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Great Britain and Northern Ireland: Access for Goods

Volume 807: debated on Thursday 12 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of negotiations with the European Union in relation to ensuring unfettered access for goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

My Lords, we have been unequivocal in our commitment to unfettered access for Northern Ireland goods moving to the rest of the UK market. We are delivering on that commitment in full, including through the draft statutory instrument we have laid to guarantee it from 1 January and the protections we wish to provide in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, which, regrettably, your Lordships opposed.

My Lords, supermarket chains and other business consortia in Northern Ireland are deeply concerned that goods supply lines will be cut off to them from 1 January 2021. Will the Minister, along with ministerial colleagues, and working with EU negotiators, ensure that flexibilities are built into food supply lines so that Northern Ireland businesses and consumers can continue to enjoy a wide range of choice and affordability with respect to all food products?

The noble Baroness makes an important point. The UK Government recognise, of course, the unique position of authorised traders, such as supermarkets, with stable supply chains and comprehensive oversight of warehousing and distribution, moving pre-packaged products for retail solely in Northern Ireland. We are continuing to pursue specific solutions for this trade.

My Lords, many of us in this House and elsewhere have long believed that the Government’s claims that the Prime Minister’s deal will produce unfettered trade are, quite frankly, delusional. Now that the Government have recognised that, instead of planning to breach our international obligations, would they not do better to look at constructive alternatives? For instance, what consideration has been given to the sensible proposals put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and his parliamentary colleagues, which might just get the Government off the hook?

My Lords, I remind the noble Lord that the principle of unfettered access, and its legislative underpinning, was one of the key components of the re-formation of the Northern Ireland Executive. The UK Government are seeking to fulfil an obligation, and I regret very much that your Lordships, including the noble Lord, voted against it.

My Lords, the sheer scale of the burden on businesses created by the wholly inadequate preparations for the wider border procedures by the Government was laid bare by the National Audit Office report on Friday. Regarding Northern Ireland, food and drink producers still do not yet know whether goods going to Northern Ireland will have to have EU labels, UK labels or both. Can the Minister be clear, with six weeks to go, what labels will food and drinks going to Northern Ireland from GB have to have, UK or EU? What contingency procedures are in place if the Government cannot be clear to businesses?

My Lords, I will write to the noble Lord on his very specific point about labelling. Of course, I acknowledge that there are ongoing discussions in the joint committee, and that that is an issue. But the Government have a range of measures, already taken and in hand, which we have discussed with business, to facilitate GB-NI movement.

My Lords, but is not unfettered trade access what we want, what we have always wanted all along and what the withdrawal agreement guarantees, both for trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland—with a few minor checks—and of course trade between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic? We are committed to all these things. Does my noble friend agree that, if President-elect Biden seeks reassurance against the destabilisation of the Northern Ireland peace process—reassurance that we all want—it is the European Union authorities and negotiators in Brussels who are his best port of call and whom he should be ringing?

My Lords, I will not follow the noble Lord into international diplomacy. What I will say is what I said with some force to the House on Monday: this Government are absolutely dedicated to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. That agreement has east-west as well as north-south aspects, and the rejection of the unfettered access commitment by your Lordships’ House was deeply unhelpful.

My Lords, to go back to the Question that the noble Baroness asked, I am sure the whole House understands the concerns about supply to retailers in Northern Ireland, well expressed in the joint letter from the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. However, the NAO report last Friday shows where the problem lies, when it confirms that the new border control posts we are constructing at Larne, Warrenpoint and Belfast will not be ready. What interim plans have the Government in mind to ensure that supply to retailers in Northern Ireland continues unaffected?

My Lords, I gave an assurance on supermarkets and food supplies in an earlier answer. The Government are constantly, on a daily basis, monitoring and considering the maintenance of all links between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and have every confidence that they will be secure.

We have long known that Brexit, plus a failure to negotiate a comprehensive free trade agreement, would lead either to new and more border arrangements in Ireland, and so to a likely breach of the Good Friday agreement, or, alternatively, to new barriers and obstacles down the Irish Sea, so threatening the integrity of the UK. At the general election, the Prime Minister assured us that neither of these unattractive options would be necessary, but does the Minister accept that, unless the Government find a third way, they will have failed their own tests and failed the country? What is this elusive third way?

My Lords, there is one way: support for the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. I trust very much that when the unfettered access provisions come back to this House, the Labour Party will support them.

My Lords, we are all aware of the extensive movement of animals across the internal Irish border and across the Irish Sea, and the extensive movement also of milk and milk products. If there is to be unfettered access across the Irish Sea, do the Government envisage that there will have to be checks at what will now become the EU’s external border? What progress, in that case, has been made towards recruiting the vets and inspectors needed to enforce the checks required there?

My Lords, work is under way, as noble Lords have raised before, in seeking to recruit vets and, in other areas of this policy, customs agents. That work is ongoing. We are hopeful that we will achieve the desired end.

My Lords, earlier this week, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland jointly wrote to the EU, imploring it to act sensibly and pragmatically to prevent any threat of disruption to food supplies to Northern Ireland. This is about defining goods at risk. We are in the ridiculous situation that the EU, unless it comes to a sensible arrangement, will ensure that all goods coming into Northern Ireland are goods at risk. Tins of beans on a Tesco lorry destined for Belfast, Portadown or Banbridge will be deemed at risk of being smuggled over the border by the supermarket at Dundalk. How ridiculous. If the EU does not see sense, will the Minister undertake that the necessary fallback, safety-net provisions will be there to safeguard Northern Ireland consumers—nationalist and unionist—as the First Minister and Deputy First Minister have said?

My Lords, as I said earlier, the Government certainly take extremely seriously the need to ensure the security of this trade. I agree with the noble Lord that the protocol obliges both the UK and the EU to seek to streamline trade between GB and Northern Ireland.

Will my noble friend gently remind the European Union that any obstacles to trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain would be contrary both to Article 6 of the withdrawal agreement and to the Act of Union, which is a fundamental part of our legal order which the European Union has pledged to uphold? I hope and expect that the EU will agree arrangements to prevent such obstacles, because to refuse such agreement would constitute bad faith, justifying the activation of those parts of the internal market Bill that I hope the other House will reinstall and this House will duly accept.

My Lords, I very much agree with what my noble friend said. I underline his last remarks: it is astonishing that Keir Starmer required the Labour Party in this House to vote against a legitimate legal commitment to unfettered access.

Sitting suspended.