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Northern Ireland Protocol: Trade with Great Britain

Volume 692: debated on Wednesday 21 April 2021

What recent assessment his Department has made of the effect of the Northern Ireland protocol on levels of trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. (914354)

Before I answer, let me say that I am sure the whole House will join me in offering my support and thoughts to the Police Service of Northern Ireland officer who was subject to a cowardly attack earlier this week. Those who attack our public servants and emergency services personnel have nothing to offer the communities they claim to represent. I am sure the whole community will join everybody across this House in support for that officer and for such a way forward, and people will I hope come forward with any information they may have to help bring those responsible to justice swiftly.

Overall freight flow between Great Britain and Northern Ireland has returned to normal levels. We are continuing to monitor and assess the situation, including any potential change in trade patterns. The temporary operational steps that we announced in this House in March have ensured that we prevented any significant immediate-term disruption to goods flows, as I have outlined, including food, and have provided space for the continued discussions on the protocol implementation in the Joint Committee.

I share the Secretary of State’s concern and alarm over recent events.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers and industry leaders are expected to withdraw up to 90% of medicines sent to Northern Ireland from the UK due to the unaffordability of meeting new Brexit-incurred costs and red tape, with Lord Frost stating last week that “difficult issues remain”. What do the UK Government plan to do to minimise and prevent further disruption of the distribution of medical supplies to Northern Ireland caused by a hard Brexit?

As I think we showed with the action we took just a month or so ago, which I have outlined, we will ensure that we take the action we need to take to continue to see the flow of goods and products. Obviously, the medicines issue is one we are working on intensively with the European Commission to address, with Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič and Lord Frost working at the moment on all of those issues—the outstanding issues—that the hon. Member highlights. There are some difficult issues, but we will do what we need to do, working in partnership with the EU, to get a resolution that works for the whole of the UK.

I join the Secretary of State in condemning unreservedly the attack on the female police officer, and our support is fully with her and her colleagues at this time.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the difficulties that the Northern Ireland protocol continues to cause for both consumers and businesses. What steps are the Government going to take to replace this protocol with arrangements that fully restore Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market?

I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s comments, as I am sure will the Police Service of Northern Ireland for its personnel.

The protocol is about safeguarding Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s internal market, as we outlined in the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, which legislated for that very fact. I have been very clear that there are outstanding issues with the protocol, and some of them are difficult issues. They are ones that need to be resolved from the point of view of both consumers and businesses, and just to restore confidence across all the communities—the whole community—of Northern Ireland. We are determined to do that, and I think we have shown with the actions we have taken that we want to do that in a pragmatic, flexible way that works for the people of Northern Ireland. We are also working, through the work Lord Frost is doing, to do that in partnership with our colleagues and friends in the EU. Ultimately, however, this is about making sure that we are protecting the Good Friday agreement in all of its strands.

The Secretary of State will also be aware that there is potential for significant difficulties with the supply of medicines to Northern Ireland as a result of the protocol. Again I ask the Secretary of State: what measures do the Government intend to introduce to ensure that medicines flow freely into Northern Ireland, and that everyone here in Northern Ireland will not be disadvantaged in accessing medicines and pharmaceutical products?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point, which of course we are working on and take seriously. The recitals to the protocol themselves state that it

“should impact as little as possible on the everyday life of communities”,

and very clearly, as well as food supplies, medicines absolutely fall within that. So it is well within the remit of the protocol to ensure that that flow can continue in the proper and flexible way it always has. We continue to work intensively with our friends and partners in the EU, but as I have said before, we will do what we need to do to ensure that Northern Ireland has access to the market in the way it would as part of the United Kingdom. That is what the structural integrity of the United Kingdom’s internal customs union is about.

Can I echo the comments of the Secretary of State on the despicable attempted murder of a serving police officer? All my thoughts are with the officer, her colleagues and her family today.

As recently as Monday, when wider protests over the Northern Ireland protocol resumed, anonymous social media accounts were still being used to exploit the situation and lure young people to the interface in Belfast, with provocative messages inflaming an already tense situation. Will the Secretary of State, working with the police, make it clear in the strongest possible terms that social media giants such as Facebook have a responsibility to act to prevent their platforms from being exploited to inflame tensions in the interface communities?

Yes, and I welcome the hon. Lady’s comments. I think it actually—I hope Members excuse the colloquial language—beggars belief that anybody could think that the cowardly act of putting a police officer and a young child at risk is a way to further their cause. I warmly welcome the condemnation all around of that cowardly action.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right: as I outlined in the statement I made last week, it is important that we are very alert to the risks of social media. People who look at social media should be alert to who may or may not be behind encouraging them to do things in a hugely inappropriate way that could ruin their lives and the lives of others. Yes, this is something we are taking forward and working on with social media companies—absolutely.

The Social Democratic and Labour party sends every good wish to the PSNI officer, after the appalling experience she has had at the hands of the warped throwbacks who have absolutely nothing to offer people here.

We appreciate that sanitary and phytosanitary checks are a tricky issue internally for the Conservative party, but as the person in government in charge of speaking up for Northern Ireland, has the Secretary of State personally articulated to his Cabinet colleagues how the UK-EU veterinary and SPS arrangements could address the frictions in trade? Has he directly asked them to put the interests of Northern Ireland ahead of a theoretical power to diverge that the UK does not look as if it is going to use any time soon?

I appreciate the hon. Lady’s comments as, I am sure, does the PSNI.

Obviously, I am always making the case in the UK Government for the best outcome for people in Northern Ireland, and it is right that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom in terms of trade. As I have said, SPS checks in one form or another, recognising the single epidemiological unit and biosecurity of the island of Ireland, have been in place since about the 19th century. We must ensure that we have a proper, pragmatic, flexible, free flow of goods, so that a consumer in Northern Ireland is able to have the same experience as a member of the United Kingdom anywhere in the United Kingdom. We are determined to ensure that we deliver that.