with speedily and with as much efficiency as possible, perhaps even getting better in the future?
My hon. Friend is right, and we all recall his distinguished service—not just on the Northern Ireland Committee, but in keeping people safe in his previous career, when he served with such distinction. The infrastructure and the individuals are in place to ensure the smooth operation of the protocol as far as possible. In particular I thank Edwin Poots, the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in the Northern Ireland Executive who, notwithstanding his own understandable personal reservations about the protocol, has done everything possible to help Northern Ireland’s farmers and food producers.
I welcome the news to remedy the VAT margin scheme for second-hand cars, as that will bring great relief to many who work in the industry. I want to thank the Minister and his team, and all those in the Northern Ireland Office, for their proactive engagement with me on that issue.
I welcome that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is listening and taking action, but some issues remain. What hope and reassurance can he give to a young mother in my constituency whose 11-week-old baby for health reasons requires a specific milk formula produced in the Netherlands? Because of the protocol, she now cannot source that product to feed her child, and her local pharmacist, who sells around 50 packs a month to local families, cannot source it from any wholesaler in Northern Ireland. The milk is stuck somewhere in transit because of the protocol, while my constituent’s baby cries in pain and hunger. What will the right hon. Gentleman do today to address that serious health and welfare issue?
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that rather than the rigorous implementation of the protocol championed by the hon. Members for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) and for North Down (Stephen Farry), which causes such problems, we need the Government to fix the problems caused by the protocol, and restore the integrity of the UK’s internal market?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that terrible case. We will get straight on it and look specifically at how we can ensure that her constituent receives the products she needs.
On the broader point about working to ensure that the protocol operates effectively and safeguards the integrity of the United Kingdom, I thank the hon. Lady for her work; as well as Minister Poots, I also thank Minister Diane Dodds and the First Minister, Arlene Foster, for raising these issues with me in a timely and urgent fashion.
Yes, absolutely. Let me stress again that many of us in this House had reservations about aspects of the protocol, but now that it is in place, we have to do everything possible in order to ensure that it works for the people of Northern Ireland. They are an integral part of the United Kingdom. It is our moral duty to do everything to stand up for them.
I must say I feel vindicated today in not voting for the protocol. I must ask: what did we do to Members on the Government Benches to be screwed over by this protocol? Ask your hearts, every single one: what did we do? What has happened with the protocol is that it has ruined trade in Northern Ireland, and it is an insult to our intelligence to say it is a teething problem. Tell that to my constituents. Tell that to my constituent who tried to move home on Sunday from Essex to Broughshane and was turned back at Cairnryan because she had products in her white van that were her own personal products—disgraceful.
This grace period needs to be extended by at least 12 months. We need to upgrade the training of people in GB who are involved in trade. We need to remove the requirement for health certificates at all product levels, not just at single levels, and we need to remove the groupage recertification and relax things in the way they have been relaxed immediately in the Republic of Ireland.
I welcome what the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has said about VAT margins, but I want to see the meat on the bone on that. I welcome what has been said about steel tariffs, because if those go ahead, the Government will have ruined manufacturing businesses in Northern Ireland. I cannot attract them in if we have a steel tariff. I ask the Minister to move on these other matters that are being listed—the list is growing—and to move immediately.
I am sorry to hear about the distress faced by the lady who was moving from Essex to Broughshane. We will do everything possible to investigate the specific case and ensure that sort of thing does not happen again. On the broader points the hon. Member makes, I am grateful for the constructive approach he has taken to the steps that we have taken so far, but he is absolutely right that more needs to be done, and I look forward to working with him to do that.
Last year, my right hon. Friend reached an agreement with the EU on a grace period to apply to supermarkets for the first quarter of this year. Can he confirm that this agreement is being respected in full by the relevant authorities? How many supermarkets and suppliers are benefiting from these arrangements?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. Supermarkets are benefiting from it—Asda, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Iceland among others—but it is important that we do everything we can to monitor its effective operation, and that is why I am so grateful to the British Retail Consortium for reaching out today with some specific suggestions as to how we can improve things. I am also grateful to him, because I know that like all my colleagues he is a dedicated upholder of the integrity of the United Kingdom and its citizens.
We clearly must make the protocol work and work well. It seems to me, certainly from evidence that the Select Committee has been hearing, that many of the problems have been created, understandably, by the late agreement of the protocol, leading to a lack of understanding, knowledge and confidence for businesses in GB exporting into NI. Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster assure me that the issues of lack of knowledge and understanding are being addressed not just by his Department but by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, because when GB business knows what it needs to do, it will do it well and Northern Ireland will succeed?
My hon. Friend is precisely right. The responsibility is mine, but it is also that of my colleagues at BEIS, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the Northern Ireland Office and elsewhere, and we are working together with the trader support service. We hope to ensure that some of the misunderstandings and confusion that may have arisen are addressed. I am grateful for the work of his Select Committee in helping in that endeavour.