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Northern Ireland: Customs

Volume 803: debated on Monday 18 May 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether customs posts will be established at ports and airports in Northern Ireland from 1 January 2021 and, if so, how is this compatible with repeated assurances from Ministers that goods moving from Northern Ireland would have free and unfettered access to UK markets.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

The protocol is a practical solution to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland, but it makes clear that Northern Ireland remains an integral part of the UK and its internal market. That includes guaranteeing, and putting that guarantee into legislation by the end of this year, unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the UK market, as we have always made unequivocally clear that we would do.

My noble friend will be aware that Ministers have repeatedly assured the House that no checks will take place on goods moving to or from Northern Ireland after transition. There is a widespread feeling that Members have been consistently misled. Will my noble friend tell the House whose regulations customs officers will be enforcing at these border control posts, what sanctions will apply for non-compliance and under which legal jurisdiction this process is being conducted? Will he commit to facilitating a debate in this House so that we can examine this issue which is of unparalleled economic and constitutional significance?

I will have to refer to the Chief Whip about whether there will be a debate, but moving quickly on to one of the questions that the noble Lord asked, we have always been clear that there will be requirements for checks on live animals and agri-foods, building on what already happens at Larne and Belfast, as the noble Lord will know. We want to work with Northern Ireland businesses and the Executive to ensure that new administrative procedures are streamlined and efficient. We want to ensure an optimum flow of trade.

My Lords, whatever the benefits accruing to Northern Ireland in the proposed relationship with the European Union—and I accept that there will be many benefits in that Northern Ireland-EU relationship—does the Minister not recognise that a clear breach of a vow given by Ministers, including the Prime Minister, a vow which many of us in this House warned was clearly unsustainable, undermines trust in the Government, which is so vital for the general conduct of politics in Northern Ireland?

I am not quite clear what this so-called clear breach is. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster reiterated last week that we have always said that there will need to be light-touch checks, particularly, as I said earlier, for live animals and agri-foods coming from the internal market in the UK across to Northern Ireland.

My Lords, the Prime Minister has said repeatedly that he could not see any circumstances in which there would be a need for checks on goods going from Northern Ireland to GB. Under the withdrawal agreement, Northern Ireland will continue to follow EU rules on food and manufactured goods. The rest of the UK will not but will continue to follow EU customs rules, leading to checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain. The prospect by December of no deal will have implications for the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol and the scale of checks required on the Irish Sea interface. Will the Minister now press the Government to urgently request an extension before the end of June?

I should make it clear to the noble Baroness that the Government have no intention of extending the transition period. Discussions are progressing well, and they are very constructive. The joint committee and the special committees are working to take forward the detail, which is so important for the protocol.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister accept that many genuine unionists share the concern so ably expressed by our noble friend Lord Empey and seek reassurances in these areas? Does he also agree that it would be quite wrong for anyone, not least those who have never in the past knowingly championed the Ulster unionist cause, to seek now to exploit this issue with irresponsible scaremongering about the end of the union simply to try to prove a point about Europe and Brexit, and that to do so risks undermining the delicate political stability that we now have in Northern Ireland?

My noble friend makes some good points, and he allows me to reiterate that, below the surface, there is a lot of extremely important and constructive work going on to ensure that what we have said—what we have promised and guaranteed—will indeed be undertaken.

The problem is that “pacta sunt servanda”. However unattractive we may find it—like the noble Lord, Lord Empey, I find it very unattractive—the fact is that for 15 weeks now, we have been under a legal requirement to establish Mr Johnson’s frontier in the Irish Sea by the end of the year, with two-way checks, and to help the EU supervise its new single market frontier inside our United Kingdom. Yet we seem to have done nothing and to still be in denial. It seems that we are even refusing to let the EU have a base in Belfast. How come, since “pacta sunt servanda”? When will the Government come clean with Northern Ireland about all this?

First, my Latin is not so good. But there are no plans, and there is no wish, to allow the EU to have an office in Belfast. Originally, that was for diplomatic purposes. I understand that the intention is more for doing monitoring and checking. I also reiterate what I said earlier: there is no need to change the dates for the transition period.

My Lords, what IT and other preparations have the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive made for the checks and potential tariffs, including tariff refunds for goods from Great Britain proven to be sold in Northern Ireland, that are all required under the Irish protocol? The UK agreed this in the withdrawal agreement with the EU, which has treaty status, and both the UK Government and the Executive are therefore legally bound to that under international law.

I am not party to the detail of the discussions but, as the noble Lord will know, as well as the joint committee, which can include and has included members of the Northern Ireland Executive and of the Irish Government, as well as the special committee to look at the detail, these and other related issues are being discussed as we speak. I very much hope that the detail will come out in the coming weeks.

My Lords, following the questions from the noble Lords, Lord Reid and Lord Kerr, my contribution will be brief. The people of Northern Ireland are never afraid to speak truth to power, and we expect the same level of honesty from those who govern us. On a visit to the Province last November, Mr Johnson addressed a gathering of prominent Northern Ireland businesspeople. My Prime Minister said:

“There will be no forms, no checks, no barriers of any kind. You will have unfettered access.”

I simply ask the Minister: what is the truth?

The initial Question from the noble Lord, Lord Empey, slightly confused the specific and limited approach towards the requirements of certain agri-food products moving from Great Britain and Northern Ireland with the “unfettered access” part of the argument, which is from Northern Ireland to Great Britain—as set out in New Decade, New Approach.

I am absolutely flabbergasted listening to the Minister’s answers today. At no point is he answering the questions put to him on really serious issues. I appreciate that he is not a Northern Ireland Minister; in fact, he was the Minister for Faith and Communities. Perhaps it needs a leap of faith to believe some of the things the Prime Minister has said on this. I have two questions. First, when will the Government appoint a Minister to deal with Northern Ireland issues in the House of Lords and show the issue the respect it deserves? Secondly, I bring the Minister back to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Rogan. The Prime Minister said that, if someone asks you to fill in any form of any kind,

“tell them to ring up the Prime Minister, and I will direct them to throw that form in the bin.”

He was referring to customs and tariffs. On that point, if somebody does what the Prime Minister says and tears up the form and puts it in the bin, what number should they call to speak to the Prime Minister?

The noble Baroness is right: that is what the Prime Minister said, and he is adamant that there will be unfettered access. That is all I need say.

My Lords, for the avoidance of doubt, will the Minister confirm that when the Government have completed the necessary infrastructure arrangements, they will ensure that no impediments are put in the way of Northern Ireland businesses undertaking economic activity? They can take no further shocks to their business.

The noble Baroness is right. It is very important indeed that we in the UK support Northern Ireland businesses as much as possible. I assure the noble Baroness that the detail from the heavy work being prepared as part of implementing the protocol will come out within weeks, as I said earlier.

The Earl of Kinnoull. No? We will go on to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and come back if the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, reconnects.

Even with the light-touch barriers the Minister referred to, there would clearly be extra costs on goods coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Given the low wage levels in Northern Ireland—£50 per week below the UK average—how do the Government plan to ensure that workers are compensated for the extra costs that would be in effect as a result of any barriers of any sort?

The noble Baroness raises an interesting point. I feel sure that those will be part of current discussions. If there is anything more to add to that answer, I will write to the noble Baroness.

I revert to the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull. Unfortunately, there is no connection. The time allowed for this Question has elapsed. The Virtual Proceedings will now adjourn until a convenient point after 4 pm for the Motions in the name of the noble Lords, Lord Bethell and Lord Hunt of Kings Heath.

Virtual Proceeding suspended.