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Brexit: Movement of Goods between Northern Ireland and Great Britain

Volume 800: debated on Thursday 24 October 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given in the other place earlier today by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union:

“On 17 October the United Kingdom and the European Union reached political agreement on a new withdrawal agreement and political declaration for the future relationship. This includes a revised protocol for Northern Ireland/Ireland, which has been extensively debated in this House. This agreement is clear that Great Britain and Northern Ireland are one customs territory. Goods that are not at risk of moving to the European Union will attract no tariffs.

These arrangements mean that Northern Ireland would remain in the UK’s customs territory and could benefit from the UK’s new trade deals with third countries. For goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, those destined for the European Union will have to comply with European Union rules. To ensure that the correct tariffs are applied and that goods comply with the rules of the single regulatory zone, some information will be needed on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

The deal also explicitly allows for the United Kingdom to ensure unfettered market access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. There will be minimal targeted interventions designed to prevent, for example, the trade in endangered species—something I would have thought this House agreed on. We will work with the European Union to eliminate these limited processes as soon as possible after Brexit.

The most important point is that these arrangements automatically dissolve after four years unless a majority of the Northern Ireland Assembly in Stormont votes to keep them”.

Perhaps I may help the Government because I do not think they understand their own deal, which effectively ends the UK’s single market by imposing different tariffs and rules between Northern Ireland and Wales, Scotland and England. The Prime Minister keeps insisting that there will be no checks between GB and Northern Ireland, but Steve Barclay had to admit to our own committee that exit summary declarations will be required between Northern Ireland and GB. Today’s words were “minimal interventions”. Well, Mr Johnson, that means “checks”. The impact assessment says that some 215 million import and entry or exit declarations will be needed at a cost of between £15 and £56 each.

The Answer we have just heard states that the withdrawal agreement will ensure,

“‘unfettered’ market access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to the rest of the United Kingdom’s internal market”.

However, if you look at the Bill—which some of us have to do—the word “unfettered” has disappeared and it allows for regulations to facilitate access to the market in Great Britain. Can the Minister come clean and admit that trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain will now be like sending something to a foreign country?

First, the noble Baroness is wrong: there will be no tariffs on goods from Northern Ireland to the UK. We have agreed these arrangements because of the unique situation of Northern Ireland. As we were told extensively when the original customs proposals were produced that this would result in checks in Northern Ireland, we compromised for the sake of getting a good agreement, which we were constantly urged to do. We have recognised the unique situation of Northern Ireland: we have provided a consent mechanism for Northern Ireland’s elected representatives to decide whether they wish to take part in these arrangements. Importantly, it ensures that there are no checks in Northern Ireland between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, and that there are no borders. It is important to bear in mind that there are already checks because of the single epidemiological unit of Ireland—for example, on live animals going between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We are proposing a small number of administrative checks and we will work with the European Union to ensure that these are as minimal as possible, if they are needed at all.

Will the Minister acknowledge that before this deal there was—and if this deal is accepted there will not be—friction-free movement between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK? In reality, businesses across the whole of Ireland will have to fill in tens of millions of forms to carry out the business they can do today without any such bureaucracy. This is hardly a free trade agreement of any validity. Is it not also a denial of the Government’s claim that the referendum was a UK-wide referendum that demanded a UK-wide solution? How dare a party that calls itself the Conservative and Unionist Party claim that it is defending the union when what it is actually doing is driving a coach and horses through it.

I do not agree with the noble Lord: Northern Ireland is leaving the EU with the rest of the United Kingdom. It was a UK-wide referendum. There will be no forms to fill in. We think that all these checks, if they are required at all, can be done electronically. However, as I said, a joint committee has been established in the withdrawal agreement. We will work with the European Union through the implementation period to ensure that these interventions are as minimal as possible.

On 8 December 2017, the then Prime Minister gave this emphatic unilateral commitment:

“There will be no new borders within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.

How does the present Brexit deal square with that commitment? Have the Government not sacrificed Northern Ireland in the present deal in the interests of getting a deal for Britain irrespective of its implications for Northern Ireland? Are the Prime Minister and the Brexit Minister actually aware of what they have agreed to?

The noble Lord speaks with great authority on these points. We accept that we have compromised with the European Union to get a deal. We think that these arrangements will be acceptable. The consent mechanism is built into them, by which, after four years, elected representatives in Northern Ireland will be able to decide whether they continue. During the implementation period, we want to work with the EU and the Government of Ireland to make sure that this new procedure works as satisfactorily and smoothly as possible.

My Lords, the European Union Select Committee held a public evidence session on Monday and the Secretary of State gave evidence. He was asked during that session whether Northern Ireland businesses sending goods to Great Britain would have to complete export declarations. In answer he said:

“Just to be clear, the exit summary declarations will be required in terms of Northern Ireland to Great Britain”.

My question to the Minister has a yes or no answer: does he stand by the words of the Secretary of State?

It is right that some administrative processes will apply to goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. In the coming months, we will work with the EU and the Irish authorities to make sure that we can eliminate those processes in the detailed implementation of the new agreement.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the original withdrawal agreement included paper declarations A.UK for any exports from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, but that did not require the consent of the Northern Irish people? Can he further confirm that these documents are identical to those that Turkish imports into the European Union must fulfil, even though Turkey is part of a customs union, so the idea that a customs union obviates all border controls with the European Union is not true?

These are not customs controls; they are administrative checks that need to be made because of single market rules and single market membership. They are the result of international obligations that the EU implements through single market rules. However, my noble friend makes an important point.

My Lords, every individual consignment from an individual supplier on the UK mainland to every individual customer in Northern Ireland would, under the proposed scheme, be the subject of an individual customs entry, so 100 separate Northern Ireland deliveries from a UK-mainland supplier could be the subject of 100 separate customs entries, possibly under different tariff headings. How else can you control fraud?

I do not believe the noble Lord is correct about that. On the details of implementation and exactly how the arrangements will be implemented on the ground in practice, we want to work through the joint committee with the EU, Northern Irish and Irish authorities to make sure that implementation is as smooth and frictionless as possible.

My Lords, 53% of all goods and services for sale in Northern Ireland come from GB and 65% of all exports from Northern Ireland come to GB, resulting in 419,000 HGV crossings over the Irish Sea. I telephoned the Brexit imports and exports helpline this morning to ask what information was available to businesses conducting this trade and was told by the Government, “We have absolutely nothing on this. Sorry”. Will the Minister apologise for trying to ram through an agreement in three days in the House of Commons and in a short time in this House when no information would have been provided to Parliament or to Northern Ireland businesses conducting this business on the costs and burden inflicted on the UK internal single market?

I have made the point a number of times that we will work with the EU and the Irish authorities to make sure that these interventions and processes are as smooth and pain-free as possible. However, I readily accept that to get an agreement and a good deal—as we have done and as we are constantly urged by the Opposition to do—we have to compromise. I think this is a good deal. We have worked collaboratively, as we have been urged to do. The Opposition told us that they did not want no deal; they wanted a deal. We have now concluded two different deals, both of which they keep telling us they do not like. The Opposition should just admit that the reality is that they do not want to leave the European Union at all—they do not want to implement the result of the referendum. I am pleased that the Liberal Democrats are happy to acknowledge that.