My Cabinet colleagues and I continue to work together closely to ensure that we meet our protocol obligations in a pragmatic and proportionate way. We have heard the concerns raised by people and businesses in Northern Ireland and are sensitive to the economic, societal and political realities in Northern Ireland. That is why we are taking forward a series of further temporary operational steps that reflect the simple reality that more time is needed to adapt to and implement new requirements as we continue our discussions with the EU. The steps include the new operational plan for supermarkets and their suppliers, committed to at the Joint Committee. I will lay a written ministerial statement detailing the steps later today.
After the EU’s outrageous abuse of the Northern Ireland protocol in relation to its failing vaccine programme, is it not clear that, as it stands, the operation of the protocol is not working? There is far too much disruption to businesses and families in Northern Ireland and it needs urgently to be either reset or scrapped altogether.
There were already challenges in the operation of the protocol in early January this year that were having a direct and often disproportionate impact on citizens. The EU’s decision to invoke article 16 has compounded those issues—there is no doubt about that—and significantly undermined cross-community confidence. That action was not in the spirit of the protocol, which is partly why we are taking the actions that I will outline in a written ministerial statement later today.
It took just shy of three years to leave the European Union but only 29 days for the EU to threaten to trigger article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, without discussions with Great Britain or Northern Ireland—an apparent “oversight”. Will my right hon. Friend please reassure my constituents that confidence in the protocol will be restored? Does he agree that the EU urgently needs to resolve the issues faced by people and businesses in Northern Ireland?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which was why I was pleased to hear that Vice-President Šefčovič had recently agreed to meet businesses across communities and civic society in Northern Ireland to hear directly from the people who are being affected by some of the issues that we are seeing, particularly the impact that the EU’s decision to invoke article 16 had in terms of compounding these issues and of undermining cross-community confidence. That is why we will take forward some further temporary operational steps, which I will outline in the written ministerial statement, to ensure that people in Northern Ireland are able to continue to have access to products in the way that the protocol envisaged.
May I take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) for her years of service on the Front Bench? I know that she will continue to champion the people of Northern Ireland from the Back Benches.
While we will study the detail that the Secretary of State is set to announce in his written ministerial statement, any more time will be welcomed by businesses across Northern Ireland which simply were not prepared for the changes that took place on 1 January. He admitted last week that he did not envisage the disruption that we have seen as a result of the protocol, despite businesses shouting from the rooftops for months. Given this lack of awareness and the shambolic preparation for the end of the transition period, what confidence can the Secretary of State give to businesses in Northern Ireland that this extension will be used properly to prepare businesses for the changes to come?
I join the hon. Lady in her thanks to her colleague the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) for the work that she has done. Both my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) and I have worked with her and know that her compassion and her passion for the issues of the people of Northern Ireland are without question, and huge credit goes to her for that.
On the issues that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) has just raised, I would say to her that, genuinely, we have been working with businesses and across communities in Northern Ireland over the past year on the development of the guidance notes. In fact, we have been working with businesses since the end of the transition period to ensure that things are delivered in a way that works for them. Our work is informed by businesses so that we can deliver what they need on the ground to deliver for their customers and our constituents right across Northern Ireland.
Any extra time will of course be welcome and is important, but it is not the long-term solution that businesses and the people of Northern Ireland need. Can the Secretary of State confirm that he is demanding within Government practical solutions, such as a veterinary agreement, that would reduce the barriers down the middle of our Union that his Government insisted on?
The hon. Lady will have seen the correspondence between the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the EU Commission outlining some of the things that we are looking at implementing. I point out that it is worth all businesses looking at and taking advantage of the Trader Support Service and the movement assistance scheme, which are specifically there to help businesses and to support them entirely at the cost of the UK Government. We have put several hundred million pounds of support into those businesses through those schemes, and they are working exceedingly well. Some businesses are hugely positive about the impact they will have.
As we approach the end of the three months’ grace period under the Northern Ireland protocol, many businesses and individuals in Northern Ireland are very concerned about what this will mean for them, in particular in relation to their ability to order goods and receive parcels from suppliers in Great Britain. Without further disruption to this trade, what will the Secretary of State and the Government do to address these concerns?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. As has been the case since January, our focus will remain on supporting the effective flow of goods between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, avoiding any unacceptable disruption to the critical flow of goods on which lives and livelihoods rely. I absolutely agree that it is important that businesses and citizens across Northern Ireland do not see their lives or their livelihoods unacceptably disrupted as they adapt to new requirements. I can advise him that further guidance will be provided later this week on parcel movements from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
I thank the Secretary of State for that response. He will also be aware that agrifood businesses and others in Northern Ireland are very concerned about the potential imposition of charges on goods that are brought into ports in Northern Ireland at the behest of the European Union. This will add significantly to the cost of doing business with the rest of the United Kingdom. Again, what does the Secretary of State intend to do to ensure that businesses in Northern Ireland are not required to pay these additional charges?
I know that the right hon. Gentleman, along with the First Minister and other party colleagues, have been strong in their determination to highlight this and other issues associated with the protocol—I absolutely recognise that. I can confirm today that it is our intention that no charging regime is required for agrifoods, and I will be outlining that in the written ministerial statement later today.
May I echo the thanks to the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) and welcome the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) to her Opposition Front-Bench duties? I welcome the general attitude of the Government towards resolving the issues on the protocol: they are right, and the Secretary of State will have our support as he goes forward. However, I urge him to really put some pressure on the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to better explain to GB businesses what they need to do, how they need to do it and when they need to do it in order to sell their goods into the very welcoming market that is Northern Ireland?
I thank my hon. Friend for outlining this issue. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is very keen to ensure that GB businesses have all the information they need. My hon. Friend is right to highlight the fact that a number of the issues we have found relate to companies in Great Britain not appreciating what they can do in order to continue their smooth supplies to people in Northern Ireland. We want to ensure that that is the case. I encourage businesses to engage particularly with the trader support service, which is there to help businesses and, as I say, has phenomenal response and success rates in helping them to ensure that they can deliver. We as a Government will continue to fund it to ensure that it is there to support business and the people of Northern Ireland.
There is considerable anecdotal evidence from food producers that exports continue to be below pre-Brexit levels. With the retailers’ grace period ending this month, export health certificates will be required for imports of chilled and processed meats. How do the UK Government plan to ease specific concerns of the agrifood industry over this requirement ahead of the end of that grace period?
As the Secretary of State knows, we did not want Brexit, but we do have the protocol and the protocol is here to stay, despite what anybody else might say. It does give us a competitive advantage. Will he work with me to make the most of that competitive advantage by getting rid of the maximum student numbers cap and the historical under-provision of university places for Northern Ireland?
The hon. Gentleman makes a really important point that is worth highlighting. We have two great universities in Northern Ireland that are globally leading, with one of them recently winning the award for the most entrepreneurial university and one of them being among the best nursing provision universities in the UK. That is something we should be proud of. We should look at how we can develop and grow that work for the benefit of the universities, the wider economy and their phenomenal input, and the huge competitive advantage, that, yes, Northern Ireland has, not least because of the amazing skill sets across Northern Ireland. I am happy to work with him to ensure that we develop, promote and take advantage of that for the benefit of people in Northern Ireland.