The following Statement was made on Wednesday 20 May in the House of Commons.
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a Statement on the Government’s approach to implementing the Northern Ireland protocol as part of the withdrawal agreement with the European Union. The protocol exists to ensure that the progress that the people of Northern Ireland have made in the 22 years since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is secured into the future. The Belfast agreement is built on the principle of consent. It was ratified by referendums in both Northern Ireland and Ireland, and the agreement is crystal clear that any change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom can come only if the majority in Northern Ireland consent to any change.
The vital importance of consent is recognised in the provision for any alignment in the protocol to be disapplied if Northern Ireland’s political representatives conclude that it is no longer desirable. Embedding that recognition of consent in the protocol was intrinsic to its acceptance by the Government. Therefore, for the protocol to work, it must respect the needs of all Northern Ireland’s people, respect the fact that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the customs territory of the UK, and respect the need to bear as lightly as possible on the everyday life of Northern Ireland.
Although there will be some new administrative requirements in the protocol, these electronic processes will be streamlined and simplified to the maximum extent. As the European Commissioner’s own negotiator, Michel Barnier, has spelled out, the protocol’s procedures must be as easy as possible and not too burdensome, particularly for smaller businesses. As is so often the case—but not always—Monsieur Barnier is right. The economy of Northern Ireland is heavily dependent on small and medium-sized enterprises. Subjecting traders to unnecessary and disproportionate burdens, particularly as we wrestle with the economic consequences of Covid-19, would not serve the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, for whom the protocol was designed. The protocol text itself is explicit that implementation should impact as little as possible on the everyday life of communities.
In that context, it is important for us all to recall that the clear majority of Northern Ireland’s trade is with the rest of the United Kingdom, so safeguarding the free flow of goods within the UK’s internal market is of critical importance to Northern Ireland’s economy and people.
Today, we are publishing a Command Paper that outlines how the protocol can be implemented in a way that would protect the interests of the people and the economy of Northern Ireland, ensure the effective working of the UK’s internal market, and also provide appropriate protection for the EU single market, as well as upholding the rights of all Northern Ireland’s citizens. Delivering on these proposals will require close working with the Northern Ireland Executive, underscoring once again the significance of the restoration of the Stormont institutions in January. I would like to put on record my gratitude for the constructive approach that has been shown by Northern Ireland politicians, including by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, as well as by honourable Members from across this House.
There are four steps we will take to ensure that the protocol is implemented effectively. First, we will deliver unfettered access for Northern Ireland producers to the whole of the UK market. Northern Ireland to Great Britain goods movements should take place as they do now. There should not be export declarations or any other processes as goods leave Northern Ireland for Great Britain, and we will deliver on unfettered access for Northern Ireland goods through legislation by the end of this year.
Secondly, we will ensure that there are no tariffs on goods remaining within the UK customs territory. In order to ensure that internal UK trade qualifies for tariff-free status, there will need to be declarations on goods as they move from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, but these systems will be electronic and administered by UK authorities. It will be for our authorities to determine any processes that are required, using the latest technology, risk and compliance techniques, to keep these to an absolute minimum.
That will also allow us to deliver on our third key proposal, which is that implementation of the protocol will not involve new customs infrastructure. We acknowledge, however, as we have always done, that on agri-food and live animal movements it makes sense to protect supply chains and the disease-free status of the island of Ireland, as has been the case since the 19th century. That will mean some expansion of existing infrastructure to provide for some additional new processes for the agriculture and food sector, but these processes will build on what already happens at ports such as Larne and Belfast, and we will work with the EU to keep these checks to a minimum, reflecting the high standards we see right across the UK. There is no such case, however, for new customs infrastructure, and as such there will not be any.
Fourthly, we will guarantee that Northern Ireland businesses will benefit from the lower tariffs that we deliver through new free trade agreements with third countries. This ensures that Northern Ireland businesses will be able to enjoy the full benefits of the unique access that they have to the UK and EU markets.
These four commitments will ensure that, as we implement the protocol, we give full effect to the requirements in its text to recognise Northern Ireland’s place in the UK and in its customs territory. As we take the work of implementation forward, we will continue to work closely with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, with Northern Ireland MPs from across parties, and with the business community and farming groups that have provided such valuable feedback for our approach.
Of course, we have already guaranteed in the New Decade, New Approach deal that the Northern Ireland Executive have a seat at the table in any meeting where Northern Ireland is being discussed and the Irish Government are present. Alongside that, there will be a new business engagement forum to exchange proposals, concerns and feedback from across the community on how best to maximise the free flow of trade, and we will ensure that those discussions sit at the heart of our thinking.
We recognise that there will be a wide range of voices and responses to our Command Paper. We will listen to these respectfully while we continue to put our own case with conviction at the joint committee. Our approach will of course continue to be informed by extensive engagement with businesses, politicians and individuals right across communities in Northern Ireland. We stand ready to work with the EU in a spirit of collaboration and co-operation, so that a positive new chapter can open for Northern Ireland and its people, in every community. It is in that spirit that I commend this Statement to the House.”
The Statement was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
My Lords, I start by making one correction to what the Minister said yesterday. His allegation was that I was
“always critical of the role of Mr David Frost”.—[Official Report, 20/5/20; col. 1182.]
I was critical of the apparent lack of ministerial sign-off on major statements; of a key letter being signed by a “Sherpa”—as he calls himself—rather than by a Minister; and of the inability of parliamentarians to question our EU negotiator.
Today’s Statement, by contrast, is the long-awaited admission by Ministers that the Northern Ireland arrangements will indeed involve border checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with additional checks, declarations on goods moving from Great Britain into Northern Ireland, and tariffs on goods at risk of entering the EU single market.
Nevertheless, the Command Paper leaves many questions unanswered. We had thought that the EU was expecting the UK to levy duties on all goods going to Northern Ireland, unless it could be established that they were not at risk, with the 70% on goods staying in Northern Ireland then being reclaimed. Can the Minister tell the House whether the EU now accepts the approach in the Government’s paper, that duties would be levied only on goods which pose a “clear and substantial risk” of entering the single market? Can he also explain how
“goods at risk of entering the EU’s Single Market”
will be decided? Perhaps he can reassure us that the paper’s promise to
“produce full guidance to business and third parties before the end of the transition period”
is simply a typo, and that such guidance will be available in time to become operational by 1 January?
With goods from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, the paper implies a very light touch. However, Welsh ports will be required to have additional infrastructure to make customs and regulatory checks—some “expansion” of infrastructure, in the words of the Statement—but without proper consultation with Wales, and perhaps not with Scotland, about arrangements which would need to be in operation by the end of the year.
Can the Minister also explain how, in practice, there will not be significant flows of goods from the EU single market into Great Britain through the backdoor of Northern Ireland, especially if, under either a deal or no deal, there are tariffs on goods coming from the EU into Great Britain—such as from France and Benelux —but not from Northern Ireland to Great Britain?
Talk, of course, in the paper of “light-touch” checks and the “latest technology”, neither of which exist other than on paper, naturally raises concerns. After all, we do not seem to have been able to create a rather simple track-and-trace app after 10 weeks of the virus, while “light-touch” seems to include an export summary declaration, with 45 entries for every consignment. Therefore, can the Minister outline what discussions have been held with importers and exporters, and tell us what confidence he has that business, and government checkers, will be ready for this in time?
Turning to how the Command Paper was drafted, we have been given to understand that the Northern Ireland Executive were not involved in its preparation. Is that the case? The other devolved authorities were similarly excluded, despite the impact on their ports and points of arrival, and on their hopes for an internal single UK market. As the Minister knows, we do not have a Welsh, Scottish or Northern Ireland Minister in this House. Does that reflect the low priority given to these areas, even as major policy decisions affecting them greatly are being taken? The absence of territorial Ministers in our House certainly makes scrutiny of their departments somewhat more challenging, even if today’s Statement clearly falls to the Cabinet Office.
For all the effects of Brexit, Ireland is surely the most sensitive and most important issue, not simply for trade but for how the people of Northern Ireland feel about themselves and for the vital importance of retaining all the benefits of the Good Friday agreement. On this, I am sure, the Minister and I will be in total agreement. Therefore, my plea today is for Ministers to talk more to politicians and businesses, and indeed to civil society in Northern Ireland, as well as in Scotland and Wales, to ensure that all parties have confidence in how we move forward with the protocol.
My Lords, given the duplicity of the Government, the Northern Ireland protocol has all the semblance of damaged goods. In particular, the repeated denial that it would involve the need for any new UK customs declaration or checks is revealed as the hollow sham that it always was.
In his Statement yesterday, Michael Gove tried to play this down, but the White Paper cannot be gainsaid. It says that
“there will be some limited additional process on goods arriving in Northern Ireland ... There will be no new physical customs infrastructure ... We will however expand some existing entry points for agrifood goods to provide for proportionate additional controls.”
It also says in relation to
“Belfast Port, Belfast International Airport, Belfast City Airport and Warrenpoint Port”
“Expanded infrastructure will be needed at some of these sites for the purpose of agri-food checks and assurance ... we expect to request additional categories of commodities at Belfast Port, and to designate Larne Port for live animal imports ... further designations may also be required at other existing sites.”
This is a clear change of a radical nature. What costs and delays does the Minister expect it to cause? It cannot be done without time being taken to deal with these matters.
The Government choose to refer to the withdrawal agreement as a “deal” when it is no such thing; it is an agreement on the terms of withdrawal. When it suits, they choose to rely on the political declaration, although this is only a declaration of intent and needs to be judged against the backdrop of the Government preparing for a no-deal Brexit and, frankly, blaming the EU for it.
The Government also seek to present the protocol as temporary, dependent only on a vote of the Northern Ireland elected representatives to abandon it after 2024. In reality, it puts Northern Ireland in the unique position of effectively remaining in the EU single market and the UK customs union—a privilege which many businesses in Great Britain would no doubt love to have. Again, the Government seek to downplay the importance of cross-border trade to the Province, yet it is worth over £5 billion and for some businesses may be their chief revenue and profit earner.
If they import components from the UK and process them before exporting to the Republic, they will be liable to tariffs. This will present them with a clear difficulty. It will involve extra bureaucracy and require them to fill out import and export forms and train and possibly recruit extra staff and maybe use agents. All this will add substantial costs. The White Paper says that HMRC will provide help and guidance to businesses, but this is to help deal with a situation they currently do not face. This will come at a cost, so will the Government cover that cost?
The Government make great play of the benefit of lower tariffs that they hope to negotiate at some unspecified future date. Of course, while I appreciate the benefits of free trade, if this comes at the expense of tariff barriers with the EU, the net benefit may be at best limited and possibly negative. It may also be that we accept imported goods of lower standards, such as food products from the United States. This could compromise domestic producers in Northern Ireland. It is not a one-way street.
Depending on what agreement is reached with the EU, the dynamics of trade between the Republic, Northern Ireland and Great Britain could change. This would make issues of customs controls much more live. An incentive for Northern Ireland to become the bridge between the EU single market and the rest of the UK would clearly require more transparent customs controls, especially if there were divergence on tariffs and regulations.
The Government’s refusal in this context to consider an EU presence in Belfast raises questions of trust. Trust will be achieved if there is a comprehensive and mutually beneficial free trade deal. If there is a hard or no-deal Brexit, it is hardly surprising that the EU and the UK will look at each other with suspicion. There are many more questions than answers from this White Paper. As it stands, it does little to build trust with either the EU, the Republic or the business community of Northern Ireland. I hope the Minister can reassure all those bodies that it is being pursued in good faith and is entirely consistent with both the spirit and the letter of the agreement the Government signed with the EU.
I thank both noble Lords. I had noted down to say that the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, had always been constructive in his responses, but I was a bit disappointed when he opened by accusing the Government of duplicity. The Government have been clear from the start that they will stand by their obligations under the protocol. The fundamental issue here is that the protocol exists to ensure that the progress the people of Northern Ireland have made in the 22 years since the Good Friday Agreement, which we all support, is safeguarded and maintained. That means, as both contributors from the Front Benches opposite acknowledged, that this matter must be dealt with delicately, recognising the interests of both groupings within Northern Ireland and addressing both the lawful and reasonable desire of the European Union to protect the single market and the UK’s requirement to protect our own internal market and the inalienable place of Northern Ireland as part of the UK customs territory.
I will try to answer some of the questions raised. I do not want to be diverted by the role of the outstanding Sherpa, Mr Frost. I repeat my comment about the criticism made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, of his role, which she acknowledged and repeated today. Mr Frost is the appointed representative of the Prime Minister in these negotiations. I understand that he will come with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster next week to give evidence and be accountable to your Lordships’ House.
I think it would be fair to say, diplomatically, that the response was not entirely enthusiastic from the parties opposite. The noble Baroness spoke about border checks. We are in the business not of border checks, but of light-touch administrative arrangements that will enable and facilitate trade. It is in the interests of both parties in this negotiation. It is a negotiation and discussion on how we will implement the protocol, not how we will renegotiate it. It is not in the interests of anybody to see a heavy-handed system. Indeed, Monsieur Barnier himself said that it is important that the procedures of the protocol should be as easy as possible and not too burdensome, in particular for smaller businesses. I agree with that and I am sure that noble Lords opposite do.
The noble Baroness rightly asked about business. Many businesses want clarity. I assure her that there have been extensive discussions and consultation with business, but as she will know, the Government are now moving forward as we go into this stage of discussion to establish a business engagement forum on the protocol. We will set out details shortly, but it is obviously important as it goes forward that we draw on the experience of businesses in sectors right across Northern Ireland. The interests of business are fundamental. Again, I hope that the European Union and the United Kingdom would agree in implementing this that the burdens on business should be as light as possible and that neither party should demand excessive burdens.
The noble Baroness asked about unfettered access. I assure her that there will be unfettered access. That is the objective and intention of Her Majesty’s Government and we intend to legislate to achieve that for goods from Northern Ireland to the rest of the United Kingdom.
As far as smuggling and abuse of the system is concerned, such practices go on at present. They are normally addressed by market surveillance and effective, targeted action. I am sure that market surveillance will continue in the unlikely circumstance that the noble Baroness posits of some mass attempt to subvert legitimate trade.
We intend this to be a light-touch approach. The noble Baroness and the noble Lord were both sceptical on this matter. The forms that the noble Baroness referred to will be processes administered electronically and will be light-touch in action. We will be negotiating and discussing how those matters will be implemented in the joint committee and specialised committee, which were set up under the protocol to provide just these sorts of discussions.
The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, referred to the Government setting great store by the matter being temporary. A provision for consent was agreed by both sides and in consultation with parties on both sides of the border in the original protocol. The capability exists for the representatives of the people of Northern Ireland to alter the situation in four years if they wish to do so, but that matter is entirely for the Northern Ireland Executive and is not being pressed, as was implied in the Statement. Time will see. I hope that we will find an effective way of operating. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, that Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom’s customs territory and that bureaucracy will be kept to a minimum.
The noble Lord asked about the idea of an EU office in Belfast. Without wishing to be contrary, I have pointed out in this House that, in the context of wishing to maintain and protect the Good Friday agreement, a physical building of that sort might not be the most light-touch operation, but the British Government of course acknowledge their responsibilities within the protocol to satisfy everyone that the protocol is being complied with. If I might say so, the Belfast office is becoming a little bit of a totem on the side of those who wish to say that Britain is not acceding to its responsibilities. I remind your Lordships that such an office was not provided for in Article 12 of the protocol. How matters are implemented will continue, I hope, to be discussed constructively in the joint committee.
The Government are very grateful for the positive response—rather more positive than we have heard so far—from many people in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Executive, our friends within Europe and many in the Republic of Ireland. They see the Government’s document as a reasonable, sensible and measured one, on the basis of which we wish to seek a sensible, balanced, workable and practical way forward. It is in that spirit that we will pursue discussions in the next few weeks.
My Lords, I will be on the virtual Woolsack for the remainder of this session. We now come to the 30 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief so that I can call the maximum number of speakers. I call on the first speaker this evening, the noble Baroness, Lady Pidding.
My Lords, the economy of Northern Ireland is heavily dependent on small and medium-sized enterprises. Understandably, at present those businesses are focused on dealing with the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic and on ensuring that they and their employees’ livelihoods survive. That said, it is also critical that we look beyond the current crisis to our future relationship and opportunities outside the EU. Will the Minister give an assurance that in these challenging times real engagement is under way with the business community in Northern Ireland to help implement any changes required as we move out of the transition period, that Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK customs territory and that there will be no new customs infrastructure and no tariffs on goods flowing between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and that Northern Ireland businesses will have unfettered access to the Great Britain market?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her remarks. I can certainly give her the final assurances that she seeks. We will deliver unfettered access. We will legislate for it. We will, as she asks, ensure that there are no tariffs on goods remaining in UK customs territory, which are the vast majority of goods that pass to Northern Ireland. We will give effect to our proposals without the need for any new customs infrastructure. In addition, we will guarantee that Northern Ireland businesses benefit, as my noble friend implies, from the lower tariffs that we will deliver through the new free trade agreements that we hope to conclude. I repeat what I said in response to the noble Baroness and the noble Lord opposite. My noble friend is absolutely right to stress the critical role of the vibrant small business sector in Northern Ireland. It is of fundamental importance. I can certainly assure her that it will be very closely engaged as we go forward working for implementation, and its interests will be covered within the business engagement forum that we will shortly establish.
I welcome the White Paper because, despite the Govian smokescreen, it shows that the Government have retreated and are no longer in denial about two-way checks on Irish Sea trade. That clears the way for long- overdue consultation in Northern Ireland, which will guide the committee that decides how it is all to work. However, it is still a very odd White Paper. It tells the truth, but not the whole—[Inaudible.]—four pages and five annexes which list all the EU laws which will still apply, or the new democratic deficit, with Northern Ireland having no say in any changes to these laws, or even Article 12, on the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice. Perhaps the Minister would like to fill the lacuna, or at least correct his assurance to the House last night that the ECJ would not have jurisdiction after the transition period. The protocol states that it will, even if the White Paper does not mention the point.
My Lords, I regret to say that some of the noble Lord’s question rather broke up on my computer. However, I think I heard him say at one point that there will be checks on both sides. It is clearly the Government’s intention that there will not be checks—that there will be unfettered access from Northern Ireland to the United Kingdom. I appreciated what the noble Lord said about the nature of the White Paper, even if he does not agree with all the details and questions a few points. I believe it is a very constructive attempt to lay the groundwork for what he rightly says will be, I hope, sensible and constructive discussions on implementation. However, I repeat that the purpose of all of us in this is to maintain the integrity of the Good Friday agreement, and that in doing so it is in the interests of both sides, as has frequently been said, that the arrangements put in place should impact as little as possible on the everyday lives of the people of Northern Ireland. That is our objective, and I hope it is that of our partners in negotiation.
My Lords, do not the protocol, the Statement and everything that my noble friend has said this afternoon underline the crucial importance of concluding an amicable agreement with our European friends and neighbours? That being the case, why do the Government, in the midst of a grave international crisis, when everybody’s mind is really on something else, continue to be so obdurate in insisting on the 31 December deadline? It would be no backtracking but a gesture of statesmanship to indicate that it is not sacrosanct.
My Lords, I welcome my noble friend’s comments and his recognising that this Administration wish to reach an amicable agreement with our European friends; it is our hope, desire and expectation that we will still do that. I cannot go along at all with my noble friend in asking for an extension of the transition period. I have answered that before in this House and I do not believe it would help business in any way. It would provide further uncertainty and lead to an extension of negotiations. Remaining within the orbit of the European Union after the end of this year would have great and uncertain consequences regarding the contributions and actions the United Kingdom might be involved with. But above all, the British people have asked for this matter to be concluded—twice—and we will conclude it.
My Lords, I want to ask four specific questions, if I may. First, will the Treasury provide finance now to develop the necessary facilities at relevant ports? Secondly, would it be helpful to have a trial run now so that by the autumn, we could confidently tell the EU that we have practical solutions? Thirdly, given that Northern Ireland sends its milk to the Republic to be processed, will there be extra costs to dairy farmers? Against this, the key to the working of the arrangement will be the joint working party. When did it last meet and when will it meet next?
My Lords, I fear that I do not have all the answers here. On facilities, I understand that any increase in costs will be met, but I will confirm that with the noble and learned Lord. On a trial run, we have to look at the practicalities of the systems we put in place; this is one of the reasons why we are setting up the business engagement forum. Discussions have already begun in various fora on matters such as co-ordination, along with technical discussions on systems and databases. Those discussions began in the joint committee meeting last month and took place in the first Ireland/Northern Ireland Specialised Committee on 30 April, and they will continue. I will have to write to the noble and learned Lord on the question of milk, and I undertake to do so.
The status of Northern Ireland under the protocol is well known and often discussed. Northern Ireland will effectively be operating within the EU single market but also within the internal market of the United Kingdom. The arrangements that we have put in place are envisaged in the protocol but, at present, the details of their implementation are under discussion.
My Lords, I too welcome the arrival of the White Paper, if not everything in it. The transition period began at the end of January, with 11 months to plan and agree matters in Northern Ireland, of which just over seven months remain. However, the White Paper sets out for the first time a host of necessary future actions, with some important workstreams yet to start. These include data flows, new groups and fora, as well as new physical infrastructure for the agri-food sector. Can the Minister assure the House that the klaxons are sounding and that there is now real urgency and momentum behind preparing Northern Ireland for life under the protocol?
My Lords, I do not know about klaxons; I have always found them rather unpleasant. The United Kingdom Government regard Northern Ireland and its people as equal in every way to the rest of the United Kingdom and thus deserving the same privileges and the same attention. I can assure the noble Earl that whatever problems there have been with Covid—we all recognise the need to deal with them—we have engaged, we are engaging and we will engage on the principles and the practicalities of making these systems work, and indeed making them work for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland. At all stages, we will respect the Good Friday agreement and the need to carry the consent of parties on both sides of the sectarian divide.
My Lords, as a staunch and long-standing unionist, unlike some who now seem to be exploiting this issue, I welcome the emphasis in the Command Paper on the consent principle in the 1998 Belfast agreement and on strengthening Northern Ireland’s place within our United Kingdom. Regrettably, the consent principle is not something that the Commission has always either understood or respected, as I know from my experience in dealing with it. Also, does my noble friend agree that the politically motivated proposal to establish an EU office in Belfast is entirely inappropriate and should continue to be strongly resisted?
I agree with what my noble friend has said about the place of Northern Ireland. Indeed, I have just affirmed that myself and I am pleased to repeat it. I think and hope that the European Commission recognises the importance of showing due sensitivity in the implementation of these matters in respect of each community in Northern Ireland, and this White Paper gives it an opportunity to display that sensitivity, which I very much hope it will do. As for an EU office in Belfast, I agree with my noble friend that it is entirely unnecessary and goes beyond what was agreed in the protocol. I have noted the strong views held by some people on this point.
My Lords, I appeal to Ministers to be more frank about this. In promising unfettered access, the Command Paper states that there will be
“no change to how Northern Ireland goods arrive in Great Britain ports compared to today. … These arrangements will not cover goods travelling from Ireland or the rest of the EU being exported to Great Britain.”
Without costly checks and barriers, how is this compatible with the legally binding Irish protocol, which must differentiate between goods explicitly from Northern Ireland and those transited through from elsewhere, for which customs rules and tariffs apply?
My Lords, I believe that in practical terms it will be possible to address the issues that the noble Lord points to, in so far as those difficulties exist. There is a little tendency to accuse the Government of trying to gloss over problems. We gloss over no problem. We start with the intention to make the protocol work in a practical, beneficial and light-touch way. Given co-operation from every party—and there has been a positive welcome for these proposals from the Northern Ireland Executive—there is no reason why we should not be able to make the system work as the White Paper sets out.
My Lords, the consent principle is central to the Belfast agreement and referenced in the Statement, which says that the protocol will be disapplied if Northern Ireland’s political representatives subsequently
“conclude that it is no longer desirable”.
However, it is not unknown for Northern Ireland’s politicians to disagree about what is desirable. For the avoidance of doubt or misunderstanding down the line, can the Minister clarify whether, if at some future point unionists wish to disapply the protocol, Sinn Féin could veto this using the Assembly’s parallel consent requirement, thus blocking any disapplication of the protocol?
The Statement covers one of the knottiest aspects of Brexit. As a member of the EU Committee, I think it represents a reasonable balance. However, the devil will be in the detail. The new business engagement forum may help. As someone who used to operate across the island of Ireland, I say this: we need a proper physical trial soon, for traders from some different sectors to transport goods from England to Northern Ireland, to the south and then back to England. Please can the Minister consider this further?
My Lords, as my noble friend said, we will engage with businesses and traders about the requirements of the protocol. That will certainly be a priority in the coming weeks. She makes a very interesting and practical suggestion and is right that this will need to take account of how those traders move their goods in practice today, so that we ensure the system is as streamlined and efficient as we are clear that it must be. I certainly take note of her point.
My Lords, I will return to the point about the Belfast office raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie, and my fellow supporter of the union, the noble Lord, Lord Caine. Does the Minister not recall that in February last year the British Government told the European Union that they wanted the EU to have an office in Belfast, in part to contribute to the implementation of this protocol? That was then reneged on by Michael Gove. On a day when the Prime Minister has made a spectacular U-turn on fees for NHS staff from overseas, will the Minister—who we know is a man of influence—take the courage in his hands and do a U-turn on the Belfast office? If he does, he will be really popular with many people throughout Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I must tell the noble Lord, as I have told others, that this Government’s view is that there is no need to implement the protocol for there to be an office of this character in Belfast. I know of the statement by an official to which he may have been referring, but the position of the UK Government is as I have described it.
My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, made it clear that the Command Paper highlights a lot of work that needs to be done between now and the end of the transition period. If Her Majesty’s Government are so determined to leave on 31 December with or without an agreement, what contingency planning are they doing if we leave without an agreement and the necessary works outlined in the Command Paper have not been delivered?
My Lords, first, the Government hope that we will conclude a free trade agreement; that is our policy and our objective. I am not sorry to say—but from the noble Baroness’s point of view, I would be sorry to say—that it is our intention to end the transition period. Of course, the Government are planning for all eventualities and possibilities, but I assure the House that our objective is to reach a free trade agreement and to have a practical way forward on the protocol, on the basis of the Command Paper.
My Lords, the Government have rightly stated that they want to protect the disease-free status of the island of Ireland. Can my noble friend explain how that can be achieved without having physical checks on animals moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland?
My Lords, there are currently checks on animals in Belfast. The island of Ireland has a special epidemiological status and both parties on this side wish to safeguard that. There will be provision for agri-food and animal product movement, which has been referred to in the Command Paper. However, we have said that no new infrastructure will be put in place, and that is the policy of the Government.
My Lords, in a Private Notice Question on Monday I asked the noble Viscount, Lord Younger of Leckie, what the Government will be doing about the extra costs imposed on goods going to Northern Ireland, and—given that pay is so low there—how people would be compensated. The noble Viscount said:
“I feel sure that those will be part of current discussions”.—[Official Report, 18/5/20; col. 904.]
This is an acknowledgement that there will be extra costs. Can the Minister tell me more about how the Government plan to compensate the people of Northern Ireland for those extra costs?
I think that the noble Baroness leaps forward. This Government’s objective is to limit interference in the daily lives of the people of Northern Ireland, and to have a light-touch system that minimises cost. We should first focus all our objectives on reaching agreement on a mechanism for implementation that delivers this; we can address any consequentials afterwards. This is an agreement designed to secure the place of Northern Ireland, the Good Friday agreement and a better future for Northern Ireland businesses, as well as protecting the EU single market and the UK internal market. Surely those are objectives that everyone in this House should support.
My Lords, I first congratulate the Government and their Sherpa, David Frost, on standing up for the interests of the United Kingdom as an independent state. This makes a really nice change, despite what we might call the whinging from those who wish not to allow Brexit to go forward as the people have chosen. My concern is about how paramilitaries may benefit from this through smuggling and organised crime, with which we know that they are heavily involved. Can my noble friend tell me what the reaction of Sinn Féin in the Republic has been?
My Lords, I am afraid that I do not have that information for my noble friend. I did note that the Northern Ireland Executive’s collective response was not unfavourable, to put it gently. As for paramilitary activities and paramilitary smuggling, no doubt that remains a problem, but the Governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland are united in wishing to stamp out such activities. The best way to do that is to continue to support the Good Friday agreement, and that is the fundamental objective of this Command Paper and the way forward that we have proposed.
My Lords, reference has been made to consultation, but largely for the future. What consultation has there been so far in arriving at this White Paper, and have stakeholders, particularly the business community, confirmed that they regard the procedures as not being burdensome?
My Lords, the response from business groups in Northern Ireland to the White Paper has been extremely encouraging and positive. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and his colleagues have an ongoing engagement and dialogue with the business sector, which is vital. I have affirmed again today that that will be a core part of carrying forward discussions on how we will implement these proposals, having told the House of the new Business Engagement Forum that I hope will begin its work shortly. But that is not beginning of engagement with business; it is the next stage of it.
My Lords, further to the answers given about the EU office in Belfast, will the Minister specify in exact detail why the Government consider that this office is not necessary, when the British Government have clearly stated that they will facilitate arrangements. Surely, such arrangements equal the need for an office?
My Lords, I do not agree that facilitating arrangements, which is what is stated in the protocol, necessarily translates into cement. We are looking for light-touch, easy arrangements. I can only repeat what I have said to the House I believe four times already this evening: the position of the UK Government is that it is not necessary for the implementation of our undertakings under the protocol.
My noble friend has rightly said a number of times that a light-touch approach will be adopted. I know from my work with others on alternative arrangements for avoiding a hard border that administrative processes are perfectly capable of being used. Will he confirm that the processes planned are only administrative and that any import declarations would be in electronic form?
I thank my noble friend and of course I pay tribute to her, as indeed I should have to the noble Lord, Lord Hain, for their contributions over the years to these matters. Yes, I can give my noble friend both those assurances. We hope for, expect and are proposing light administrative procedures of exactly the type she describes.
This is a step forward but a very modest one. Does the Minister agree that this is a proposal that has to be agreed with the European Union and the European Commission in the joint committee and the specialised committee?
On the question of the Union’s presence in supervising these arrangements, I have the protocol in front of me, and Article 12.2 makes clear that
“Union representatives shall have the right to be present during any activities of the authorities of the United Kingdom related to the implementation and application of provisions of … this Protocol”.
It goes on to say:
“Where the Union representative requests the authorities of the United Kingdom to carry out control measures … the authorities of the United Kingdom shall carry out those control measures”,
and that if we do not then this is subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Will the Minister be honest about what the provisions of the protocol are?
My Lords, I always try to be honest: I have human frailty, as does everyone else, but I seek to tell the truth. The noble Lord has confirmed what I just said about the content of the protocol. It does not require cement, but it requires the United Kingdom Government—who will themselves, as I underlined, administer these arrangements—to be ready to facilitate methods of assurance by the other party. Those methods of assurance do not need a heavy touch. I do not think that is envisaged by the European Union; certainly it is not by the United Kingdom Government. The United Kingdom Government’s desire is to build on this agreement and persuade all parties, including the European Union, that this kind of approach satisfies the interests of all parties and does so in a way that puts the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, and the peace agreement, first. I hope we can all unite on that.
Virtual Proceeding adjourned at 6.37 pm.