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Northern Ireland Protocol: EU Negotiations

Volume 702: debated on Wednesday 27 October 2021

1. What progress the Government have made on negotiating a permanent settlement on the Northern Ireland protocol with the EU. (903814)

We have been in discussions with the EU since the publishing of the EU’s proposals on 13 October in response to our Command Paper from July. We are seeking to understand the detail of some of the headline claims that the EU has made on issues such as sanitary and phytosanitary measures and customs checks. We continue to work closely with the EU and are hopeful that we will be able to bridge any gaps between our positions.

The law firm Carson McDowell has said that not one business has raised concerns about the European Court of Justice or its role as the court of ultimate appeal under the Northern Ireland protocol, so why are the UK Government prioritising a Brexit purity issue as their key demand in negotiations with the EU when it is completely immaterial to businesses in Northern Ireland?

Actually, a whole range of businesses and business groups, as they are working through the detail of the EU’s proposals, have concerns about whether they cover enough to deal with the issues in Northern Ireland. That is why it is important that we have these negotiations. For us, it is also important, and ultimately important for business, to ensure that the mechanism to deal with any issues is one that is licensed there and more traditional in international agreements and transactions. The role of the ECJ, as we have seen already this year, does not provide that, and ultimately, therefore, does not provide stability for Northern Ireland businesses or indeed the political structure of Stormont. It is therefore important that we make sure that that is resolved to have a proper working solution.

Why has Brussels seen the legal text on the changes that the Government want to make to the protocol but the democratic leaders of Northern Ireland are still completely in the dark? Will the Secretary of State urgently share that text with them?

This is a legal text we have shared with the EU, as we did with the papers we published earlier this year, which sadly we did not have too much feedback from the EU about. This is about engaging with the EU in a confidential manner to allow the space for these private negotiations and discussions to go ahead. It is right that we do that and do those negotiations in a proper, business-like way.

It is quite important that we have feedback from Northern Ireland as well. Not only will the Secretary of State not share that text with those I mentioned, but politicians, communities and businesses in Northern Ireland are completely excluded from the negotiations. Does he accept that it is not sustainable for a Secretary of State to say to the people of Northern Ireland, “We have decided what is best for you—take it or leave it”? Will he therefore move the talks to Belfast and give Northern Ireland’s politicians a seat at the table?

I am happy to let the hon. Lady know that the reality of what is happening is quite different from what she outlined. The politicians in Northern Ireland are involved, and not just here in this House: only yesterday Lord Frost and I engaged with both the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, as we are doing on a regular, pretty much weekly, basis. We have also engaged with businesses all the way through, via the Business Engagement Forum—indeed, I met business representatives on Friday last week—so that they, and civic society, are fully involved with feeding into the negotiations, which of course, absolutely, are quite rightly between the UK Government and the EU.

Does the Secretary of State agree that we need to see the removal of the Irish sea border on the movement of goods within the UK internal market between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and that tinkering around the edges of the protocol without removing these unnecessary checks and impediments to trade within the United Kingdom is totally unacceptable?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman; he is absolutely right. This is a point about consistency. We need to ensure that we have that free movement of goods—that goods are moving from Great Britain across to Northern Ireland for use and consumption in Northern Ireland—recognising also that we have a responsibility about goods moving into the EU. We are determined to deliver that. Sadly, the Opposition have been quite clear previously that they are happy to see a border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We are absolutely categorical about the fact that we want to ensure that goods can move freely and goods that are being consumed and used by the people of Northern Ireland can reach them in good order and in good time, as they should do and as we are determined to see happen.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Does he also agree that in addition to resolving the trading issues and removing the Irish sea border, he and the Government need to pursue the full restoration of article 6 of the Acts of Union, which makes it very clear that there should be no barriers to trade within the United Kingdom and that there should be respect to the principle of consent, which is at the heart of the Belfast agreement?

The right hon. Gentleman will, I know, be aware that this issue is subject to legal proceedings, so I hope he will excuse me being relatively brief in my reply. I reiterate our commitment in the Command Paper that we need to remove the burden on trade and goods with the UK and to ensure that businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland can continue to have full and normal access to goods from the rest of the UK. It is also worth colleagues across this House remembering that not only does New Decade, New Approach ensure that we have that full internal market in the UK, but the protocol that was agreed, in its principles, is very clear that it would not only not disrupt the everyday lives of people in their communities in Northern Ireland, as is currently a problem, but will respect the internal market of the United Kingdom. We are determined to deliver on that objective.

Lord Frost recently said that there could be “no role” for the European Court of Justice in arbitrating disputes around the protocol. If that genuinely now represents the view of the UK Government, in contrast to when they negotiated and signed that protocol, can the Secretary of State tell the House how he would prefer to see disputes arising from the protocol arbitrated and settled? If he cannot share the text with politicians in Northern Ireland or in this House, can he at least give us a clue about what the outline of such a solution might be?

As the hon. Gentleman may be aware, there are different mechanisms for arbitration where there are disagreements between parties about things that have been agreed in international arrangements, including the withdrawal agreement itself. Those are working very well. What we have seen this year is how the EU has used the ECJ, even with the infraction proceedings around the processes we had to take forward in March to ensure that we could continue to get goods to Northern Ireland. It shows a very one-sided approach to this matter. It does not work, including for the stability for the Northern Ireland, and it is right we correct that. We have outlined that in the Command Paper, and that is part of the negotiations we will be having with the EU.