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Northern Ireland

Volume 716: debated on Wednesday 22 June 2022

The Secretary of State was asked—

Trade between NI and rest of UK

1. What steps his Department is taking to support businesses trading between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. (900559)

9. What steps his Department is taking to support businesses trading between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. (900567)

10. What steps his Department is taking to support businesses trading between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. (900568)

12. What steps his Department is taking to support businesses trading between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. (900571)

Mr Speaker, I thank you and the team at the Houses of Parliament for the unveiling this morning of the plaque recognising Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson.

We cannot allow the Northern Ireland protocol to continue to prevent the free movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which is why we have introduced legislation that will allow businesses to trade freely again. We are providing reassurance for business by continuing to operate the standstill arrangements, and we will work with businesses on the details of any new models.

Does the Secretary of State agree that trade between our Union is of the utmost importance and that we should do all we can in this place to make sure it is not hindered in any way?

Absolutely—the Government are steadfastly committed to Northern Ireland’s integral place in the United Kingdom. We will never be neutral on the Union. The proposed legislation we recently introduced will fix the practical problems the protocol has created in Northern Ireland, avoiding a hard border, protecting the integrity of the UK and safeguarding the EU single market.

Businesses based in Great Britain, such as the Snowdonia Cheese Company in my constituency, tell me that while it is possible for them to trade with Northern Ireland, doing so can be very involved, costly and restrictive. The current application of the Northern Ireland protocol is therefore hampering business growth and success. Will my right hon. Friend confirm how businesses like Snowdonia Cheese stand to benefit from the provisions in the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill?

My hon. Friend makes an important point on why the Bill matters. Freedom to move products within the UK’s internal market without impediment is critical. The proposed legislation will enable businesses to trade freely once again by delivering new green and red lane arrangements. It will remove unnecessary costs and work for businesses trading within the UK, while ensuring the necessary checks are done, quite properly, for goods entering the EU.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government will continue to work closely with businesses to ensure that we address all their needs, so that trade with Northern Ireland and Rother Valley boom?

Absolutely. My hon. Friend is right. We want to see trade booming across the United Kingdom and for the United Kingdom. We will continue to work closely with businesses. The purpose of the secondary legislative powers in the Bill is to allow us to flesh out precise technical details in our proposals, working with business, who we will always engage with, to ensure that our solutions work and deliver for them and for the people of Northern Ireland. We will be doing that with them, as well as with other stakeholders, both in Northern Ireland and Great Britain, over the next months to ensure that the new systems address their needs.

As my right hon. Friend says, there are huge opportunities for trade within the Union, including with spaceports in Cornwall and Scotland. Given Northern Ireland’s expertise and strength in the manufacture of spacecraft components, can my right hon. Friend assure me that when it comes to procurement, businesses in Northern Ireland are as well placed as any to bid for these—I cannot resist this—stellar opportunities?

My hon. Friend is always fired on rocket-powered fuel when asking direct questions like that—and I am afraid that, no, I cannot top that.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Northern Ireland has real expertise in advanced engineering, manufacturing and aerospace. It is right that we take measures, in taking the Bill through, to ensure that businesses across the United Kingdom—and yes, from my point of view, obviously, predominantly those businesses in Northern Ireland—can absolutely benefit from the opportunities that are there for the UK, bringing UK businesses together in a global way that can see their business grow and create more jobs.

The Government claim that their protocol Bill is designed to protect the Good Friday agreement, while being in the middle of a demolition derby of its core values, creating regression and polarisation that will take us years to fix. The Secretary of State should know that the Human Rights Act is a cornerstone commitment of the Good Friday agreement. What legal advice has he received and what representations has he made to Cabinet colleagues about the compatibility of the Bill of Rights and the 1998 agreement that he is charged with protecting?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is important that we deliver and protect all aspects of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement; I have made the point several times at the Dispatch Box over the past couple of years that we have to ensure that we protect all three strands, not just one. I am pleased that the hon. Lady recently said:

“I do not love the protocol”.—[Official Report, 15 December 2021; Vol. 705, c. 374WH.]

There is no doubt that there are a lot of challenges for businesses, so I hope that she will support the Bill, which seeks to fix those challenges.

The latest business to report disruption to its supply is a photo-framing business in Newtownards whose supplier has said that the profit margin is not worth the hassle of sending its order, so it has been cancelled. That is another of the 200 companies that trade between England and Northern Ireland; the tale is repeated for businesses in every postcode. The Government must do the right thing and restore our position, not just constitutionally but financially for businesses. Will the Secretary of State give a date for the withdrawal Bill’s Second Reading?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I cannot confirm the exact date at this point, but we have introduced the Bill and he can be reassured that the Government are committed to resolving the problems with the protocol, restoring the primacy of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and restoring sovereignty and territorial integrity for the whole United Kingdom. It is imperative that we ensure that people in Northern Ireland have the same benefits, laws and courts as everybody everywhere else in the United Kingdom. I have been very clear that, as part of that, we want to ensure that we deliver strand 1, which means the reformation of the Northern Ireland Executive as soon as possible.

Even a fool now knows that Brexit has damaged UK trade and GDP, but do the Government have any assessment of the GDP gain and the benefit to business that the protocol has given Northern Ireland, especially as it is the only part of the UK outside London to record growth, and the only part of the UK inside the single market? It is no coincidence that it has seen growth.

I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman does a bit of research, he will see that it is actually quite a complicated picture. It is good to see Northern Ireland growing back quickly: with a larger proportion of the economy in Northern Ireland based on the public sector, and with the phenomenal support that the Chancellor has put in, that is to be welcomed. We want to see Northern Ireland’s economy growing; it was struggling before covid. We are making sure to put that support in, but I have to say that that would be even easier were it not for the protocol, which is preventing some of the Chancellor’s measures from benefiting the people of Northern Ireland.

Given that so much policy that affects and benefits business is devolved, is not the best support that politicians of all stripes could give Northern Irish business to get Stormont back up and running?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We all want to see Stormont back up and running. It is important that we see all the Ministers back with their full powers. We have caretaker Ministers in place now, thanks to legislation that we passed recently, but having Stormont making spending decisions, getting money out the door and supporting businesses and people in Northern Ireland is the right thing to do.

Northern Ireland Protocol Negotiations

2. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on progress in the Northern Ireland protocol negotiations. (900560)

I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues about issues affecting Northern Ireland more widely, including the Northern Ireland protocol.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the Northern Ireland Business Brexit Working Group, which represents 14 industries, released a statement last week stating that

“there are significant concerns about the introduction of an all-encompassing dual regulatory regime.”

I understand that dairy farmers have similar concerns. Having heard about those issues, can the Secretary of State tell us what consultation the Government did with businesses before introducing this regime?

We are in continual engagement with business. We have had more than two meetings a month with the wider group, and the Minister of State and I have made more than 30 visits to businesses that are members of those groups. We are in constant communication with business. It is important that we design the details in conjunction with business to ensure that businesses that are doing well and sectors such as dairy that benefit from the economy across the island of Ireland do not lose out. We must also ensure that we deliver for the businesses that are so detrimentally affected by the problems with the EU’s implementation of the protocol.

The EU is rightfully focused on protecting its own single market, but may I respectfully request that we first and foremost protect the single market of the United Kingdom? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the practical and durable solution set out in the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill will do just that?

My hon. Friend is spot on, as ever. Our legislation will restore the balance inherent in the objectives of the protocol, avoiding a hard border, protecting the integrity of the United Kingdom and safeguarding the EU single market. It is right that we are doing the right thing by the businesses and citizens of Northern Ireland, who are businesses and citizens of the United Kingdom and the UK internal market.

When the Government introduced the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, the Secretary of State was quite honest about his lawbreaking, and here we are again. The man who resigned over his actions, the former head of the Government Legal Department, says that the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is “next-level” lawbreaking. Based on this Government’s track record, why should anyone believe what the Minister claims about this Bill’s legality?

The hon. Gentleman tends to make a habit of standing at the Dispatch Box and taking the side of the EU over the UK, which is disappointing: what he should be doing is supporting the UK economy and supporting businesses and people in Northern Ireland, who want to see a resolution. We have set out a package in this legislation that is within the law and delivers for the people of Northern Ireland by delivering on what should be the priority for all of us: the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, in all three strands.

The Secretary of State mentions the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, but the Foreign Secretary argues for unilateral action on the protocol because it does not have the necessary support in one of the communities in Northern Ireland. I say that the EU must show more flexibility and listen to the Unionist concerns, but if cross-community support is so important to the Government, can he confirm that the current plans also have the support of the nationalist community?

The hon. Gentleman talks about the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, but his tweets in the last couple of weeks have highlighted that he has possibly not even read it; I suggest that he at least gets equipped with who the signatories to the agreement are, so that he understands who the co-guarantors are.

We are focused on delivering all three strands of the agreement. One thing that has been common and clear from the leaders of all the parties in Northern Ireland is that, in one form or another, they all—nationalists and Unionists—want to see changes to the Northern Ireland protocol. They all acknowledge that there are problems with it and that it is not working for businesses and citizens in Northern Ireland. Eventually, if we are not able to get an agreement with the EU, we will have to take forward measures to secure a resolution of the problems that all those people and businesses are outlining. We would rather do that by agreement with the EU, but it is right that we take action.

The EU has threatened to remove access for Northern Ireland businesses to the single market. To police this, it would have to create a hard border on the island of Ireland; that is the only consequence of its actions. Does the Secretary of State agree that such a threat from the EU indicates that, far from wanting to protect the Good Friday agreement and peace and stability in Northern Ireland, it simply wants to punish Northern Ireland businesses because the UK Government want to protect the UK internal market?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is right that we are looking to deliver on all three strands of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We will never be looking at any sort of infrastructure; there cannot be a hard border on the island, in the same way that there should not be a hard border between east and west. That is the issue of the three strands. We recognise that the EU’s focus is on its single market. We recognise that we will ensure that its single market is protected, but we will defend all three strands of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the former Prime Minister Tony Blair has stated that the protocol presents a real risk to the Good Friday agreement. Does he agree that the agreement and the political institutions can operate only on the basis of cross-community consensus and not the majority rule that some in this House are now advocating? Does he also agree that in order to achieve that cross-community consensus, the Government need to proceed with legislation that will resolve the real difficulties that the protocol is presenting for the people of Northern Ireland and our place in the Union?

Yes; the Government have been clear that we are determined that the political settlement in Northern Ireland is based on respect and understanding between all communities and the consent of those communities. The protocol is clearly undermining that, and that has to be resolved. That is what we are seeking to do through our legislation. We would like to get an agreement with the EU, but we need to move on and get this legislation in place as we have been unable to secure that agreement with the EU, in order to protect the internal market of the UK, the people and businesses of Northern Ireland and all three aspects of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

The Government invested a great deal of good faith in signing the protocol and they were entitled to expect the same good faith in return. It is now pretty clear that the protocol, in practice, has not proved to be compatible with the Good Friday agreement. Will the Government now consider triggering article 16, particularly given the casual, if fleeting, use of that measure by Ursula von der Leyen?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point about how the EU has already triggered article 16, for example, to create disruption with the vaccine roll-out during covid, which highlighted how it views the north-south potential and the potential of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We are determined to resolve the issues overall. As we have said previously, we do not want to trigger article 16. We take nothing off the table, but we are very clear that our proposed legislation resolves the issues that the protocol is creating and it is the right move to take.

NI Protocol Bill: Discussions with the EU

Our preference remains to resolve the problems with the protocol through talks. Our door remains open to discussions, but the EU has so far not been willing to make meaningful changes to the protocol, which are necessary to deliver the solutions needed.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but the Government walked away from negotiations. By rejecting negotiation in favour of lawbreaking and, in doing so, disregarding the wishes of the majority of MLAs, businesses and the Northern Irish public, the UK Government have utterly destroyed the trust that not only the EU had in the UK, but that Ireland and the United States had too. Trust is easily lost and hard won, so how do the Government plan to be seen as a good faith partner in international negotiations ever again?

Last year, we published a Command Paper that set out solutions, with which the EU has never properly engaged. It did publish its ideas in October, which the business community in Northern Ireland said did not work. We have continually been in engagements and negotiations with the EU. It has been clear that it is not willing to show the flexibility needed to resolve the protocol issues, which is why we have introduced this Bill.

The hon. Gentleman might want to look back at Hansard to see the statement from the Foreign Secretary when we introduced the Bill. We are very clear, as I have said today, that we will continue to negotiate with the EU. We would like to seek a resolution by agreeing with the EU, but it is right that we table this legislation at this point as well to resolve the issues.

Belfast harbour has reported levels of trade and increase in turnover of profits of 17% to £73.3 million from 2021, with pre-tax profits up 13% to £34 million. Can the Secretary of State advise the House why their Government would jeopardise 25.6 million tonnes of cargo, a 9% increase on the 23.5 million a year earlier, which was up by 5% on the previous record levels of 2019, by unilaterally changing the Northern Ireland protocol?

The hon. Gentleman should read the full article, because then he would realise that, between the easements, the standstill and the grace periods, we are not actually fully implementing the protocol let alone the other business that Belfast harbour takes in that has nothing to do with the protocol. What we do know is that—

Order. Mr Docherty-Hughes, I think those whippets that you own need a little walk. That is where you will be going shortly.

I will leave the hon. Gentleman to read the article, so that he can realise just how wrong his question was.

Many of the issues related to trade and movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland are plant and animal-related. What progress have the Government made in trying to secure an arrangement between the UK and the EU on veterinary and sanitary and phytosanitary matters? That would address these issues and also enhance the UK’s biosecurity.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. One frustration with this failure by the EU to see the flexibility that we need is that, by resolving some of these issues, we could have avoided the need for us to legislate and to take this period of time to resolve things. Our legislation will resolve all of these issues and create a method that not only protects the EU single market, but, importantly, works for businesses, works for citizens, and works for all three aspects of the Good Friday agreement, dealing with those very issues that he raises.

One of my predecessors in Redcar was the political giant Dr Marjorie Mowlam, most notable for her work in securing the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. Can the Minister confirm that any arrangement we reach with the EU in relation to the protocol will take account of and address the issues that are disrupting the delicate balance of that agreement?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is important that we respect the balance in that agreement. It is important because it has given us peace for 24 years, and that is where our focus is.

I have to remind the Secretary of State that it was this Government who signed up to the trade and co-operation agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol as it currently stands. It might not be necessary to try to renegotiate had more time been given over to this Chamber to allow Members to scrutinise it before it entered into law. Does the Secretary of State regret the decision taken by the Government to curtail the amount of parliamentary time available to Members to scrutinise that before Brexit was done?

I think the hon. Gentleman is arguing to go back in time and take even longer to get Brexit done. I am not sure the British public or anybody would thank him for that, but of course the business of the House is generally agreed through the usual channels; that is always the case.

Cost of Living

5. What steps the Government is taking to help reduce the cost of living in Northern Ireland. (900563)

The challenges faced by the public across the United Kingdom in terms of the cost of living are the dominant issue facing British politics. The Government are acting decisively to ensure that we provide support to the most vulnerable households. The biggest thing we could do in Northern Ireland would be to restore devolved Government, so that we have a Government who can act for the people of Northern Ireland, as the Government of the United Kingdom are acting in England, Scotland and Wales.

The Minister will be well aware that the energy price cap does not exist in Northern Ireland, leaving households vulnerable to the price hikes of up to 33% we have seen in recent months. The Treasury said in May that it was urgently working to step in to provide direct support due to the lack of an Executive. Can the Government now lay out how the £400 energy discount will be delivered in Northern Ireland?

We are very clear on this. The way that it should be delivered is through restored devolved Government in Northern Ireland, and the impediment to that, as the hon. Lady will know, is the interpretation and application of the Northern Ireland protocol. As I have said clearly to Members from the Democratic Unionist party, that is a matter for the United Kingdom to negotiate with the European Union, or we can take legislative measures in this House, as we are doing. They should be back in Government delivering for the people of Northern Ireland on the mandate delivered in May.

An Ulster Bank report last week contained the worrying result that Northern Irish firms are the least optimistic of any firms in a UK nation or region about activity in 12 months’ time. What further support can the Government offer to businesses in Northern Ireland that are struggling with this Tory cost of living crisis?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, this is an international challenge that has been exacerbated by the situation in Ukraine and Russia, and the Government are delivering decisive action and interventions to help people through this incredibly challenging situation—probably the most challenging situation that we have faced for a generation. In Northern Ireland, we have New Decade, New Approach funding, city and growth deals, the levelling-up agenda and the community shared ownership funding. We are making a plethora of interventions in Northern Ireland to make life for ordinary people better than it is already.

I have listened to one of the most able members of the Government and his thoughtful response. If the problem really is the Northern Ireland protocol, how on earth are we going to get the EU to see sense?

My hon. Friend asks some of the most devastating supplementary questions. We are very straightforward on this: we are simply saying to the European Union—I have been explaining this on behalf of the Prime Minister in the United States—that goods that are moving within the United Kingdom’s internal market and destined for sale and consumption in Northern Ireland, and that will never see dawn or dusk in the Irish Republic, pose absolutely no risk whatsoever to the integrity of the European single market. I spent time two weeks ago with Tony Blair, who has produced an amazing report that says that the European Union needs to find the room to move. Vice-President Šefčovič needs to be given a broader mandate. I say to my hon. Friend that it absolutely remains the determination of the Government to reach a conclusion on the protocol in negotiation, friendship and partnership with the European Union.

Because of the Barnett formula—something that the SNP would do away with for Scotland—our whole United Kingdom, including Scotland and Northern Ireland, will benefit from the £81 billion household support fund, including £14 million for Northern Ireland. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this will help the most vulnerable households in Northern Ireland?

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Last week, I met Jonny Petrie, chief executive of Ulster Rugby, about the club’s plans to apply for levelling-up funding to improve sporting facilities, including for community clubs across Northern Ireland, that would support the health and wellbeing of local people. Will the Government commit to considering funding development of these facilities so that Northern Ireland can attract major sporting and cultural events that would deliver much-needed tourism, jobs and money to the people of Northern Ireland?

I am delighted—[Interruption.] Thank you for that thunderous welcome back to the Dispatch Box. I am happy to say to the shadow Minister that we will absolutely do that. Only yesterday I was in Carrickfergus with the son-in-law of an hon. Gentleman on the Benches opposite seeing a new 5G pitch. We are absolutely committed to levelling up. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made clear, levelling up is the mission of this Government. It is not about north-south; it is about improving life opportunities in communities across the whole of the United Kingdom, especially in Northern Ireland.

That must be the loudest cheer any Minister has had—well done, Minister!

Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I would like to point out that British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings is available to watch on