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Trade between NI and rest of UK

Volume 716: debated on Wednesday 22 June 2022

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.