Skip to main content

Northern Ireland Protocol

Volume 687: debated on Wednesday 20 January 2021

What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. (910930)

A pragmatic and proportionate approach has been taken to implementing the Northern Ireland protocol, protecting unfettered access to the whole of the UK market for Northern Ireland businesses, supporting businesses to adapt to new requirements, delivering additional flexibilities, and ensuring that the protocol’s operation reflects Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances.

Goods continue to flow effectively and in normal volumes between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Initial issues, which I accept there have been, are being addressed in consultation with businesses, and that work will continue. We recognise the importance of a strong economy and strong social as well as economic links for Northern Ireland with the whole of Great Britain as part the United Kingdom, and we need to ensure that they are impacted as little as possible in everyday lives. The protocol itself sets out that very fact.

But it is not working. The Northern Ireland Secretary has denied that there is a border; the Prime Minister has denied that there are border checks, yet the queues and chaos confirm that there are both, with new customs declarations and rules of origin, while businesses have had insufficient preparation time and support. Can the Secretary of State categorically say when—that means on what date—there will be seamless movement of goods across the border? I fear that many in the supply chain will not withstand more chaos.

I am not quite sure what the hon. Lady is referring to, because what she describes is not what is happening in Northern Ireland; queues are not the issue. There have been reports of empty shelves, which is absolutely true. I have also heard Welsh Ministers talk in meetings about empty shelves in Wales, which we all saw, partly as a result of the challenges at Dover and the Dover straits just before Christmas due to covid. There have been issues for parcels and parcel deliveries, because the guidance, I fully accept—I have outlined this—was published on 31 December, but that is not what the hon. Lady outlined. It is important that we work pragmatically and sensibly, looking at where the issues are, to ensure that we find a way through them, working with business, so that we get a permanent resolution and the protocol can work and deliver the smooth, free flow of trade that we all want to see and that is important for Northern Ireland.

It sounds to me like the Secretary of State has not been listening to the Road Haulage Association, which has warned that supply chains to Northern Ireland are close to collapse because of the problems with the new processes at the borders. As he says, there have been scenes in Belfast of empty shelves in supermarkets, but there have also been reports of hauliers losing huge amounts of money because lorries are having to return to Northern Ireland empty. Will the Government listen to the Northern Ireland logistics sector and take urgent action to address that?

As I said in my previous answer, we are working with the industry on some of the issues it is facing. There is a range of different things. The issue the hon. Lady referred to—vehicles moving from Great Britain back into Northern Ireland—is about ensuring that Great Britain businesses are engaged. I encourage businesses to engage with the Trader Support Service. Companies that have used it have found it a really good, easy way to ensure the free flow of goods. It is why supermarkets are able to get that good flow of products through. Companies such as Marks and Spencer have seen a really good flow through. I encourage companies to sign up to this Government-supported and paid-for scheme.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster told me last week that there is an issue with groupage, but at the same time he said that lorries were able to get into Northern Ireland without hindrance. Obviously, both those statements cannot be right. The experience of Northern Ireland hauliers will feel very familiar to Scottish hauliers and exporters. James Withers, chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink, has referred to “crippling” red tape. It is clear that the UK Government are simply not on top of the Brexit problems at border crossings. How will the Secretary of State resolve groupage issues and the disruption which is causing such difficulty for businesses and consumers?

As I said in answer to previous questions, a range of issues have come together at the same time: companies who made commercial decisions before the deal was secured and before even the protocol was agreed before Christmas, let alone the guidance notes on parcels, and of course the covid challenges we have had. We have had a few issues come together in early January at the same time. We are working through all those issues with businesses, including ensuring that Great Britain businesses are signed up to the Trader Support Service and the Movement Assistance Scheme so they understand their ability to flow products into Northern Ireland. All those businesses and people will continue to ensure and support the fact that the Government secured a good deal with the EU. It is just a shame that the Scottish nationalists decided to vote against it and effectively wanted to see no deal, which would have seen real chaos across both Northern Ireland and Scotland.

I thank the Secretary of State for the considered engagement he has had over the past seven to 10 days on the issue of steel. The Secretary of State knows just how important aerospace is not only to my constituency but to the Northern Ireland economy as a whole, with £1.9 billion-worth of activity each year. ADS is concerned about the additional tariff which is now being placed on goods considered to be at risk for the aerospace sector, yet when the raw materials are brought into Northern Ireland for processing, they can then subsequently leave Northern Ireland tariff free because of the air worthiness agreement. There is an issue on these raw materials. They are not at risk for onward transit. I would be very keen for the Secretary of State to agree this morning that he will engage on this issue as constructively as he has with steel.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. He has been a strong and passionate supporter and promoter of the sector for the benefit of Northern Ireland for a very long time, and I think everybody can recognise that. He outlines some specific details. We have been very clear that there should not be any tariffs on internal UK trade. We will make full use of waivers and reimbursements to minimise the impact on business in any scenario. I will be very happy to engage with the sector directly, and with him and any other colleagues, on this issue. We have pledged £1.95 billion for aerospace research and development through to 2026, alongside £125 million in grants to be awarded through the Future Flight Challenge. There is an opportunity for the industry and I would be keen to work with him to ensure we can deliver on that for the people of Northern Ireland.

I thank the Secretary of State for his words about Edwin Poots. Everybody here is rooting for the Minister in his battle. Has the Secretary of State given any thought to structures he can use to engage with the Irish Government on the protocol and other relevant issues now that they are not meeting within EU frameworks? Specifically, does he think the British-Irish Council or the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference can be used more constructively going forward?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments on Edwin Poots. I had a communication with him this morning, and he is determined and focused on continuing to do his good work for the people of Northern Ireland and having a good and full recovery, as I know my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) is.

The hon. Lady is right: there are a range of ways, as she has outlined, that we can continue to engage, and we are determined to do so. I know that the Taoiseach, like the Prime Minister, is very keen to build a good, strong friendship and partnership with our closest neighbours in Ireland. I talk to Minister Coveney on a regular basis. We also have quad meetings with the Northern Ireland Executive, me, Simon Coveney and other Ministers where relevant, so we have a good join-up. We are determined to work together to make sure we do that for everybody across Ireland and all the United Kingdom.