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Northern Ireland Protocol

Volume 699: debated on Wednesday 21 July 2021

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. (902942)

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on reducing delays to trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain during the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. (902943)

The Secretary of State meets colleagues regularly to discuss matters related to Northern Ireland, including the implementation of the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol. It is imperative that the protocol is operated in a pragmatic and proportionate way to ensure that it impacts as little as possible on the people of Northern Ireland. The UK is working hard and in good faith to find solutions. We need to find a way forward—a new balance of arrangements adapted to the practical reality of what we have seen since January and based on the common interests that we share.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his answer. We must make the protocol work for the people of Northern Ireland, but we should not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should press the European Union to take a more common-sense approach, so that we can find practical solutions to the issues the people of Northern Ireland face?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The Northern Ireland protocol is a delicate balance designed to support the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and maintain Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, while protecting the EU single market. It must respect the needs of all Northern Ireland’s people and bear as lightly as possible on the everyday lives of people in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, that has not been our experience since January this year, and we have seen the costs of doing business and the cost to consumers going up. That is why we want to engage with the EU on this issue.

We warned that the protocol would create a border in the Irish sea, and now, as reality bites, six supermarket retailers, which cover three quarters of the grocery market in Northern Ireland, have written jointly to the UK Government and the European Commission highlighting import issues, higher costs, and fewer options for consumers. Instead of the Minister and Lord Frost rubbishing the deal that they signed and blaming the EU, what will the UK Government do to resolve these trade issues?

The UK Government have already done a great deal through the movement assistance scheme, which was introduced to support and assist traders with new requirements, including meeting the costs of more than 7,000 export health certificates and 2,000 phytosanitary certificates. There is also the Trader Support Service, with more than £200 million of funding, which educates traders on the new customs processes. We have invested in new digital assistance schemes to digitise the process for agrifood movements. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that we should engage in good faith to improve the working of the protocol and make sure that it delivers on what was intended without the implications on everyday life for people in Northern Ireland.

Does the Minister agree that goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland within the UK internal market should not be subjected to EU-imposed checks? What steps will he take to protect the economic integrity of the UK?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. It was always clear that the protocol was a delicate balance designed to support the peace process in the agreement; if it is to work, it must operate in a pragmatic and proportionate way, balancing its objective to support the peace process. It needs to respect the needs of all Northern Ireland’s people—respecting the fact that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the customs territory of the United Kingdom and that it needs to bear as lightly as possible on the everyday life of Northern Ireland. That means, as he said, that goods that are not at risk of going into the European Union should not be facing checks and should not be facing that disruption. This is one of the issues in which we want to engage, but, of course, I do not want to pre-empt the Secretary of State’s statement later today.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he also agree that any new arrangements entered into with the EU that involve Northern Ireland must respect the principle of consent that is at the heart of the Belfast agreement? That means that any new arrangements must protect the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland’s place within the UK.

Yes, I wholeheartedly agree that it is essential that we recognise that the Belfast agreement itself recognised Northern Ireland’s place in the UK by the consent of its people, and that the principle of consent is absolutely central to that.

The Government are working hard and in good faith to find solutions. We have provided many papers to the EU, and we welcome indications that it is looking at further solutions. We are working to find solutions, and the Government will set out further detail on their approach to the protocol later today. I do not want to pre-empt that, but I agree with the right hon. Gentleman on the principle.