The Government are committed to meeting our obligations in a proportionate way, taking account of the Belfast-Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions—north-south and, of course, east-west. As I stated in previous answers, we have heard the concerns raised by people and businesses in Northern Ireland, and we are sensitive to the economic, societal and political realities of Northern Ireland. While we have made good progress in line with this pragmatic approach, we will be taking forward a series of further temporary operational steps, details of which, as I say, will be in the WMS that I will lay later today.
My focus is on ensuring that colleagues across Government ensure that we are able to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland in the most effective, efficient, flexible and fluid way. It was good, as I said, that Vice-President Šefčovič met businesses and civic society in Northern Ireland and has committed to continuing to do that so that he can hear directly on the ground the impact that some of this is having, not least the action that the EU took in its movement towards activating article 16 and the impact felt across communities regarding people’s confidence around that. It is right that the EU understands the impact this has on people’s everyday lives in Northern Ireland.
Many businesses in Warwick and Leamington and across the country have already opted out of supplying to Northern Ireland due to the complexities. Does the Secretary of State accept that the Government’s denial over the reality of an Irish sea border has actually hampered efforts to prepare British businesses for trade with Northern Ireland and led to the disruption we are seeing today?
What I would say to businesses is that I would encourage them to engage with the trader support service that the Government have put in place and which we are funding. It works for businesses, and the businesses that have used it have had great success in continuing to be able to move their products, with advice, smoothly and fluidly. We have worked with businesses continually through the process—as we were in the transition period and since we have left the transition period—to ensure that businesses across the United Kingdom can trade across the United Kingdom, but I recognise there have been issues in how the protocol has been implemented since the end of the transition period, and that is why we will be outlining measures in a written ministerial statement later today.
Hard-liner Back Benchers in the Secretary of State’s own party want to tear up the deal they voted for and place our border on the island of Ireland. Will the Secretary of State today publicly reject the demands of the European Research Group, with all the damage and instability those demands could cause?
The hon. Gentleman may well have voted for the deal as well. I will be very clear with him: my focus is on ensuring that we deliver exactly what the protocol said, which is to ensure that it does not disrupt the everyday lives of people in their communities in Northern Ireland. We have to make sure that is the case. That is what the protocol set out to achieve. We have also got to make sure that it respects all the peace and prosperity that has been found in Northern Ireland as a result of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, and that means respecting not just north-south relations, but east-west relations as well.
Trade groups say that the trader support service is simply not good enough for the 12,000 traders who need its help. Businesses report that the scheme is providing confusing and conflicting advice. Why on earth is the Northern Ireland Secretary saying that disruption was not envisaged? The problems with the trader support service were known about well before the end of transition, including by the then Department for Exiting the European Union, which warned of problems with additional documentation as long ago as October 2019.
At the end of the hon. Gentleman’s question, he was talking about a period of time before the transition period ended and before the trader support service was outlined and in place. What I would say is that the trader support service now has more than 34,000 registered users. On average, calls to the service are handled in six seconds and 98% of declarations are processed within 15 minutes. That sounds like a pretty good record of success to me.
If the hon. Gentleman has some examples that are different from that, I will very happily engage with him directly if he wants to let me know, but that is a track record of success that the people involved in the trader support service should be proud of. More businesses can engage with that service and benefit from it, for the benefit of those businesses and the people of Northern Ireland.
Even with the grace periods in place, which give exemptions from many of the EU checks that will eventually be required in Northern Ireland, there has been massive disruption of trade as a result of the implementation of the protocol. Does the Secretary of State accept that if the Prime Minister’s promise and the protocol’s assurance that there will be unfettered trade between GB and Northern Ireland are to be delivered, something more than an extension of the grace periods is required? Really, there needs to be a reset or a rethinking of the agreement so that we have an alternative arrangement, such as the mutual enforcement of regulations, that would exempt Northern Ireland from being subject to EU laws and from the European Court of Justice making judgments about this part of the United Kingdom.
I respect the right hon. Gentleman, who has been consistent in his views on this issue at all times. I have also been very clear: we were always determined to ensure that we were able to deliver unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the rest of the United Kingdom, and we have done that. We have also been very clear that we want to ensure that free flow and flexible trade across the United Kingdom so that GB businesses can trade into Northern Ireland properly, while accepting and acknowledging the reality of the single epidemiological unit of the island of Ireland, as the sanitary and phytosanitary situation does. That has been there, as I said before, in some form or another since the 19th century. It is something that was acknowledged long ago, and I absolutely accept, as we have always outlined, that it does have an impact.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we have to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland can continue to enjoy products, their commercial activities and their day-to-day lives in the way that they always have done as members of and part of the United Kingdom.
If businesses had had their voices listened to over the last year, disruption could have been avoided. The joint consultative working group offers a real opportunity for businesses, civic society and politicians in Northern Ireland to have their voices heard, but at the moment, all we know about it is that it merely exists. This is a missed opportunity, so will the Minister commit to giving these groups a formal role and an input into how the protocol works? Without them, there can be no decision about Northern Ireland.
I join others in welcoming the hon. Lady to her new role. I am sure she will be able to fight the case for the people of Northern Ireland with great strength and passion, and I look forward to working with her, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker).
I have been working with businesses throughout this process, including through the business engagement forum, which will meet again shortly. We engaged with businesses with Vice-President Šefčovič a week or so ago, to have that direct input. Ultimately, I am a democrat, and I believe in the democratic system and the way in which Parliament and the structures we have in place work. I know that businesses have a full voice within that, and we have ensured that at every stage of the process.