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Northern Ireland Protocol: Grace Period

Volume 810: debated on Wednesday 10 March 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the response of the European Union to the United Kingdom’s decision to extend until October the grace period for checks on certain goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

My Lords, we have noted the position set out by Vice-President Šefčovič in his statement on 3 March about the limited and temporary operational measures the Government announced last week. These measures are lawful and consistent with the progressive and good faith interpretation of the Northern Ireland protocol. We will carefully consider any further steps the Commission decides it needs to take.

My Lords, I warmly welcome my noble friend to the Front Bench and congratulate him on his appointment. I strongly support the actions taken by the Government in recent days as a necessary, proportionate and lawful response to the situation in which we currently find ourselves. Does my noble friend agree that the somewhat hysterical reaction of the EU yet again demonstrates its one-sided inability to recognise legitimate unionist concerns and to see the Belfast agreement through all of its strands—an agreement that its intransigence now threatens to undermine? In addition, can my noble friend assure me that this unionist Government will robustly defend any legal actions brought by the EU and that they will take whatever measures are necessary to guarantee Northern Ireland’s place as an integral part of the UK internal market?

I thank my noble friend for his words of support for the decisions taken by the Government last week. Our overriding aim is to protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions—all the strands, north-south and east-west. The protocol was designed to achieve this. All sides need to be sensitive to the social and political realities, and the fact that the operation of the protocol rests on the confidence of both communities in Northern Ireland. I reassure my noble friend that we will consider any legal process launched by the EU very carefully; we will defend our position vigorously. The protocol is explicit in respecting the territorial integrity of the UK and we will ensure that is sustained.

My Lords, I join in very warmly welcoming the noble Lord to the House. Does he accept that behind this trade crisis in Northern Ireland is his own hostility to the European Union? He has taken Britain out of the customs union and single market and therefore necessitated these trade controls. Is he aware that Margaret Thatcher, who largely created the single market, said:

“How we meet the challenge of the Single Market will be a major factor, possibly the major factor, in our competitive position in European and world markets into the twenty-first century. Getting it right needs a partnership between government and business”?

Does the noble Lord agree with Lady Thatcher?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. We developed a model of Brexit and implemented it on the back of the election victory in December 2019, which is about leaving the customs union and single market. We believe that the United Kingdom will benefit from control of its own laws, trade policy and money. That situation will give us benefits. We would like a constructive relationship with the European Union and I will be working to ensure that happens.

My Lords, I also welcome the noble Lord to the Dispatch Box. We knew that businesses which export out of the UK to the EU required an HMRC EORI number, but now businesses need a Northern Ireland EORI number to trade internally in the UK with Northern Ireland. The noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, stated in a letter to me on 11 February that, of the 770,000 trading businesses in the UK, only 58,000 have a Northern Ireland XI EORI number. Why would businesses in the UK require export registrations to trade with other parts of the UK? If there is unfettered trade within the UK, why do only 12% of UK businesses currently have the capability to trade with Northern Ireland?

This Government are working extremely hard to ensure the fair and free flow of trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We have provided more than £200 million to support businesses through the trader support service and processed declarations for over 200,000 consignments. Some 34,000 businesses are registered and 98% of declarations are handled within 15 minutes. An EORI number is part of the requirement to trade now that we have left the customs union, but we are doing our utmost to ensure the free flow of trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland as the protocol requires.

My Lords, I was heavily exposed to the Troubles across the whole span of my broadcasting career, so I am particularly alert to the delicacy of the current situation in Northern Ireland. The Governments of John Major and Tony Blair invested enormous political capital in resolving the tensions there. Will this Government?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. Our overriding aim is to protect the peace process in Northern Ireland and the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. That is an avowed and primary purpose of the Northern Ireland protocol. As we implement the protocol in a pragmatic and proportionate way, we do so very mindful of the considerations he has in mind and protecting all aspects of the peace process.

My Lords, temporary derogations, waivers or exemptions are by definition not a long-term solution to the problems intrinsic in the protocol. Will my noble friend the Minister address the asymmetry—the absurdity—at the heart of the protocol: its contention that checks on goods between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland undermine the Good Friday agreement and may even jeopardise peace, but checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain have no such consequences?

My noble friend makes a very good point. The protocol was designed to deal with the very complex reality to which he alludes. It needs to be implemented in a way that takes account of all the strands of the Good Friday agreement—east-west as well as north-south—and enables cross-community consent for those arrangements to be sustained. That means that the smooth flow of trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland needs to be preserved, as well as an open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

I also congratulate the Minister on his new appointment and thank him for engaging afresh with the EU Committee in his new capacity. How was the joint committee apparatus, including the joint consultative working group on the withdrawal agreement, used to discuss and disseminate the Government’s decision on grace periods before its announcement? Further, given the furore, if they had their time again, would they have played things differently?

I thank the noble Earl for his question, and I look forward to appearing before his committee again in the near future. We have been working through the joint committee mechanisms since the beginning of the year and before. The measures taken last week were operational, technical and temporary. We informed the Commission of those through the appropriate channels and at the appropriate level before the decision was made public.

My Lords, I think we all welcome that the noble Lord, Lord Frost, is now able to answer Questions from the Dispatch Box and we look forward to an ongoing dialogue with him about his Cabinet responsibilities. His role in the negotiations has been credited with getting the agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol over the line. He would have been aware then of all the implications. Given that he supported the creation of, and now co-chairs, the Joint Committees he has referred to, which are designed to resolve such disputes, would not the most mature and pragmatic way to deal with this issue be to continue with that process? Does he understand that the unilateral action he is championing is a double threat? It jeopardises the European Parliament’s ratification of his own agreement and damages our international reputation if we cannot be trusted to keep our word.

I thank the Baroness and I look forward to answering many more Questions from this Dispatch Box about our approach to the relationship with the European Union. We would like to see a constructive relationship with the European Union in future. The difficulty we are faced with this year is that the EU’s decision to invoke Article 16 in Northern Ireland has created a new and very difficult situation that has undermined cross-community confidence and we have been trying to deal with that. We would like to do so in a constructive and consensual way but we also have to have to regard to the situation and the need to maintain confidence and consent across both communities in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, I also welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box. Can he confirm exactly how and when the Irish Government were informed about the decision unilaterally to extend the grace period?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her question. We do not go into the detail of diplomatic communications at the highest level but I can confirm that the Irish Government were informed of this decision before it was made public by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on 3 March.

My Lords, likewise, I welcome the noble Lord to his position at the Dispatch Box. As one living near the border between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom, and as a former MEP, I am very conscious that border issues can destabilise Northern Ireland. I am disappointed that the European Union does not recognise that. I am even more disappointed that the House of Lords European Union Committee did not recognise the tensions and trading problems that the protocol would create. Today the Vice-President of the European Commission, Šefčovič, is addressing the Friends of Ireland in the Congress in Washington. I hope he will ensure that he gets a report from our embassy in America on what is said. In so far as the future is concerned—

My question is this. In so far as the future is concerned, there must be agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union. Will the Government ensure that the common travel area will be secured, that all three strands of the Belfast agreement will be supported and that the sovereignty of the United Kingdom will extend throughout Northern Ireland?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his question. I agree very much that all sides must be sensitive to the social and political realities in Northern Ireland and to the need for the consent of both communities if it is to work effectively. Our actions have been aimed at restoring that confidence. Indeed, I can reassure the noble Lord that we will protect the common travel area—which is specifically protected in the protocol—but our overriding aim is to protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the territorial integrity of the UK. Northern Ireland’s place in the customs union and single market will be protected.

My Lords, I add my congratulations to my noble friend and wish him well in the task that lies ahead. Following on from the questions of my noble friends Lord Caine and Lord Hannan of Kingsclere, can he tell me—I fear I may be a little simple and he will have to be patient with me —what evidence has been put forward by those who insist that checks on goods crossing the land mass of Ireland undermine the prospects of peace while, by contrast, checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea do not? Can he explain why Brussels can simply stop trade in vital goods such as vaccines to Northern Ireland, but threatens us for doing business with our own people? Am I simple or is it all a rotten case of double standards?

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very acute observation about the situation. As I have noted, the protocol must be implemented in a way that takes account of all strands of the Good Friday agreement—that is, east-west as well as north-south. The EU’s decision to activate Article 16 in January, however briefly, has compounded the difficulties and severely shaken confidence. We would obviously prefer it if the EU would reckon with the situation it has created and work with us to ensure that trade can flow in all directions, including to Northern Ireland, in a free and fair manner.

My Lords, further to the question from my noble friend Lady Smith, does the Minister not now regret taking unilateral action against an agreement which he was party to? Does he not worry that no one will accept or trust his word ever again?

My Lords, there were already challenges in the operation of the protocol in early January this year and they were already having a direct and disproportionate impact on citizens in Northern Ireland. The EU’s decision to invoke Article 16 compounded the difficulties and undermined cross-community confidence. Our actions have been aimed at restoring confidence and minimising disruption to the everyday life of people in Northern Ireland. That is what this Government will work to ensure.

My Lords, I am afraid that the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed. My apologies to the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, and the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann.

I am going to take a moment or two to allow the Chamber to clear a bit before we move on to the next business. There is a moment or two for you to shuffle out.

I think everyone has now shuffled. We now come to the Motion in the name of the Senior Deputy Speaker.