House of Commons
Tuesday 17 May 2022
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
BUSINESS BEFORE QUESTIONS
That the Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in the present Parliament for the County constituency of Wakefield, in the room of Imran Nasir Ahmad Khan, who, since his election to the said County constituency, has been appointed to the Office of Steward or Bailiff of Her Majesty’s Three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham, in the county of Buckingham.—(Chris Heaton-Harris.)
That Mr Speaker do issue my Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in the present Parliament for the County constituency of Tiverton and Honiton, in the room of Neil Quentin Gordon Parish, who since his election to the said County constituency, has been appointed to the Office of Steward and Bailiff of Her Majesty’s Manor of Northstead in the County of York.—(Chris Heaton-Harris.)
I have a short statement to make. I would like to draw Members’ attention to the fact that the book for entering the private Members’ Bill ballot is now open. It will be open today and tomorrow. The book will be available for Members to sign in the No Lobby from 11.30 am until the rise of the House on both days, except during Divisions. The ballot itself will be drawn at 9 am this Thursday in Committee Room 15. An announcement setting out these and other arrangements, and the dates when ten-minute rule motions can be made and presentation of Bills introduced, is published in the Order Paper.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—
Levelling Up Across the UK
The levelling-up White Paper sets out a clear plan to level up every corner of the United Kingdom, including a mission to increase productivity and improve living standards in every part of the UK by 2030. We will do this through the record funding allocated in the 2021 spending review, including £1.6 billion for the next generation of the British Business Bank’s regional investment funds. That sits alongside significant investment in communities through the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund, and giving local areas a greater say in investment, working in partnership with the Government through the £2.6 billion UK shared prosperity fund.
Parts of our inner cities suffer deprivation, including in my constituency in north Kensington. Does my right hon. Friend agree that levelling up is about bringing forward all our left-behind communities, whether inner cities, coastal communities or the north, and, I add rather cheekily, will he support my levelling-up fund bid for step-free access to Ladbroke Grove tube station?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question; she is an outstanding champion for Kensington and, as she rightly says, it is not the case, as is sometimes portrayed, that the levelling-up fund does not have real importance for London and the south-east because, as we know, there are pockets of deprivation across this country and it is vital that we address them. Over £200 million was allocated in the first round of the levelling-up fund for London and the south-east, and clearly my hon. Friend’s council may wish to consider making a bid for the fund’s next iteration when that opens.
The east midlands has consistently been at the bottom of the charts for public and private sector investment. The Prime Minister has made it clear that he sees devolution as a key mechanism to level up, so the east midlands must surely be at the heart of that agenda. We are negotiating with the Government now in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, but will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that these will not be second-class deals and the east midlands deals will have the same finance and clout as previous deals have had?
I really enjoyed my recent visit to Nottinghamshire to meet my hon. Friend and his colleagues. We are clear that devolution sits at the heart of our levelling-up mission and we have said that every part of England that wants a devolution deal can have one by 2030. We want those deals to have a sensible geography, and the strongest and most accountable leadership possible, and I am really encouraged that leaders in Derby, Derbyshire, Nottingham and Nottinghamshire—including, of course, my hon. Friend—have brought together a really exciting package of proposals. We look forward to coming to them in due course.
In recent years, the west midlands has economically outperformed the east midlands—apart from, of course, my constituency of North West Leicestershire. To what extent does my right hon. Friend believe that is due to the west midlands benefiting from its mayoralty structure? What help can the Treasury give to the east midlands to ensure that we level up with our neighbour?
I pay great tribute to the work that Andy Street has done as Mayor of the West Midlands to drive economic outperformance. I am a convinced believer in the merits of mayoral devolution, which is the best way of ensuring that levelling up is delivered at the fastest possible pace on the ground. I look forward to looking at proposals from the east midlands to ensure that we can unlock as much opportunity there as possible.
Hertford and Stortford lies at the heart of the London-Stansted-Cambridge innovation corridor, which is key to helping my constituency and our region address its pockets of deprivation. Will my right hon. Friend outline how his Department is working to attract more innovation-based businesses, particularly in life sciences, to the area?
I share my hon. Friend’s passion for the UK’s world-leading life sciences sector. That is why we have invested £5 billion in health research and development, including for delivery of our life sciences vision, as well as £60 million for the life sciences innovative manufacturing fund and £200 million in the life sciences investment programme, all of which institutions in Hertfordshire can benefit from.
I am sure that the Chief Secretary will agree that, for levelling up to work well, there is a need for more jobs linked to exports to be created across the UK. With export growth in the UK lagging behind that of every other rich nation, why did he and his colleagues sign off cuts in funding to the North East England chamber of commerce to promote exports from that region?
I agree that a flourishing export sector is vital. That is, of course, why we are so pleased to be delivering innovative policies in the north-east such as a freeport on Teesside, which is a great example of how we will bolster the export strengths that exist for our current and future employers. We clearly want to work closely with all partners, including the chambers of commerce, who do an excellent job, but it is absolutely not just about measures in grants to any individual institution. Our ambition is to create a high-growth, high-wage economy, and exports sit at the centre of that. Our actions speak loudly about our total commitment to that.
The Government said they would prioritise closing the gap in pay, employment and productivity, yet since the Prime Minister took office average monthly earnings in every single north-east constituency have fallen even further behind those in London. Can the Government see that telling families to learn how to cook and to work more hours while forcing cash-strapped local authorities to bid competitively for small pots of money will not rebalance our economy? We need a much greater focus on creating and boosting jobs in those areas that really need them.
I know and obviously share the hon. Lady’s passion for the north-east. The enormous success of our plan for jobs is something that we ought to be celebrating today. We have had the fantastic news that unemployment is at its lowest level since 1975, which is an enormous achievement and one that we should all be collectively delighted by. We face global inflationary pressures, which are a serious challenge not just for this country but the eurozone, America and, indeed, the entire developed world as we both recover from covid and handle the consequences of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, and we are absolutely focused on rectifying that through a concerted programme of action. Obviously, we have put together a £22 billion package of support for households, and we will take future steps as the situation warrants.
According to an independent analysis of the Government’s own 12 metrics for measuring progress in levelling up, Bradford East is behind on almost every single one, with lower pay, productivity, Government spending, transport investment, school grades and life expectancy. I am perplexed by how the Minister can stand there and tell us that he is serious about levelling up when the Government refuse to do anything to level up places such as Bradford East.
The whole point is that that is precisely what we are not doing. We have created a West Midlands mayoralty which is channelling huge amounts of public money into supporting—[Interruption.] Sorry, the West Yorkshire mayoralty. The point stands. We have created a West Yorkshire mayoralty which is designed to drive forward growth and opportunity in that region. We have a whole programme of action, from the levelling-up fund and our wider commitments around jobs and growth, which the hon. Gentleman knows, as well as I do, will make a massive difference to the future of Bradford and the rest of West Yorkshire in the years ahead.
The UK Government’s own website states that levelling up is a moral, social and economic programme right across Government, so can I ask the Minister where is the moral argument in people not being able to feed their kids? Where is the social argument in people not being able to heat their homes? And where on earth is the economic argument in people having no money in their pockets?
Levelling up is a social and moral mission. I believe very strongly that it is vital that we close the gap between the more successful parts of the UK and the rest. I represent a constituency that sits at the heart of that process. On the hon. Gentleman’s point on the cost of living, we have put together a £22 billion package of support, including a £9 billion commitment specifically on energy bills, but we are absolutely clear that we do not solve an inflationary crisis by throwing money at the problem, as that could worsen the issue we are seeking to address. The Chancellor will keep all these issues under close review. [Interruption.] I can assure the hon. Gentleman that he most certainly does. We will bring forward a programme of measures at such time that they will make the right difference in a targeted way, which, as I say, does not make worse the very problem that we all need to solve.
Last week, Bloomberg published a report that showed that, on the Government’s own chosen 12 measures of levelling up since the Prime Minister took office, most parts of the country are either falling even further behind London and the south-east or have made no progress, including every single constituency in the west midlands. That includes salaries, home affordability, inward investment, transport spending and levels of crime all going backwards. Why is levelling up so far failing to deliver?
The right hon. Gentleman raises the Bloomberg report. We have to recognise, when we look at this issue, that levelling up is a decades-long project for reversing things that are institutionally extremely challenging in terms of the striking geographical inequalities that have arisen under successive Governments and which this Government are determined to address. The levelling-up White Paper, published this spring, puts in place a framework for the Government to work directly with people and places to help address those disparities. We will be held to account with an annual report to monitor our progress. What I would say is that the people of the west midlands made their views very clear last year when they re-elected Andy Street as their Mayor, just as they made their views very clear on Teesside when they re-elected Ben Houchen. They can see progress. They are realistic—none of this is easy and none of this is going to be an instant turnaround—but they are clear that we have a plan to deliver it and they are behind that.
The Conservatives have been in office for 12 years; they were not elected last week. This is the self-declared central mission of the Government. Tackling regional inequality is a good aim. Communities like the one I represent in the Black Country made the last industrial revolution and they can make the next one too if they are given a platform on which to stand, but now, with the Bank of England Governor warning of apocalyptic rises in food prices and a further likely steep rise in energy bills in the autumn, what will the Government do to reverse the failures outlined in the damning report last week, and bridge the grand canyon between the Prime Minister’s rhetoric on these things and the reality on the ground?
The levelling-up White Paper is a comprehensive package of measures designed to ensure we can deliver on our ambitious aims in this place. The Queen’s Speech, which we are debating this week, further demonstrates our commitment to making that a reality, including, notably, through the establishment in law of the UK infrastructure bank. It is clearly the case, as I say, that none of these problems are simple to address. We have to be honest on both sides of the House that both Labour and Conservative-led Governments have failed to narrow those disparities. We have a plan which I am confident will deliver meaningful change in short order and over the medium to long term make a transformative difference to communities.
Cryptocurrency Companies in the UK
At Fintech Week on 4 April, I set out our firm ambition to make Britain a global hub for cryptoasset technology, and I announced a number of actions that will support that. That includes committing to consult on a future regulatory regime for cryptoassets later this year; legislating to bring stablecoins into payments regulation; and exploring ways of enhancing the competitiveness of the UK tax system to encourage further development in this sphere.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Will he commit to working with the cryptocurrency sector and the UK Cryptoasset Business Council to make sure that the UK’s future regulatory parameter can instil a global advantage, ensuring that our economy remains ahead of the curve?
Yes, absolutely, and my officials are meeting the Cryptoasset Business Council later this week. We want to take a dynamic approach to industry engagement. Lots of similar organisations have spawned over the last few months, and I and my officials will work very closely with them as we lead this global leadership aspiration.
The cryptocurrency market is expanding rapidly, but what are the Government doing to ensure that the wider public are aware of the wild swings that exist in the market? Yes, profits can be made, but so can significant losses, as the past few months have demonstrated.
We watch these things very carefully. That is why, in January this year, we announced that certain cryptoassets will be brought within the scope of financial promotions regulation. I am very aware of the Financial Conduct Authority’s advice, which shows that only one in 10 cryptoholders are aware that they can lose all their money. We need to get that number up.
Tackling Economic Crime
Money obtained through corruption or criminality is not welcome in the UK. The Government are taking concerted action to combat that threat by investing £400 million over this spending review period, with the kleptocracy cell in the National Crime Agency targeting sanctions evasion and corrupt Russian assets hidden in the UK. The Government have taken far-reaching steps to improve corporate transparency, including through recent and forthcoming primary legislation announced in the Queen’s Speech last week.
I thank the Minister for that answer. NatWest and HSBC have been hit with big fines for facilitating money laundering, and Danske Bank will probably see a fine of £2 billion for £200 billion of money laundering. This is seen not as a deterrent, but as a cost of doing business for these big banks. Does he agree that the only way that we will tackle this is through criminal prosecutions both at a corporate level and of senior managers? Does he support the calls to that effect in the economic crime manifesto by the all-party groups on fair business banking and on anti-corruption and responsible tax, and will he support such measures in the economic crime Bill?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I think he is the House’s foremost observer of banks’ behaviour, but he also knows that this is an extremely complex area of law. The Government have asked the Law Commission to undertake an in-depth review of laws around corporate criminal liability for economic crime and to make recommendations. My understanding is that the Law Commission will make an announcement on this subject imminently, and we will look at that very carefully.
One of the key complaints from any of my constituents who are victims of economic crime is about the inability to reach out to Action Fraud, and if they do, they get no response. I urge the Minister—plead with him, in fact—to reform the work of Action Fraud and perhaps even bring about a new body in any new legislation to ensure that constituents get some sort of answer and, importantly, some form of support from the authorities of the UK state.
Following clarity from my hon. Friend to UK Finance on how banks should interpret the money laundering regulations, a number of banks continue to close existing pooled client accounts of long-established, reputable boat-broking businesses. That is now stopping those businesses trading. What further assurance can he give to banks regarding these low-risk businesses?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. As she will know from the letter that I sent her this morning and from our conversation with industry representatives together a few months ago, this is quite a challenging issue to resolve. I cannot direct the banks to open, and keep open, these accounts, but I will continue to engage with her and with UK Finance to see whether more progress can be made in the coming weeks.
The Government have lost £4.3 billion of taxpayers’ money through fraudulent covid schemes. Now we learn that a large chunk of that money is going into the hands of terrorists, organised crime gangs and drug dealers. Will the Minister reassure me that he is taking the reports seriously and update the House on the total number of investigations the Government are undertaking that relate to covid fraud?
I can absolutely reassure the hon. Lady that the Government take the issue very seriously. That is why at previous fiscal events the Chancellor has invested £100 million in a taskforce to deal with it. When we designed a number of the interventions, protecting taxpayers was a real consideration. It is also the case that we needed to act swiftly to assist those businesses and if we had not made some of those interventions at the time, many businesses would have gone under. We continue to engage carefully on the matter.
We on the SNP Benches welcome the economic crime and corporate transparency Bill, and given the scale of the problem that the Tories have presided over, it is long overdue. What discussions has the Minister had with colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy about making Companies House an anti-money-laundering supervisor in its own right finally to lock out the fraudsters, the kleptocrats and their dirty money from Companies House once and for all?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight Companies House reform as a major area that we are working on. The Government forwarded more than £60 million to start that work, which has now been accelerated. Alongside the register of overseas entities and beneficial ownership, the increased transparency of those assets will be very welcome.
Effects of High Marginal Deduction Rates
The Government are committed to helping people keep more of what they own and I give credit to my hon. Friend for his work, which was instrumental in our lowering of the universal credit taper rate from 63% to 55%. That is a tax cut for low-paid workers on universal credit. He will know that from July we will raise the national insurance contributions threshold so that the amount that working people will be able to earn tax-free will increase by £2,690, helping to ensure that work pays.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for her kind comments. The changes that she has just re-announced are extremely welcome. With energy and food prices continuing to spiral, does the Treasury team accept that they will soon have to go even further? Do they agree that compared with increasing benefits, further cuts in these combined tax and benefits withdrawal rates will be a better way to put money in the pockets of many lower-paid families and that in future, the combined rates paid by less well-off families should never be higher than the top rates paid by the rich?
My hon. Friend has a keen interest in this area and I read his report, “Poverty Trapped”, with some interest. He makes a valuable point and will know that the Government have made progress in this area. The old system applied an effective tax rate of more than 90% to lower earners in some cases and, as a result of the changes we have recently made, an adult working 35 hours at the national living wage with two children over five will, for example, benefit from an additional £1,610 a year.
May I invite the Minister to come to Wakefield with me? I was there on Saturday morning. The people there have not read the Bloomberg report, but they can feel the impact of rising taxes and the cost of living. They know that they will be in desperate trouble in the coming months. Will she get real and bring the Chancellor to an area of good hard-working people who face the future with great fear?
I thank the hon. Gentleman and am sure that I will soon make a visit to Wakefield. The Government understand the issue with the rise in the cost of living but over this year we have committed £22 billion to support people in their time of need. The people in Wakefield that the hon. Gentleman talks about will also benefit from the cuts we have made to taxes, such as the universal taper rate, a tax cut for 1.2 million people and an extra £1,000 in their pockets. We have increased the threshold to the NICs rate, a £6 billion tax cut for £30 million working people. As I said—[Interruption.]
Energy Bills Support Scheme: Council Tax Rebate
High global energy prices have pushed up bills. That is why we are already helping households through the energy bills rebate package, which is worth more than £9 billion in total and £350 to the majority of households. Our British energy security strategy sets out how we will deliver a more secure energy supply that brings down bills in the longer term.
North Northamptonshire Council last week started paying the £150 rebate to residents who pay by direct debit, and rebates will follow for those who do not pay by direct debit. Will the Minister ensure that the Government disseminate best practice to local authorities regarding how to pay the rebates quickly, because getting this money into people’s pockets fast is key to helping residents to deal with the global cost of living squeeze?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of getting the money into people’s pockets fast, which is why the first support payment is through the council tax system. I know that councils are working hard to get payments to people, whether they do or do not have direct debits. The Treasury is working closely with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to support local authorities with delivery.
Tax System: Fairness
The Government are committed to ensuring a tax system that is fair and simple. I will give three examples: first, we have equalised the national insurance and income tax starting thresholds; secondly, our work towards OECD pillars 1 and 2 will help to ensure that multinational businesses pay their fair share; and thirdly, we are tackling avoidance and evasion to ensure that everyone pays the right amount of tax at the right time.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Liverpool, Walton ranks as the most deprived community in the whole of England. I am used to constituents contacting my office unable to afford their bills and to survive on their own incomes. What is new is that local independent businesses are now telling me that they are going under. At the heart of the Liverpool economy is hospitality and the visitor economy. Locally run and owned restaurants and cafés are now facing apocalyptic price rises. The VAT on soft drinks and food consumed on premises, and hot beverages and food taken away, has risen back to 20%—it was 5% and then 12.5% during the pandemic. What will Ministers do to save local independent businesses through the tax system?
It is important that we support local businesses, and that is exactly what the Government have done. The hon. Member will know about the business rates support—amounting to £7 billion of support to businesses—that we provided at the last Budget, including £1.7 billion for the hospitality industry through a 50% rebate on business rates. For small businesses, we also increased the employment allowance by £1,000. That is a package of support for local businesses in his area and others across the country.
Access to Cash Strategy
The Government recognise the importance of access to cash in the daily lives of millions of people across the UK. In the Queen’s Speech, the Government announced that we will legislate to protect access to cash in the financial services and markets Bill, which will be brought forward soon, when parliamentary time allows. We consulted on legislative approaches last year and will publish a summary of responses to the consultation this week.
If we look at the demographic of people who are most likely to be reliant on access to cash, we see that in large part it is those who are vulnerable or on low incomes. If someone is down to their last £10, they cannot afford a withdrawal fee at an ATM. Will the Government look to make all ATMs free to use for the customer by working with banks and ATM providers to reform the interchange fee, so that the system accounts for varying demographics, geography and demand in a way that it currently does not?
As I said, the Government’s response will be revealed in the legislation. When I visited the hon. Member’s constituency not so long ago, I saw that the use of hubs—banks working together to provide access to cash—is key. There are 72,000 cash access points and 430,000 cashback locations across the UK. A coherent response that addresses the hon. Member’s points will be made in the legislation.
Investment in UK Infrastructure
The Government are committed to investing in infrastructure to boost economic growth across the country, and I was delighted to see this at first hand when visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency of Southend West last week, where the local authority has secured £19.9 million from the levelling up fund.
It was a real pleasure to welcome the Minister to the new city of Southend last week. Every station on the C2C line in Southend West is access friendly except for Chalkwell station, where there are 30 steep steps to clamber up and down. What further support or funding can the Minister provide to level up that final station and ensure that it is accessible to all?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to campaign for better access to stations for disabled people. I am pleased to confirm that Chalkwell is included in the Department for Transport’s £350 million Access for All programme, and that construction will begin to install a new footbridge and lift this autumn.
The Government have cut the infrastructure that they promised at the last election, not least in Northern Powerhouse Rail. The economy needs greater rail capacity for passengers and freight, so does not this great rail betrayal show that the Government are not interested in the infrastructure needed for the economy in the north and the midlands to thrive?
I simply do not recognise the picture that the hon. Member is painting. This Government are absolutely committed to investing in infrastructure because that is at the heart of our ambitions for economic growth and levelling up across the country, including £96 billion for the integrated infrastructure rail plan for the north of the country.
I welcome the Government’s increased investment in infrastructure, but as the Minister knows, for the investment to be most useful we need to improve the deliverability of that infrastructure practically on the ground. Could she set out further what the Government are doing to improve the efficacy of all of that money going into infrastructure so that it actually gets delivered?
That is an excellent question from my hon. Friend. We are not only investing in infrastructure but making sure that taxpayers’ money gets put to good use. One way we are doing that is by working with the Infrastructure and Products Authority and with Project SPEED, which specifically scrutinises the most important infrastructure projects in this country to ensure that we are doing a better job of making taxpayers’ money go further and doing it cleaner and greener as we go.
After London, the Lake district is the most popular visitor destination in the United Kingdom, with 19 million visitors a year, yet its only direct rail link has a single track from the main line at Oxenholme to Windermere, known as the Lakes line. There is a proposal on the table to effectively dual that line by means of a passing loop at Burneside. Will the Minister agree to meet me and folks from the local authority to ensure that—no pun intended—we can fast-track the dualling of the Lakes line?
The designation of Immingham and Grimsby as part of the Humber ports freeport project highlights the need for increased infrastructure on the road network leading to those ports. Will the Minister agree to meet me and neighbouring MPs to discuss this, and particularly an upgrade for the A180?
Reducing Economic Inequality
I am very proud of the record of this Government and previous Conservative-led Governments over the past decade of significantly reducing the number of people living in poverty and reducing income inequality. In February we published the levelling up White Paper, which seeks to address the very striking regional disparities our country.
The New Economics Foundation says that recent measures such as the fuel duty cut and the national insurance threshold increase will benefit the richest 5% of families twice as much as the poorest half of households. At the same time, does the Chancellor not accept that his decision to raise taxes on working people while shielding those with incomes from other sources such as a large portfolio of properties is only going to increase income inequality further?
The hon. Gentleman is simply wrong. By raising the primary threshold to £12,500, we have ensured that the first £12,500 that anyone earns is completely free of national insurance and income tax. The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies has called it
“the best way to help low and middle earners through the tax system”.
That is what this Government are about.
The cost of living crisis is causing immense hardship for my constituents in Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, many of whom have been struggling for the past 12 years of this Government’s austerity policies. Can the Chancellor look me in the eye and tell me that he is doing everything he can to prevent my constituents from falling into a never-ending cycle of poverty, particularly given that the Prime Minister admitted last week that he believes the Government have not done enough?
The hon. Lady talks about the record of previous Governments over the past decade but, as I have mentioned to her previously, the number of people living in absolute poverty has fallen by more than 1 million since the Conservative-led Government were elected in 2010. That is a record of which we are very proud. She talks of austerity and, to bring her up to date, public spending over the course of this Parliament is growing at a record rate, both on investment and on day-to-day spending, so we can support strong investment in all the public services on which her constituents rely.
Women across the UK are the “shock absorbers of poverty,” as the Women’s Budget Group puts it. Women are cutting essentials for themselves so that their kids do not go without, and this is happening in Newport West, too. My inbox is full of emails from anxious families who are unable to pay their bills. What does the Chancellor think this says about the past 12 years of Conservative Government?
Of course we want to be able to support those women, mothers and families who rely on us in these hard times, and that is exactly what this Government are doing. Over the past 10 years, as I said, we have reduced the number of people in poverty. We know that the best way to do that in the long term is to support people into work, which is why I am delighted to see this morning that unemployment is at its lowest level in almost half a century. The single best way to fight poverty is to have a plan for jobs, and our plan is working.
One of the best ways to reduce economic inequality is through our plan for jobs and our freeport programme. To that end, will the Chancellor join me in welcoming the latest investment announced in Teesside’s freeport, a £150 million renewable gas facility for Circular Fuels that will create 200 jobs in construction and further jobs in the supply chain?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has been a fantastic champion for his constituents and Teesside in getting the freeport. We are now seeing the proof of that policy, with yet another announcement of more investment and more job opportunities for his constituents, which he rightly says is the best way to support them through these challenging times.
Under this Conservative Government, people’s savings have declined by record levels. Data from the Office for Budget Responsibility shows that the amount of income households are able to save is set to fall by more than £1,000. This Tory cost of living crisis is pushing people into debt, yet one Government Minister said yesterday that, if people are struggling, they should simply work more hours and get another job. Will the Chancellor confirm that “Get on your bike” is official Conservative economic policy once again?
There is an enormous amount to correct in the hon. Lady’s question. In aggregate, across the economy, savings increased over the past two years by more than £250 billion. Of course, that will not be distributed equally, but there is resilience. Consumer credit, on which those on lower incomes particularly rely, has also fallen by about £30 billion over the past two years. Households approach this period of difficulty in a more resilient shape than at any point in the past decade.
The comments by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), are absolutely right. It is wrong to take them out of context. This party and this Government are proud to be on the side of hard-working people. We want to support them into work, and we want to make sure that work pays. She was absolutely right to say what she said.
Strength of UK Economy
Last year, the UK was the fastest growing economy in the G7, and unemployment has fallen back to 3.7%, which is well below pre-pandemic levels. Growth in the first quarter here was stronger than that in the United States, Germany and Italy, and it is now 0.7% above pre-pandemic levels. The International Monetary Fund forecasts that the UK will be the second fastest growing economy this year and that by 2025 we will once again outpace the rest of the G7, with the fastest growing economy both that year and in 2026.
Across the 38 countries of the OECD only Spain had a bigger fall in its GDP from pre-pandemic levels than the UK. The UK is now uniquely placed in the cost of living crisis, owing to a decade of low growth under Conservative Governments. Can the Minister name any G20 country other than the UK that is forecast to have negative growth in 2023?
The UK has bounced back so strongly from the pandemic that we had the fastest growth last year, we have the second fastest growth this year and we are going to be leading the pack once again. So, we will have the second fastest growth in the G7 in 2024, and we will have the fastest growth in 2025 and 2026. We should be proud of that achievement. There is no doubt that, if we come out of a crisis earlier, there will be an element of other economies catching up in the near term, but the IMF is clear that over the course of the immediate outlook we are world leaders.
Plan for Jobs: Effectiveness
The success of our plan for jobs is playing a key role in growing the economy and spreading opportunity across the country. The Government protected 11.7 million jobs in the pandemic through schemes such as furlough, and of course we moved millions of jobseekers into work and supported young people through programmes such as kickstart and our apprenticeships offer.
Businesses in Ashfield are telling me that they are struggling to recruit young apprentices, even though they are offering top wages and education up to degree level. I am doing my bit by hosting an apprenticeships fair, but what more can the Government do to ensure that the young people in my area know that there are great, well-paid apprenticeship schemes available, so that they can have a fantastic career on their doorstep—and maybe a career in catering?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that it is an important message, which this whole House should send out, that apprenticeships really matter, that going to university is not the only way to succeed, and that people can earn and learn at the same time on our great apprenticeship courses. I believe my right hon. Friend the Chancellor visited Caunton Engineering in my hon. Friend’s constituency to promote apprenticeships, and of course I wish his apprenticeships fair every success.
The Chancellor mentioned that this plan for jobs is the long-term plan for restarting the economy. Do the Government accept that perhaps they need to do more immediately than simply having a long-term plan for jobs, in order to help people with the cost of living crisis?
We absolutely do accept that, which is why we brought forward a £22 billion package of support this year, with help ranging from reducing the burden of tax to providing support on things such as energy bills. That is absolutely in recognition of a very challenging economic landscape for people to be operating in, owing to the impact of the global pressures we are facing on inflation. We are clear that we have a plan for jobs and a plan for growth, and that we will get through the current crisis and deliver a much better future for the people of this country on the other side of what have been a remarkable couple of years and a very difficult one for the whole developed world.
Support for SMEs
Small and medium-sized businesses are at the heart of our economy, creating jobs and prosperity across the UK. Last week, we wrote to more than 2 million businesses setting out our support to them, including a £1,000 cut to employment taxes, extending the annual investment allowance limit, reducing business rates and cutting fuel duty by 5p.
In considering responses to the Treasury’s consultation on simplifying alcohol duty, will my hon. Friend consider a model that broadly relates duty to alcohol strength but without creating massive complexity and cost for the UK’s thousands of off licences and wine shops, including important small and medium-sized enterprises in Shropshire, which create jobs, supporting both the wine import and brewing sectors?
As my right hon. Friend knows, we have set out our plans to make alcohol duty simpler and fairer—a change that is long overdue. That includes a new relief for draught beer, small producer relief for craft cider makers and the end of the higher rate for sparkling wine. I am listening to the sector and I have visited businesses to hear for myself, to make sure that the reforms work in practice.
First, I wish the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), a very special and very happy birthday.
The Government of course appreciate that global inflationary forces are currently making life difficult for families, which is why we have brought forward, as we have heard, £22 billion-worth of support this year to help those in work and the most vulnerable in our society. We stand ready to do more as the situation evolves. That support is part of a broad plan that will grow our economy, encourage investment and create more skilled and high-wage jobs. That is this Government’s priority.
With so much affluence in our country, poverty is a political choice—the choice of the Chancellor and his Government. In York this week, energy companies are cutting off people’s energy supply, landlords are evicting people, budgets do not balance, poor mental health is spiralling and fear is gripping people on low wages, ill and disabled people and the elderly. That is the Chancellor’s choice. Why will he not increase social security payments? Such payments should pay, not punish, and keep people safe and secure.
The track record of this Government and previous Conservative Governments is very strong on reducing the number of people in poverty, because that is of course something that we want to achieve. On what is without question the No. 1 challenge that families currently face—energy bills—we have brought forward £9 billion-worth of support; many people in the hon. Lady’s constituency will have already benefited from £150 of that, and there is £200 more to come. Some of the actions of energy companies that the hon. Lady mentioned do not sound appropriate and I would be happy to look into the specific cases.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and extend my heartfelt condolences to Naomi for the loss of her son. My hon. Friend may be interested to know that NHS England and NHS Improvement, along with the British Heart Foundation, Resuscitation Council UK and the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives, have developed the Circuit, which is a national defibrillator network that will register defibrillators in the UK and provide an overview of where they can be found. I know that the Chancellor and the Prime Minister are interested in this issue, as I met the Prime Minister with my hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards). It is indeed an important issue.
At the spring statement, the Chancellor confirmed that the Conservative Government’s rise in national insurance—a tax increase on working people and the businesses that employ them—will go ahead. Since then, retail sales are falling, consumer confidence is tanking and GDP is falling. We are the only G7 country that is increasing taxes on working people in the middle of a cost of living crisis. National insurance is the wrong tax increase at the wrong time. Does the Chancellor still think that his tax rises on working people are the right approach?
The hon. Lady fails to mention what is about to happen, which is the biggest tax cut for working people that we have seen in decades: the rise in the national insurance threshold to £12,500. That means that 30 million people in work will receive, on average, a £330 tax cut and, contrary to what she has just said, it ensures that 70% of people in work will pay less tax this year than they paid last year.
The Chancellor expects people to thank him for increasing their taxes only then to decrease them a couple of months later. The truth is that the Chancellor should be asking those with the broadest shoulders to pay a bit more in tax—such as the North sea oil and gas companies that are making record profits—yet he chooses not to tax them. Will the Chancellor explain today why he will not close the outdated, unfair and unjustifiable tax loophole that sees 70,000 people benefit from non-dom tax status?
The hon. Lady says that we should be asking those with the broadest shoulders to pay, but that is exactly what we are doing. The NHS and social care levy means that those with the broadest shoulders, the top 15% of earners, will pay more than half the money raised from that levy. I think that she believes that that levy should be scrapped. It is an entirely progressive way to raise money to fund the tackling of NHS backlogs, for which there is, I know, huge support in this House. The Government are keen to get on and fix the pressing challenges of this country. We will fund those things in a responsible and progressive way, and that is exactly the plan that we have put in place.
I can give my right hon. Friend that assurance. That is our priority. We started last autumn by cutting the tax rate for those on the lowest incomes and universal credit. We carried that on in the spring statement by delivering a tax cut for those on lower-middle incomes by raising the primary threshold, and our priority is to keep cutting taxes for those in work, including by cutting income tax, as soon as the public finances allow.
Inflation is running out of control, growth is flatlining, and food and energy costs are spiralling. The Governor of the Bank of England yesterday was warning of “apocalyptic” food prices. James Withers of Scotland Food & Drink says that Brexit has made nothing better and a number of things worse. People and businesses have heard absolutely nothing from this Chancellor today on how he will tackle this urgent cost of living crisis—nothing at all. Will he bring forward an emergency Budget without further delay, as the British Chambers of Commerce are asking?
The hon. Lady talks about Brexit. We have already heard about the difference that Brexit is making, with a freeport in Teesside, which, because of Brexit, we have been able to create—and not just there, but in Leith, Immingham, Southampton and other places too. As we have heard today, those innovations are bringing jobs and investment to parts of our country that need to see it. That is what this Government promised to do, and that is what this Government are delivering.
My hon. Friend tempts me with a visit to a vineyard in her constituency. She has already made the argument very strongly—when I recently met the wine and spirits all-party group. Representing a wine-producing constituency, she will appreciate, I am sure, our announcement of the reduction in the duty rate for sparkling wine. As I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) earlier, I am speaking to businesses in the sector to make sure that we get right the practicalities of introducing these reforms.
Naturally, there has been criticism of the Bank of England, given the level of inflation and its inflation target, but among that criticism there have been reports that some in government, including perhaps one member of the Cabinet, have been suggesting that the independence of the Bank of England should be removed. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is essential that our central bank is independent in order to maintain the credibility and integrity of our monetary policy? Will he give a categorical assurance to the House that there are no plans of any kind to restrain the independence of our central bank?
I thank my right hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee for his important intervention. I agree with him wholeheartedly. While we face challenges at the moment, the record of 25 years of central bank independence speaks for itself, with an average inflation rate of exactly 2%. I know all colleagues will want to make sure that we return to that as swiftly as possible, and I can assure him that that is both my and the Governor’s ambition.
Obviously we are all clear that all fraud against the Exchequer is an outrage and totally wrong. That is why we have established a £100 million taxpayer protection taskforce, which is precisely determined to focus on that. We also have a new fraud function within Government, which is heavily focused on making sure that we address those issues. We are determined to make sure that, where there has been wrongdoing, we crack down on it and recover the money to the maximum extent that we can. Obviously, when introducing these schemes, we had to balance the imperative of speed of delivery against the risks, and I think we struck the appropriate balance at that time.
There was widespread welcome for last week’s announcement that the Government will introduce a financial services and markets Bill. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the intention of that Bill will be to ensure that future regulation is proportionate, that the regulator is publicly accountable and that we intend to maintain the international competitiveness of this great industry?
Absolutely I can. I note the observations of some economists yesterday; we will have an obligation on regulators to take account of competitiveness and of where we are in the global context.
Of course the Government recognise that energy bills are the single biggest challenge households face. That is why we have provided £9 billion-worth of support, including £150 for English households in the most recent month, with £200 more in support to come later this year.
I believe the Conservatives are and ought to be the party of hard-working families. According to a report released yesterday by the Centre for Policy Studies, reducing the cost of childcare can increase GDP by 10% and increase access to opportunities for women in the workforce. Does my right hon. Friend the Chancellor agree that helping hard-working families with childcare costs is good for the economy and that it is the Conservative thing to do?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. In fact, we do support families with the cost of childcare. One thing we do is to provide families with access to tax-free childcare, which means they can get a 20% reduction on the cost of childcare, up to a cap of £2,000 a year.
I do not want to foreshadow what the Foreign Secretary may or may not say in her statement, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that with regard to the protocol, the Government’s overriding priority has been and continues to be preserving peace and stability in Northern Ireland.
Can my right hon. Friend the Chancellor confirm that a worker working full time, or 40 hours a week, on the living wage is now £1,700 a year better off in real terms than they were in 2010 and that, after July, that will rise to almost £2,000, with everybody earning less than £36,000 a year better off under this Conservative Government this year?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I thank him for his support in championing policies that support his hard-working constituents. This Government will always be on the side of people on lower and middle incomes who are working hard to provide a better life for their families, and we will keep delivering for them.
Sadly, nothing we can do from this Dispatch Box can change global oil prices, but we can reduce the taxes that we are responsible for. That tax cut, together with the freeze, is worth, this year, about £100 for a typical family driver, £200 or more for a van driver, and almost £1,500 for an HGV driver.
We are absolutely determined to reduce the burden of tax facing both businesses and individuals. We have already heard during the course of these exchanges about the action we have taken, for example, on the employment allowance and on business rates, which is precisely designed to help businesses succeed in what is obviously a challenging environment.
In my constituency, one food bank has provided 1,269 emergency food parcels in four months, 40% of which have gone to children. Food banks are now reporting shortages as people cut back to make ends meet. This is no longer about living; it is about surviving. So will the Government end their heartless policy and immediately scrap the national insurance hike that they have introduced during the cost of living crisis?
Whether it is expansion of the school breakfast club programme, the holiday activities and food programme or healthy start vouchers, this Government are supporting families in meeting the costs of food, particularly at this difficult time. The hon. Gentleman rightly talks about children growing up in poverty. The best way to support those children is to ensure that they do not grow up in a household where no one is working, and I am proud that, thanks to the actions of Conservative Governments, half a million fewer children are now growing up in a workless household.
One group of companies doing well out of the cost of living crisis is the buy now, pay later lenders, with Klarna now valued higher than Barclays or Lloyds. One in 12 of their customers are using buy now, pay later credit to pay for toiletries and basic food products. Will the Chancellor, who was boasting about our consumer credit profile earlier, name the date when our constituents can finally make good on the promise that was made in this House over 18 months ago to give people protection from these legal loan sharks and access to the Financial Ombudsman Service?
My experience over the past four years or so has proved without doubt that truly levelling up South Yorkshire and the wider north will require transformative levels of investment. Does the Chief Secretary agree, and if so, does he truly believe that the investment is there to meet the huge challenge that we undoubtedly face?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his service as the Mayor of South Yorkshire; he did an outstanding job. It is very important that we recognise that we are going to need more great Mayors from across this House and from outside Parliament to help to deliver opportunity in the region. We are absolutely clear that our programme of investment, through a record spending review, is designed to make sure that levelling up moves from blueprint to reality over the course of the years ahead.
This Government have completely failed on growth in the economy, with the IMF, taking into account all the current Government proposals, currently forecasting that the UK will have the slowest growth in the G7 this year. The Minister will know that putting money into the pockets of the least well-off not only relieves their hardship but puts it into the local economy as they have to spend it, of necessity, back into the local economy, thus stimulating growth. Instead of choking off growth through the £20 universal credit cut, the national insurance hike and the refusal to use a windfall to relieve the hardship of these families, what new, additional measures do the Government propose to help hard-pressed families and to improve that IMF forecast on growth?
The hon. Lady cherry-picks the statistics. Last year we were the fastest-growing economy in the G7 and this year the second fastest. After the other countries have caught us up next year, we will return to being the second-fastest and then the fastest-growing economy. There is more come from this Government to support growth. In the autumn we will cut taxes on business investment and innovation, which we all know is the best way to drive up productivity and growth.
Ministers spoke earlier about using infrastructure to level up, and they are absolutely right—we need to link local communities to where the jobs are, so transport matters. Why, then, is there a lack of joined-up government? The Treasury is paying billions towards High Speed 2 coming to Manchester, yet the Bill before Parliament will sever the Metrolink line through Audenshaw in my constituency to Manchester, meaning that the tram will not be able to run for two years. That is not levelling up, is it?
What is levelling up is making sure that we have a colossal programme of transport investment designed to ensure that the connections both between regions and within regions are as strong as they can be, and I refer to the £96 billion integrated rail plan, which sits at the heart of our ambition in this space. Clearly the specifics of the proposal that the hon. Gentleman mentions are for Transport Ministers and the Mayor of Greater Manchester to discuss.
Northern Ireland Protocol
Before I call the Secretary of State, I wish to make a short statement in the context of this session. I am exercising the discretion given to the Chair in respect of the resolution on sub judice matters to further extend the waiver granted for proceedings in January to allow full reference to the challenge to the Northern Ireland protocol and to allow limited reference to the active legal proceedings.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the Northern Ireland protocol and to lay out the next steps. Our first priority is to uphold the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions. That agreement put in place a new arrangement for the governance of Northern Ireland and these islands composed of three interlocking strands: a power-sharing Government at Stormont on the basis of consent and parity of esteem for all communities; intensified north-south co-operation on the island of Ireland; and enhanced arrangements for east-west co-operation. So much of the progress we have seen in Northern Ireland rests on this agreement, and for the agreement to continue to operate successfully, all three strands must function successfully. These arrangements are the foundation on which the modern, thriving Northern Ireland is built. It commands the support of parties across this House, and we will continue to work with all communities in Northern Ireland to protect it.
As a Government, we want to see a First Minister and Deputy First Minister in place, and we want to work with them to make further progress. The basis for successful power sharing remains strong, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister laid out yesterday. However, the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is under strain, and, regrettably, the Northern Ireland Executive has not been fully functioning since early February. This is because the Northern Ireland protocol does not have the support necessary in one part of the community in Northern Ireland. I also note that all Northern Ireland’s political parties agree on the need for changes to the protocol.
The practical problems are clear to see. As the House will know, the protocol has not yet been implemented in full, due to the operation of grace periods and easements. However, EU customs procedures for moving goods within the UK have already meant that companies are facing significant costs and paperwork. Some businesses have stopped this trade altogether. These challenges have been sharpened by the post-covid economic recovery. Rules on taxation mean that citizens in Northern Ireland are unable to benefit fully from the same advantages as the rest of the UK, such as the reduction in VAT on solar panels. Sanitary and phytosanitary rules mean that producers face onerous restrictions, including veterinary certification, in order to sell foodstuffs in shops in Northern Ireland.
These practical problems have contributed to the sense that the east-west relationship has been undermined. Without resolving these and other issues, we will not be able to re-establish the Executive and preserve the hard-won progress sustained by the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We need to restore the balance in the agreement.
Our preference is to reach a negotiated outcome with the EU; we have worked tirelessly to that end and will continue to do so. I have had six months of negotiations with Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, which follow a year of discussions undertaken by my predecessor. The UK has proposed what we believe to be a comprehensive and reasonable solution to deliver on the objectives of the protocol. This includes a trusted trader scheme to provide the EU with real-time commercial data, giving it confidence that goods intended for Northern Ireland are not entering the EU single market. We are already sharing over 1 million rows of goods movement data with the EU every week.
Our proposed solution would meet both our and the EU’s original objectives for the protocol. It would address the frictions in east-west trade while protecting the EU single market and the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. The challenge is that this solution requires a change in the protocol itself, as its current drafting prevents it from being implemented, but the EU’s mandate does not allow the protocol to be changed. That is why its current proposals are unable to address the fundamental concerns. In fact, it is our assessment that they would go backward from the situation we have today with the standstill.
As the Prime Minister said, our shared objective must be to find a solution that can command the broadest possible cross-community support for years to come and protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions. That is why I am announcing our intention to introduce legislation in the coming weeks to make changes in the protocol.
Our preference remains a negotiated solution with the EU. In parallel with the legislation being introduced, we remain open to further talks if we can achieve the same outcome through a negotiated settlement. I have invited Vice-President Šefčovič to a meeting of the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee in London to discuss that as soon as possible.
However, to respond to the very grave and serious situation in Northern Ireland, we are clear that there is a necessity to act to ensure that the institutions can be restored as soon as possible. The Government are clear that proceeding with the Bill is consistent with our obligations in international law and in support of our prior obligations in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. Before any changes are made, we will consult businesses and people in Northern Ireland as our proposals are put forward.
I want to be clear to the House that this is not about scrapping the protocol; our aim is to deliver on the protocol’s objectives. We will cement the provisions in the protocol that are working, including the common travel area, the single electricity market and north-south co-operation, while fixing those elements that are not, such as the movement of goods, goods regulation, VAT, subsidy control and governance.
The Bill will put in place the necessary measures to lessen the burden on east-west trade and to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland are able to access the same benefits as the people of Great Britain. It will ensure that goods moving and staying within the UK are freed of unnecessary bureaucracy through our new green channel.
That respects Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s customs territory and protects the UK internal market. At the same time, it ensures that goods destined for the EU undergo the full checks and controls applied under EU law. That will be underpinned by the data-sharing arrangements that I have already set out. It will allow both east-west trade and the EU single market to be protected while removing customs paperwork for goods remaining in the United Kingdom.
The Bill will remove regulatory barriers to goods made to UK standards being sold in Northern Ireland. Businesses will be able to choose between meeting UK or EU standards in a new dual regulatory regime. It will provide the Government with the ability to decide on tax and spend policies across the whole United Kingdom. It will address issues related to governance, bringing the protocol in line with international norms. At the same time, it will take new measures to protect the EU single market by implementing robust penalties for those who seek to abuse the new system, and it will continue to ensure that there is no hard border on the island of Ireland.
I will publish more detail on these solutions in the coming weeks, and let me be crystal clear that, even as we do so, we will continue to engage with the EU. The Bill will contain an explicit power to give effect to a new, revised protocol if we can reach an accommodation that meets our goal of protecting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We remain open to a negotiated solution, but the urgency of the situation means we cannot afford to delay any longer. The UK has clear responsibilities as the sovereign Government of Northern Ireland to ensure parity of esteem and the protection of economic rights. We are clear that the EU will not be negatively impacted in any way, just as we have ensured the protection of the EU single market since the existence of the protocol.
We must restore the primacy of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all of its dimensions as the basis for the restoration of the Executive, and we will do so through technical measures designed to achieve the stated objectives of the protocol, tailored to the reality of Northern Ireland. We will do so in a way that fundamentally respects both Unions—that of the United Kingdom and that of the EU—and we will live up to our commitments to all communities of Northern Ireland. As co-signatory and co-guarantor of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, we will take the necessary decisions to preserve peace and stability. I commend this statement to the House.
We are grateful for advance sight of the statement from the Foreign Secretary, and I apologise on behalf of the shadow Foreign Secretary, who is unfortunately self-isolating due to covid.
It is over two and a half years since the Government negotiated and signed the withdrawal agreement. That deal included the Northern Ireland protocol, which required, by its design, some trade barriers and checks in the Irish sea. That was clear from the outset and it was a choice by this Prime Minister and by the Government, yet now, barely two years later, the Government are trying to convince people that their flagship achievement was not a negotiating triumph, but a deal so flawed that they cannot abide by it. Either they did not understand their own agreement, they were not up front about the reality of it, or they intended to break it all along. The Prime Minister negotiated this deal, signed it and ran an election campaign on it. He must take responsibility for it and make it work.
The situation in Northern Ireland is incredibly serious. Power sharing has broken down, Stormont is not functioning and political tensions have risen, while people in communities across Northern Ireland face rising bills as the cost of living crisis deepens. The operation of the protocol has created new tensions that do need to be addressed by listening to all sides, as well as to business and to consumers, and both the UK Government and the EU need to show willing and good faith. This is not a time for political posturing or high-stakes brinkmanship.
Everyone recognises that the situation in Northern Ireland is unique, and we want checks to be reduced to their absolute necessary minimum and for them to properly reflect trade-related risks. It cannot be right, for example, that goods leaving Great Britain that have no realistic prospect of leaving Northern Ireland, such as supermarket sandwiches, face excessive burdens, and the EU needs to understand that practical reality. Unnecessary barriers will only hamper business, inhibit trade and undermine confidence and consent.
The Good Friday agreement was one of the proudest achievements of the last Labour Government. It is absolutely essential that it is protected. That is why we need calm heads and responsible leadership. We need a UK Government capable of the hard diplomatic graft to find solutions and an EU willing to show flexibility. The right response to these challenges cannot simply be to breach our commitments. It is deeply troubling for the Foreign Secretary to be proposing a Bill to apparently break the treaty that the Government themselves signed just two years ago. That will not resolve issues in Northern Ireland in the long term; rather, it will undermine trust and make a breakthrough more difficult. It would drive a downward spiral in our relationship with the EU that will have damaging consequences for British businesses and consumers. It is Cornish fisherman, County Down farmers and Scotch whisky makers who will lose out, holding back the economy while growth forecasts are already being revised down.
But this goes beyond matters of trade. Britain should be a country that keeps its word. The rest of the world is looking at us and wondering whether we are a country that they want to do business with. When we seek to negotiate new deals abroad, do the Government want to make other countries question whether we will keep our end of the bargain? There are wide-ranging and damaging repercussions, undermining our ability to hold others to account for their own commitments, when we should be pulling together in support of Ukraine, for example, not fuelling divisions with our European allies.
The right approach is for the Government and the EU to work together to find practical solutions to these problems, and to brief the media less and to negotiate more. There is no long-term unilateral solution, and only a solution that works for all sides and delivers for the people and businesses of Northern Ireland will have durability and provide the political stability that businesses crave and the public deserve. We believe that should begin with a veterinary agreement that would eliminate the vast majority of checks on produce going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. New Zealand has an equivalence agreement, and it should not be beyond the Government and the EU to negotiate one that reflects the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland.
We would also negotiate with the EU for more flexibility on VAT in Northern Ireland, to fully align Northern Ireland VAT rules with those of Great Britain. We would use that to take VAT off Northern Ireland energy bills, funded by a one-off windfall tax on oil and gas producer profits, to help ease the cost of living crisis.
If the Government are determined to plough on with the Bill that the Foreign Secretary has proposed, will they agree to prelegislative scrutiny by the Foreign Affairs Committee, and will they set out clearly to the House why this does not break international law?
Labour wants to make Brexit work and for Britain to flourish outside the EU. We want the Government to take responsibility for the deal they signed, to negotiate in good faith and to find practical solutions, not take reckless steps to prolong uncertainty in Northern Ireland and damage Britain’s reputation. We want the EU to show the necessary flexibility, to minimise all barriers, and to work with the UK Government and listen to all sides in Northern Ireland. That is the right approach, that is the responsible approach, and it is what is in the long-term interests of the people of Northern Ireland, and indeed of the whole of the United Kingdom.
Our priority, as the United Kingdom Government, has to be peace and stability in Northern Ireland and protection of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. It is vitally important that we get the Executive back up and running and functioning, and that we fix the very real issues with the Northern Ireland protocol.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s acknowledgment that there are issues with taxation, with customs, and with procedures and bureaucracy. Fixing those issues does require the EU to be open to changing the protocol. As yet, and I have had six months of talks with Vice-President Šefčovič—my predecessor had 12 months of talks—the EU has been unwilling to open the protocol. Without that, we cannot deal with the tax issue, we cannot deal with the customs issue and we will not sort out the fundamental issues in Northern Ireland. It is our responsibility, as the Government of the United Kingdom, to restore the primacy of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement to get the Executive up and running.
In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question about legality, we are very clear that this is legal in international law, and we will be setting out our legal position in due course.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
“The first duty of Government is to uphold the law. If it tries to bob and weave and duck around that duty when it’s inconvenient, if government does that, then so will the governed, and then nothing is safe—not home, not liberty, not life itself.”
Those are not my words, but Margaret Thatcher’s. Respect for the rule of law runs deep in our Tory veins, and I find it extraordinary that a Tory Government need to be reminded of that. Could my right hon. Friend assure me that support for, and honouring of, the rule of law is what she and the Government are committed to?
I thank the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of her statement. We have heard plenty about the alleged shortcomings of the protocol, but there should be acknowledgement of the Government’s role in negotiating it; that does not even seem to have reached the level of being limited and specific, from what we have heard today. Ultimately the problem this legislation purports to deal with is not to do with the protocol, which was made necessary by the kind of Brexit that the Government eventually negotiated; the seed of the problem was in the very nature of the settlement.
Neither my colleagues nor I deny for one moment the hurt and upset caused to many in Northern Ireland by the protocol, but we must not forget that Scotland and Northern Ireland as a whole both voted against Brexit, and that there was not cross-Union consent for where we are now. If the consequences of that deal are judged to be not in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland, we need to be honest and recognise that the consequences of the entire withdrawal agreement are not in the interests of any place in the UK, because “getting Brexit done” has meant border checks for goods going from Great Britain to the EU or to Northern Ireland, but an absolute free-for-all for anything coming into Great Britain.
We on the SNP Benches have said all along that a stable agreement needs to be reached with the EU that works for all parts of the UK, and I genuinely wish the UK Government well in that, but with the crisis in Ukraine, the last thing we need to be doing is thrashing around here pointlessly in a snare of our own making. Domestic legislation will, even if passed, not wash away the need to comply with international commitments; nor will it change the fact that if the UK is neither in nor aligned with the single market and customs union, that still creates a trade border that needs to go somewhere.
Restoring devolved government in Northern Ireland and resolving the self-inflicted wounds of Brexit will require good will, trust and a negotiated settlement. I am sorry to say that the threats of unilateral legislative action by this Government to override their own deal are unlikely to be taken seriously in Belfast, and will not be taken seriously in Brussels; there is absolutely no reason why they should be taken seriously in this place either.
I have been very clear that we are open to a negotiated solution, but that negotiated solution needs to deliver on the ground in Northern Ireland and address the very real problems with the protocol, which the hon. Gentleman acknowledges—namely the fact that the people of Northern Ireland cannot currently benefit from UK tax and state aid decisions, and the fact that there is still full customs implementation on goods coming into Northern Ireland. In order to address those issues, it is not just the implementation of the protocol that needs to be addressed; the protocol itself needs to change, and we need that change in the mandate from the EU. It is absolutely our preference to have a negotiated solution with the EU, but we have to be clear that those changes need to happen; otherwise the protocol simply will not deliver on the ground in Northern Ireland, or restore the balance as set out in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and we will not see the Executive in Northern Ireland back up and running, which is what we want.
The EU’s approach to the protocol is so unreasonable that it is banning the movement of tree saplings from Great Britain to Northern Ireland for planting for the Queen’s platinum jubilee. Will the Foreign Secretary promise that her new enhanced green channel will disapply not just customs rules, but these unreasonable and excessive sanitary and phytosanitary rules on plants and foods?
My right hon. Friend is right to point out the very real issues the protocol is causing, particularly on SPS rules, and particularly in respect of goods that there is no plan to transport to the Republic of Ireland. She is right that our proposals will ensure those goods are able to travel freely through the green lane into Northern Ireland as part of a trusted trader scheme. For any company violating that scheme and not following the rules, there will be enforcement, so that we make sure we protect the EU single market. This is a pragmatic solution. We are supplying commercial data to the EU in real time, so that it can manage the EU single market while we protect our UK single market.
I agree that the Commission needs to move further to reduce unnecessary checks and paperwork on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland; a sandwich made in Yorkshire and sold in Belfast presents no threat whatsoever to the integrity of the European Union single market. However, why does the Foreign Secretary think that threatening to change an international treaty unilaterally—I look forward to seeing the description of why that is legal—will encourage the Commission to change its approach, especially when it is likely to undermine trust further, and may result in trade retaliation, which is not in the interests of any of our constituents?
The right hon. Gentleman points out that we need more flexibility from the EU, and need a changed mandate. His point about sandwiches from Yorkshire cannot be addressed through the operation of the protocol; the protocol itself needs to be changed. I have had six months of discussions with Maroš Šefčovič—my predecessor had a year of discussions—and there still has not been agreement from the EU on changing the protocol, which would fix the issues the right hon. Gentleman raised. We have seen the Belfast/Good Friday agreement undermined; we have seen the balance upset in Northern Ireland; and we have not seen the Executive fully functioning since February. In the absence of being able to achieve a negotiated solution with the EU, we are bringing forward legislation, but I am very clear that I am hopeful that the EU will change its position and be prepared to enter negotiations on that, in order to fix the very real issues that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned.
On the response from the EU, I point out that our solution makes the EU no worse off. We have proposals to protect the single market and to ensure enforcement of the green and red lanes. I hope that it looks at our proposals in a reasonable way, just as we are putting them forward in a reasonable way, and that we can work together on a solution.
I commend my right hon. Friend on her excellent statement, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on section 38 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, which enables the Foreign Secretary’s Bill to use our sovereignty, notwithstanding the protocol. Will she also ensure, through instructions to parliamentary counsel, that the Bill fully satisfies requirements when it comes to our sovereignty, the constitutional integrity of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, and the Good Friday agreement, and will she ensure that the European Court of Justice and EU law do not displace UK law? I also strongly urge her to take the advice of the Attorney General on matters of international law, despite siren voices to the contrary.
I thank my hon. Friend for his great expertise on this matter. To be clear, on the European Court of Justice, our solution is to have an arbitration mechanism in place, as we do for the trade and co-operation agreement, rather than having the ECJ as the final arbiter.
From the outset, the Democratic Unionist party warned this House of the consequences of the protocol, and that is why we opposed it from the beginning; we recognised the political and economic instability it would cause, and the harm that it would create for the Union.
Today’s statement is a welcome, if overdue, step. It is a significant move towards addressing the problems created by the protocol, and towards getting power-sharing based on cross-community consensus up and running again. We hope to see progress on a Bill to deal with these matters in days or weeks, not months. As the legislation progresses, we will take a graduated and cautious approach.
We want the Irish sea border removed, and we want the Government to honour their commitment in the New Decade, New Approach agreement to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market. The statement today indicates that that will be covered in legislation that brings about revised arrangements. Under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, power sharing can be stable only if there is cross-community consensus, but there is not consensus on this at the moment on the part of the Unionist community. We want the political institutions functioning properly as soon as possible, but to restore Unionist confidence, decisive action is now needed in the form of legislation, in order to repair the harm that the protocol has done to the Acts of Union, and in order to put in place sensible arrangements that, in the words of the Queen’s Speech, ensure the
“continued success and integrity of the whole of the United Kingdom...including the internal economic bonds between all of its parts.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 May 2022; Vol. 822, c. 3.]
The words today are a good start, but the Foreign Secretary will know that actions speak louder than words. I welcome her commitment to decisive action in her statement to the House.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman. What everybody in Northern Ireland agrees on—all parties—is that the Northern Ireland protocol is not working, and we do not have cross-party consent to move forward. It is vital to restore the primacy of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which provided for power sharing in Northern Ireland to ensure that we have the consent of all communities. The Government’s priority, above all else, is to protect peace and stability in Northern Ireland. That is our first duty as a sovereign Government of the United Kingdom.
We are hearing a lot in today’s discussion about the legal position of the United Kingdom, but having read the protocol carefully, it seems to me that there is a real question mark around the legal position of the European Union. The protocol contains many caveats relating to the protection of community relations in Northern Ireland, none of which appears to be being fulfilled. Will the Foreign Secretary ensure that she takes proper legal advice about the EU’s position, and that we do not just listen to all the comments about our position?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. The issue with the protocol is that although we entered into it in good faith, it has not operated as we foresaw, and it is causing the real problems that we see in Northern Ireland today. That is why our No. 1 priority is to seek a negotiated solution with the EU, but in the absence of that option, it is important that we act now to restore the primacy of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, so that we can restore the balance in Northern Ireland and ensure that all communities there are treated with esteem.
Why should the hard-pressed public of the United Kingdom, facing an unprecedented cost of living crisis, pay even higher prices as a result of a trade war with our main trading partners because the Foreign Secretary and the DUP want to tear up the agreement that the Prime Minister negotiated and the Foreign Secretary voted for?
I am clear that our priority is to seek a negotiated solution with the EU, and none of the proposals that I have put forward makes the EU any worse off. We want a solution that works for the EU single market and for the UK single market. The reality is that the people of Northern Ireland are paying higher prices as a result of the operation of the protocol—for example, the Road Haulage Association says that it has caused a 34% increase in the cost of moving goods to Northern Ireland—so we are facing a real cost of living impact in Northern Ireland. We want to fix the protocol to the benefit of both the United Kingdom and the European Union.
Article 1 of the protocol makes it clear that that agreement is to be “without prejudice” to the Good Friday/Belfast agreement regarding the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. That means, surely, that the Good Friday agreement takes primacy over the protocol. If that is right, what evidence will my right hon. Friend bring forward to make it clear that change is necessary if we are to avoid a degrading in the constitutional order, and order generally, in Northern Ireland?
My right hon. and learned Friend makes an important point about the primacy of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which has been vital for peace and stability in Northern Ireland. It is our priority to restore that. As I said, we will set out our legal position in due course.
What we have heard from the Government today is absolutely astonishing. This morning, they announced that they will ride roughshod over the wishes of victims in Northern Ireland by ripping up an international agreement called the Stormont House agreement. The Foreign Secretary has now confirmed that she will go against the majority of citizens in Northern Ireland—who, despite what she might say, support the protocol—by ripping up an international agreement called the withdrawal agreement. It is a very simple question, despite what some who may not want to listen to the majority of people in Northern Ireland might say: how can any international partner or any citizen in the north of Ireland ever trust this Government again?
An overwhelming proportion of people in Northern Ireland—78%—agreed that the protocol needed to change in polling conducted in December 2021. It is simply not true to say that a majority of people in Northern Ireland support the protocol. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is based on power sharing and esteem for all communities, and we want—ideally with the EU—to find a solution that works for all communities in Northern Ireland.
Last Thursday, the UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly met for the first time in Brussels, where we had a lively encounter between the Paymaster General and Commissioner Šefčovič. Members were able to ask about the sorts of points discussed today, and it was clear that Commissioner Šefčovič believed that there was a landing place for an agreement on these difficult matters. May I therefore urge my right hon. Friend to go the extra mile and see if we can get an agreement? If we could, that would open up opportunities for co-operation in energy, science and so many other things.
I assure my right hon. and learned Friend that that is absolutely what I want to do. I spoke to Commissioner Šefčovič last night, and I want to see a meeting of the Joint Committee immediately to discuss this issue. But, to fix the very real issues and change the situation on the ground in Northern Ireland, particularly on areas such as customs and tax where points are baked into the protocol, we need changes to the protocol. I have had numerous discussions with Maroš Šefčovič about that, but, as yet, there is not agreement for his mandate for change to include changes to the protocol. That is the fundamental issue that we are facing, but I am very, very willing to have those discussions. I will see the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, later this week for further discussions. We are very open to resolving the issues between the UK and the EU, but we do need real acknowledgment of what is happening on the ground in Northern Ireland and of the fact that the protocol needs to change.
So much for getting Brexit done and so much for oven-ready. What is the cost of the proposed actions? The Treasury has drawn up economic impact assessments for this course of action. When will the Government release them for the House to see?
The solution that we are putting forward will actually save costs by reducing the bureaucracy that traders currently face when shipping goods into Northern Ireland. So our overall proposal benefits traders into Northern Ireland and the people of Northern Ireland; it does not make the EU any worse off, and it helps to protect the single market.
I warmly welcome the statement, as I am sure will the Nobel laureate Lord Trimble, who wrote in a national newspaper this morning that it was urgent to address the problems of the protocol. As an architect of it with John Hume nearly a quarter of a century ago, he also raised the issue of the adverse influence of the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland. Can the Foreign Secretary assure the House that under her sixth heading, which I think she called governance, she will take action on that issue as well?
I can assure my right hon. Friend that we will take action to ensure that the arbitration mechanism is in place for Northern Ireland, as it is in the trade and co-operation agreement, rather than having the ECJ as the final arbiter, which it is at present. He is right to highlight the article today by Lord Trimble. We need to go back to the original thinking behind the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which was about treating the communities of Northern Ireland with equal esteem to make sure that we have successful arrangements in place to protect peace and political stability. That has to be this Government’s priority.
The protocol represents Northern Ireland’s soft landing from this Government’s decision to have a hard Brexit. Let me be very, very clear: in Northern Ireland there is a majority of voters, MLAs and the business community who want to see the issues with the protocol addressed in a pragmatic way, through building trust and partnership with the European Union, and not through damaging unilateral action that will damage the UK’s international reputation, including with the United States. Specifically on the European Court of Justice, does the Foreign Secretary understand that if she tinkers with that jurisdiction it will force Northern Ireland out of the single market for goods and undermine Northern Ireland’s ability to trap investment in terms of our dual access to both the European Union and Great Britain?
What we are proposing for Northern Ireland is a dual regulatory system that encompasses either EU or UK regulation as those businesses choose, which reflects its unique status of having a close relationship with the EU while being part of the UK single market.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. The powerful article by Lord Trimble, one of the architects of the Good Friday agreement, makes it very clear that the maintenance of that agreement overcomes everything else. To that extent, it would be helpful if Opposition Members who bang on about this read the protocol. Article 13.8 makes it absolutely clear that the protocol can, through negotiation, be changed in whole or in part. The point, therefore, is that my right hon. Friend is quite correct. The EU now needs to step up to its responsibilities in the protocol and do what article 13.8 tells it to do.
My right hon. Friend is right. The protocol was never designed to be set in stone. What we have seen are the very real consequences of the protocol, which has not yet been fully implemented, on the ground in Northern Ireland. It has caused political instability and an imbalance in the relationship between the communities in Northern Ireland, and we need to fix that. My strong preference is for the EU to secure a change in its mandate so we can find a negotiated settlement. I completely agree with Commissioner Šefčovič that there is a landing zone to be had, but we need to see flexibility so we can really make sure that there is a proper green channel operating into Northern Ireland, that the people of Northern Ireland benefit from the same tax benefits as the people of Great Britain, and that we can fix those problems in a sustainable way.
With a cost of living crisis and rising tension in Northern Ireland, the last thing our country needs is a poisonous stand-off with the EU and the prospect of a trade war with our largest trading partner. Until recently, the Prime Minister himself was saying, “Don’t worry, it’s all okay, there will be no border down the Irish sea,” and Ministers were incredulously parroting the line that we will only break international law in a limited and specific way. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is the pinnacle of incompetence or deceit for someone to negotiate and sign a deal when they have no intention whatever of honouring that deal?
As I have said, our priority is securing peace and stability in Northern Ireland, and restoring the primacy of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. The protocol was agreed in good faith, but it has had unintended consequences. It is the responsibility of the United Kingdom Government to take action to restore the balance. Our preference is a negotiated solution with the EU. We think there is a landing zone to achieve that, but it requires the EU to change its mandate.
May I just point out to my right hon. Friend that I only reluctantly voted for the protocol and the withdrawal agreement on the basis that we were not allowed to conclude a permanent trading agreement with the EU until we left and that it would be superseded or overtaken in due course? May I also just point out that apart from the disagreement about whether we should have legislation, there seems to be very broad agreement across the House, as there was when I proposed a motion to this House on 15 July last year, which the Labour party actually supported with very warm words, saying there were legitimate concerns among the Unionist community that had to be addressed? It is a shame that the Labour party will not will the means as well as the ends, but can I invite my right hon. Friend to engage with the reasonable elements of the Labour party to support her negotiating position so that we can reach a negotiated settlement?
I am very happy to engage with colleagues across the House, in particular to explain why there needs to be a change in the protocol itself to fix the issues about making a clear green lane between GB and Northern Ireland and on resolving the taxation issues. That is the fundamental issue in the negotiations with the EU, which we have conducted in good faith. I have had numerous negotiations and conversations with Commissioner Šefčovič over the past six months, but fundamentally the EU’s mandate does not allow the changes to be made that would help us to create the green lane and the free flow of goods between GB and Northern Ireland, and to address the unfairness in the tax system whereby a cut in VAT on solar panels announced by the Chancellor cannot be implemented for the people of Northern Ireland.
However the Foreign Secretary may dress it up, unilaterally changing a previously agreed international treaty is breaking it, and it is doublespeak to suggest otherwise. The consequences are real: ordinary families up and down this country will have higher prices to pay because of a trade war. Will she take this opportunity to be honest with the British people? If we get to the point where tariffs are raised as a result of a trade war with the EU, how much will they have to pay? Or does she not care?
We are very clear that the Bill is legal in international law and, as I have said, we will set out our legal position in due course. Our proposals, which we will outline in more detail over the coming weeks, are very clear about how we protect the EU single market. Currently, businesses in Northern Ireland and Great Britain are facing increased costs as a result of the Northern Ireland protocol. Our proposals would deal with those costs while protecting the EU single market. The EU will be no worse off as a result of our proposals.
There is genuine anger in the loyalist community about the protocol and the way in which many people feel it undermines their British identity. Now it has been unanimously rejected at the ballot box by the Unionist community, what assurances can my right hon. Friend give me that if the negotiations continue to fail we will see a Bill in this House in the coming days and weeks, not months?
We are committed to introducing a Bill to resolve the very real issues on the ground in Northern Ireland. In parallel, we are open to negotiations with the EU, but in order to proceed on those negotiations the EU does have to be willing to change the protocol itself to fix those very real issues.
The Foreign Secretary knows that there were only three ways of protecting Northern Ireland’s special position after Brexit: a land border on the island of Ireland, which we all reject; closer alignment between the UK and the EU, which business wanted but the Government rejected; and a sea border. The Prime Minister chose a sea border. He knew the checks that that would involve, but he denied it to the Unionist community. There are solutions that can be negotiated, but is not the reason for today’s statement that the Government and the Foreign Secretary, for reasons of her own ambition, see advantage in fuelling Brexit divisions?
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s analysis. There is a solution, which we have put to the EU. Commercial data that is collected in the normal course of business can be shared, in real time, with the EU as well as making sure that there are strong protections on the trusted trader scheme so that any untoward activities are acted against. We can do all that, make that happen and protect the EU single market, while, at the same time, enabling the free flow of trade. What we need, though, is flexibility in the EU’s mandate so that it is prepared to change the protocol. As many in the House have said, the protocol was never intended to be set in stone, but it is our duty, as the United Kingdom Government, to act to restore peace and stability in Northern Ireland.
I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) said about the deal we signed up to. Some of us were always clear this was a tolerable path to a great future. The thing that made it only tolerable was that we knew that this was unfinished business. Today, we face just the problems that the protocol foresaw. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said, the protocol has provision for it to be changed. As I welcome this as the right solution for the way forward—and what nonsense we have heard; this is a solution that could be negotiated—I ask her to repeat once again that we will protect the EU’s legitimate interests as we restore the primacy of the Good Friday agreement and the constitutional integrity of the UK.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have established the trusted trader scheme and the sharing of commercial data with the EU. What we are proposing, as part of this Bill, is proper enforcement to make sure that the EU single market is protected. In our view, that is the best solution; it makes sure that there is free flow of trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland while, at the same time, protecting the EU single market. As we have heard across the House, people recognise that there are real issues with the Northern Ireland protocol. My No. 1 preference is to get a negotiated solution with the EU, but it has to be willing to look at these types of pragmatic solutions that will both protect the EU single market and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the United Kingdom.
The Foreign Secretary must be alarmed at the comments that emerged this morning from the chairman of Marks & Spencer. He has already had to close his business in France. His business in the Republic of Ireland is about to close—[Interruption.] Oh, he is a Conservative; therefore, he should not be doing business—that seems to be the Liberal view emerging. To export goods, his business in the Republic of Ireland has to fill in 700 pages within an eight-hour period. It has to do some of the wording in Latin to satisfy the European Community, and it also has to be typed in a certain font or it will not be allowed. It costs him an additional £30 million. He said on the radio this morning that the EU told him that it would like the same procedures for his businesses in Northern Ireland. This is a power grab. People talk about a trade war—this is a trade war to crush business in Northern Ireland. Will the Foreign Secretary ensure, when she is speaking to the Cabinet, that it knows clearly that if it keeps the protocol, power sharing is not coming back?
I have been very clear in my statement that we are bringing forward legislation to sort this issue out and to deal with the bureaucracy that we are seeing—the requirement for customs declarations and customs codes from businesses that are simply operating within the United Kingdom. That is why we want to create the green lane that allows properly protected goods to move freely within the United Kingdom, and we are committed to that legislation. In the meantime, if the EU is prepared, in parallel, to move to a negotiated settlement to resolve the very issues that the hon. Gentleman raises, we are of course open to those talks, but we will not allow it to delay our taking the action we need to take to restore the primacy of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
In the last Parliament, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, under my chairmanship, produced a comprehensive set of alternative arrangements that were workable and high-tech and that would erase the need for the current perniciously applied checks that most in this House agree are unnecessary. Given that they would satisfy the EU’s stated objections, why does she think that the EU have stonewalled them?
I am not going to speculate as to why the EU has not changed its negotiating mandate, but it is very clear that there is a solution—my right hon. Friend worked very hard on that—that satisfies the requirement to protect the EU single market and, at the same time, restores the primacy of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We need to make sure that we move forward as fast as we can to that solution.
To make his EU deal work, the Prime Minister inserted a border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Some accepted the absurd claim that there would not be any checks across that border. That misjudgment has proved electorally disastrous and potentially fatal to the Union. The Foreign Secretary has announced today that the Government may well breach the agreement that the Prime Minister negotiated. What assessment has she made of the impact of that announcement on trade negotiations that are under way with other countries around the world?