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Northern Ireland Protocol

Volume 710: debated on Wednesday 9 March 2022

1. What recent progress the Government has made in negotiations with the EU on the Northern Ireland Protocol. (905870)

9. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on negotiations on the Northern Ireland Protocol. (905881)

I begin with some brief remarks regarding the public apology to be delivered on Friday 11 March by the Northern Ireland parties to victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse.

The Hart report into historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland was published in 2017. I particularly thank and note the hard work of the Northern Ireland Office, the Northern Ireland civil service and my predecessors, my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), who put so much time and focus into this, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), who delivered the Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Act in December 2019, securing a key recommendation of the Hart report to establish a redress system for victims who suffered abuse while resident in these institutions in Northern Ireland.

It is only right that victims and survivors are now receiving a formal apology for the abhorrent abuse they suffered while residing in institutions that were meant to care for them. This is another key recommendation of the Hart report, and it is to be welcomed. For too many years, the voices of victims and their appeals for help went unheard, and on 11 March they will receive a full and unconditional apology that is so deserved.

In answer to Questions 1 and 9, I regularly meet Cabinet colleagues to discuss Northern Ireland matters, including the Northern Ireland protocol. The situation in Northern Ireland is serious, and the Government are keeping all options available to make sure we achieve a positive outcome.

I am pleased to hear the Secretary of State’s statement.

The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine threatens to undermine global food security, including for people across these islands, by cutting the world off from 30% of all grain supplies and undermining global production of fertiliser for other foodstuffs. Unbelievably, recent media reports suggest that senior Brexiteers are pressing the Government to trigger article 16 and proclaim unfinished business with the EU. Such action would be reckless and unnecessary even without a war raging on the European continent. Will the Government take triggering article 16 off the table once and for all?

Absolutely not. We are very clear that we have to keep all options on the table. Article 16 is part of the protocol and, if we cannot resolve these issues, it is the proper legal process to take things forward. Ultimately, the right result, and the result on which we and the Foreign Secretary are focused, is getting a resolution by agreement with the EU. Be in no doubt that we are determined to make sure Northern Ireland can access goods from Great Britain in the way it should, which we should all support.

Many of us in this House are deeply concerned about the lack of progress in these negotiations. Does the Secretary of State recognise that the sovereignty issue for Northern Ireland still remains on the table with regard to EU lawmaking? Although the context is quite different, it is worth remembering that we are also dealing with the Ukrainian situation, which is also an issue of sovereignty.

My hon. Friend makes an important and accurate point. The reality is that we have not seen enough progress, and are not yet seeing enough flexibility and pragmatism from the EU. What is positive is that there is a recognition now, including in the conversations I have had with Vice-President Šefčovič, that issues with the protocol need to be resolved. We all want to see that happen at a much faster pace, and to see more flexibility on all these issues, both on trade and, as he rightly says, on remembering that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom and its internal market.

We know that viruses and many infectious agents do not stick to international, let alone domestic, borders, as we have seen in both the human and animal health settings. With that in mind, does my right hon. Friend agree that if the UK and the EU were to agree a veterinary and SPS—sanitary and phytosanitary—agreement, that would not only protect the biosecurity of the UK, but facilitate trade and the movement of plant and animal produce between Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

My hon. Friend gives an example of one area where we are keen to see flexibility from the EU, so that we can see some resolution. We have put forward a range of constructive proposals to meet the objectives—respecting the single market of the EU while making sure that we achieve our prime priority, which is protecting all aspects of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement—such as the green channel proposals, which can deal with east-west customs and those SPS burdens that he mentioned. We have to make sure that we find a resolution that works, and that means goods can flow from Great Britain to Northern Ireland—the goods that are not at risk of moving to the EU—in the way they always have done.

The Prime Minister has told the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) that negotiations on the protocol have only a 30% chance of success. Does the Secretary of State share that assessment?

I am not sure I am in a position to give betting odds in terms of percentages. The experience we have had with the EU so far, in the past six to nine months, has shown us a lack of the pragmatism and flexibility that we need to see. We have not seen the EU move in a way that allows us to resolve the issues of the protocol, either the trade issues or the wider issues of identity and sovereignty. It is important that we do that. We have to be realistic about the reality of that lack of progress and flexibility, which is why I am clear that we take no options off the table.

The reason the Secretary of State cannot give a direct answer to the question is because Ministers and the Prime Minister have been telling so many people informally so many different answers. That is a reason why there is such a lack of trust in the Government at the moment. Queen’s University Belfast has just carried out a poll, which found:

“The UK government is by far the most distrusted…of all actors”.

That is because so much is happening in the shadows; Ministers are telling people different things behind closed doors. Since the Executive collapsed, there has been no statement to the House. Following five rounds of negotiations between the UK and the EU Governments, there has not been a single statement to the House. Will the Secretary of State promise to bring discussions out of the shadows and start making statements to the House, so that we can have things on the record and not behind closed doors?

I think the hon. Gentleman misunderstands how negotiations need to work. We have been clear that it is right and appropriate that we have the space to have those private negotiations with the EU, which is why we have not gone out and publicly outlined some of the specific details we have put. But we have been very clear, and I am very clear publicly as well as privately, that we take no options off the table. We do need to resolve this. There is a point at which there is a judgment call for the UK Government to make on whether those negotiations are able to progress in a way that gives us confidence that we can get to a positive resolution. We have not seen that flexibility from the EU yet, but we will continue to strain every sinew, and the Foreign Secretary continues to talk to Maroš Šefčovič, to do everything we can to get a resolution that works. But we have to be very clear: this is about a resolution that respects all aspects of the Good Friday agreement and protects the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland.

The period of purdah in the run-up to the Northern Ireland Assembly election is fast approaching. Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge the need to make real, serious progress before that period commences? Does he anticipate that such progress will be made?

It is important that we get progress as quickly as possible, regardless of the pre-election period in Northern Ireland, because every day that we are not seeing that flexibility from the EU is another day when consumers in Northern Ireland cannot access products; when the Jewish community cannot access, technically, under the EU provisions, kosher food; when businesses cannot get access to the products they need; and when more than 200 Great Britain businesses are not supplying Northern Ireland. That affects the economy of both Northern Ireland and the wider UK, and we need to resolve that as quickly as we can.

Further to that answer, may I draw to the Secretary of State’s attention the situation of my constituent from Dromore who is disabled and confined to a wheelchair? Three weeks ago, the ramp on the back of her disability-adapted motor vehicle broke. When she went to order the spare part from the supplier in England, she was told it could not be sent to her because she was not registered with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to trade with the rest of the United Kingdom. That is precisely the kind of difficulty that the protocol is causing for ordinary people in Northern Ireland and the idea that we just ignore it, sweep it under the carpet and forget about article 16 ignores the rights of my constituents.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There are multiple examples out there, whether it is the issues for the Jewish community that I just outlined or the individual case he has. Both he and I have heard of cases of other people who are unable to access products and goods, some of which are very important so that they can continue to live their lives in the way that any other UK citizen could. That is not good enough. We need to be clear with the EU that its current lack of flexibility puts at risk the very thing that the protocol was there to protect: the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland. It is right that we keep the pressure on. We will strain every sinew, and I hope the EU will show flexibility and pragmatism to resolve the issue that it now recognises, which is that the protocol is not working and is, I have to say, just not sustainable in its current form.

At this time, households throughout the United Kingdom, including in Northern Ireland, are struggling because of rapidly increasing home-heating costs. In Northern Ireland, we are subject to European Union VAT rules, which means that if the Chancellor of the Exchequer sought to reduce VAT on home-heating oil, he would need the permission of the EU and all 27 member states. Surely, it cannot be right that my constituents are being deprived of the support they need from the Government because of the protocol.

In February this year we put a further £250 million into the Executive to allow them more flexibility, on top of their underspend, to support people at a time when there are such pressures. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right to highlight another of the many areas where the protocol is creating real problems on the ground for people in their everyday lives. We must remember that the protocol itself says it will not disrupt the everyday lives of people in their communities; the right hon. Gentleman has given yet another example of how the implementation of the protocol is doing exactly that. That has to stop.

I associate myself and my party with the Secretary of State’s remarks at the outset about victims of historical abuse and the forthcoming apology.

Another important part of the Northern Ireland protocol is article 3, which says:

“The United Kingdom shall ensure that the Common Travel Area and the rights and privileges associated therewith can continue to apply…in particular with respect to free movement to, from and within”—

the island of Ireland—

“for Union citizens and their family members, irrespective of their nationality.”

Does the Secretary of State recognise the potential economic and political strain that the introduction of an electronic travel authorisation system could put on freedom of movement across the border? What engagement does he plan to have with the Government of Northern Ireland and the Government of the Republic and their partners in the EU in respect of how to make sure such frictions do not take effect?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be aware that throughout the pandemic we have made sure we have kept the common travel area flowing and open. That has not necessarily been the case on the part of the Irish Government at certain points, but we have done that; we think it is important and we will continue to do that. I am looking to have further talks with the Irish Government. My officials have been talking to them about all these issues this week and last week, and I will continue to do that myself as well.