Skip to main content

Protocol on Northern Ireland: Disruption to Trade

Volume 809: debated on Thursday 14 January 2021

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 13 January.

“I am grateful for the chance to update the House on the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol. The protocol exists to recognise Northern Ireland’s unique position as the only part of our United Kingdom to have a land border with the EU. It was designed to ensure that no customs infrastructure is needed between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, while protecting unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the rest of the UK market, and the gains of the peace process, and, of course, respecting Northern Ireland’s position as an absolutely integral part of the United Kingdom.

As with any new trading arrangement, the protocol undoubtedly generates challenges as well as providing solutions. The Government are committed to addressing those challenges by providing pragmatic solutions to any problems that arise and to working with the Northern Ireland Executive in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland.

UK Government Ministers are in daily contact with Ministers in the Executive, and with businesses in Northern Ireland and Great Britain, to ensure the effective operation of the protocol. Inevitably, the impact of Covid and the steps taken by the French Government at their border have affected retail businesses across the United Kingdom, but it is important to stress that freight volumes into Northern Ireland’s ports are at normal levels for this time of year. There have been no significant queues, and supermarkets are now generally reporting healthy deliveries of supplies into Northern Ireland.

None the less, the new processes that the protocol asks of businesses that are moving goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland require the Government to do more. We are working with companies across Great Britain to help them understand the new requirements for moving goods, and the extensive government support includes the trader support service, to which more than 25,000 businesses are now signed up, yet we know that still more needs to be done.

That is why we are stepping up direct engagement with suppliers to ensure they have access to the real-time guidance they need, and we are also working closely with industry to address specific problems of moving mixed food loads from Great Britain to Northern Ireland through the process known as groupage. In the coming days, the Government will issue new guidance on the practical mitigations that have been developed with industry to enable this important practice to continue and to support hauliers and suppliers.

We also recognise that a number of hauliers have been affected by significant issues at Dublin Port. We welcome the easements that have been introduced by the Irish Government, but movements via Dublin are substantially lower than normal, so we have to intensify our engagement with the Irish authorities.

More broadly, the grace periods for supermarkets and their suppliers are now working well, but we are already planning for the streamlined replacements that will follow. A dedicated team within Defra, working with the Cabinet Office, is also in touch with the industry to promote readiness, supported by new specific government funding.

Ultimately, the future of the protocol is in the hands of Northern Ireland’s people, and its renewal is a question of democratic consent. The responsibility of this Government is to ensure that it operates in an effective, legal and pragmatic way, and that is the spirit in which we approach its implementation.”

My Lords, shoppers in Northern Ireland supermarkets were surprised to find competitors’ products on the shelves. Of greater concern, some products have disappeared entirely, with the Government saying that

“the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.”

This is unacceptable. Michael Gove admitted yesterday that mistakes had been made, but that is not good enough and it fails to explain why the Government did not prepare for something that they had been warned about for more than a year. It is just shambolic. The protocol is not perfect, but it needs to be made to work. I have two questions for the Minister. Why did Ministers spend so much of last year denying the challenges, leaving it to business to make contingency plans? I also ask him to explain what urgent steps the Government are taking to get shelves stocked and trade moving today.

My Lords, it is important that we are clear about the overall picture. One must not overstate individual anecdotes into a systemic picture. I acknowledge that there have been issues—that was never denied—but, overall, goods are continuing to flow effectively. Supermarkets are able to move their lorries into Northern Ireland. There are some specific issues, as we have seen with individual suppliers, but it is holding up well overall. The UK Government will continue to work with supermarkets, retailers and suppliers to move in the longer run to end-to-end digital systems that enable goods to be moved in accordance with the protocol in the most streamlined way possible.

My Lords, the Government, led by the Prime Minister, put ideology over practicality and deception over honesty in the pursuit of Brexit. The claim made by the noble Lord, Lord True, in last Friday’s debate that,

“the flow of goods under the Northern Ireland protocol is smooth overall”—[Official Report, 8/1/21; col. 442.]—

an answer he has just repeated—is contested by seven supermarket bosses. The Answer to this UQ is somewhat of an improvement on those rather complacent claims, but only when the Government are totally honest about the fact that there is a border within the UK can they start to resolve the practical difficulties of the protocol. When will that total honesty appear?

My Lords, the Government have been honest and have not been ideological. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister simply implemented the instructions of the British people—some noble Lords have not yet caught up with that. Goods are flowing effectively between Great Britain and Northern Ireland overall, with more than 1,000 trucks a day. I have acknowledged that there are certain difficulties and issues, but we must not overstate them and we are working pragmatically to address them.

Can the Minister reassure the House that nothing in the Northern Ireland protocol will prevent Northern Ireland businesses taking advantage of the UK’s new trade agreements? Can he also confirm that its businesses will not suffer any harm resulting from possible tariff retaliation against the EU by states such as the US?

My Lords, I can confirm for my noble friend that Northern Ireland exporters will, as will those in the rest of the United Kingdom, be able to take full advantage of trade deals we strike with third countries. Certainly, we will not be participating in trade wars between third countries.

One of the key lessons I took when briefly a Minister in Northern Ireland was the vital importance of attention to detail. Is not the Prime Minister’s lack of attention to detail the cause of chucking the Falklands to the Argentine, Gibraltar to Spain and Northern Ireland to the Republic? What is the Cabinet Office doing about the effect of Annexe 7 on the operation of Article 16 of the protocol?

My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Lord in his overall characterisation of the position. This Government are absolutely resolute that Northern Ireland remains an integral part of the United Kingdom and will remain so as long as its people determine. As I have acknowledged to the House, certain practical issues have arisen; these are being addressed maturely and sensibly by the Government, suppliers and business, and I believe that that is the way we should proceed, without, at this stage, talking about Article 16.

My Lords, I welcome the Government’s efforts to iron out what we all hope are teething troubles, and also the commitments made yesterday by the Prime Minister that they will do whatever is necessary to ensure that goods can move freely from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Whatever one’s view of the protocol, can my noble friend assure the House that it does not in any way change Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, which, under the terms of the Acts of Union and the consent provisions of the Belfast agreement, remains a full and integral part of our United Kingdom?

Yes, my noble friend is right: the protocol and our implementation of it fully protects Northern Ireland’s status as an integral part of our United Kingdom. That must remain the case. As I have said, there are teething problems and we have to address these, but if they ever become disproportionate, then that is the time, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said, when further action would have to be considered.

The Minister has acknowledged that there are problems and difficulties at the ports and elsewhere, and it is reported that some freight companies are losing tens of thousands of pounds per week because of the confusion that reigns there. We also have a problem with a Secretary of State who refuses to acknowledge that there is, in fact, a border at all. Will the Minister give his assessment today of the impact that the protocol and the sea border will have on the Northern Ireland economy? In light of the Prime Minister’s comments yesterday, will he clarify the specific conditions in which the Government would act to invoke Article 16 of the protocol and restore unfettered market access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to the rest of the United Kingdom’s internal market?

My Lords, I can certainly give the noble Lord the assurance that we will work extremely hard to overcome difficulties. As I just said in reply to my noble friend Lord Caine, the Prime Minister stated the position on the record in the House of Commons yesterday as far as Article 16 is concerned. Obviously, I stand by his words. As for movement of traffic, everybody should feel that they can and must send goods to every part of our kingdom normally. Flows of trucks into Belfast are now normal. There have been issues at Holyhead, but movements there are increasing and we hope to see that trend continue.

Will my noble friend remind the House that the Northern Ireland protocol, as was made clear by our Attorney-General and the EU itself, is intrinsically temporary because the EU, under Article 50, was unable to enter into permanent trade agreements? This is why it could not even start negotiating a trade agreement with us until after we had left. However, as we resolve, by patches and devices, the structural problems that will grow because of the differences between EU legislation and our own, to avoid a barrier in the Irish Sea we will develop means that will enable us to apply the same mechanisms to avoid having a barrier or any infrastructure between Northern Ireland and the Republic when the Northern Ireland protocol fades away.

My Lords, we are addressing specific issues—for example, steel announcements and groupage announcements are imminent—and there will be what my noble friend calls “patches”. Obviously, in the longer run the protocol’s existence will be determined by the people of Northern Ireland.

My Lords, can my noble friend explain what will happen at the end of the three-month grace period if there is no rollover of the EU’s decision not to apply its rules in full? Does he accept that this situation is already arising, when our standards have not yet diverged from those of the EU, and will accelerate after any divergence? I reiterate my apology to the people of Northern Ireland for the fact that the implications of Brexit were never fully and openly explained, although they must have been obvious right at the start.

My Lords, I am not following any further the comment that people did not understand where they were when decisions were taken on whether to leave. I believe that we should all leave that behind us. On the specific question, at the end of the grace period, as I said in an earlier reply, the UK will continue to work with supermarkets and retailers. We have a dedicated group of officials working on this. We are seeking new end-to-end digital systems that will enable goods to be moved in accordance with the protocol in the most streamlined way, and this will be backed by a major injection of UK government funding as part of a broader support package. However, it behoves all sides under this agreement, including the EU, to behave in a proportionate manner.