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Northern Ireland and Great Britain: Trade

Volume 811: debated on Thursday 25 March 2021


Asked by

To ask the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office (Lord Frost) what initiatives Her Majesty’s Government will pursue in the European Union–United Kingdom Joint Committee to reduce the burdens for businesses in Northern Ireland trading with Great Britain.

My Lords, we are committed to and have legislated to ensure unfettered access for Northern Ireland goods moving to the rest of the UK market as a unilateral UK matter. As to goods’ movement between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, we continue to be committed to working through the joint committee to provide pragmatic and sustainable arrangements for east-west trade, and we are supporting all our businesses in doing so.

Does the Minister now acknowledge that his fiendishly complex barriers to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland are throttling local businesses and undermining political stability? Surely the joint and specialised committees that he co-chairs with the EU are fully capable of resolving these problems—or are they simply the direct and inevitable consequence of the Prime Minister’s dogmatic obsession with a hard Brexit? Surely the Minister accepts that unilateral suspensions of, and inflammatory calls to renege upon, the Irish protocol—negotiated by him and agreed by his Government—are also eroding trust with future trading partners, as President Biden has ominously signalled.

My Lords, the best way of dealing with the issues that are arising on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is for the Northern Ireland protocol to be implemented in a pragmatic and proportionate manner that is consistent with all its aims. That is what we intend to do and we are working with the European Union to that effect.

My Lords, by its recent actions the European Union has shown that it respects the Belfast agreement only when it suits it. The actions of the European Union on 29 January surprised and shocked all those who understand the importance of the peace process. How does the Minister propose to act to safeguard the Belfast agreement and the peace process?

My Lords, this Government stand fully behind the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. It is central to our policy on Northern Ireland. The most important thing about the Northern Ireland protocol is that it should guarantee the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the peace process. If it is failing to do that, it is not working well; that is why we think that a pragmatic, proportionate and appropriate implementation of the protocol is the right way forward.

My Lords, the Government are in real danger of blundering around in Northern Ireland on these sensitive trade issues. The unionists feel, understandably, that putting a trade border down the Irish Sea is a betrayal of their community. To mitigate this, will the Government seek a Swiss-style veterinary agreement with the European Union, which would eliminate many—not all, but many—of the trade barriers created when the Government originally entered the withdrawal agreement? Is there any downside, in the Minister’s view, to such a veterinary agreement that is more important than smoother trade and political stability in Northern Ireland?

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct in the implication of his question: that the protocol must be implemented in a way which protects the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions, east-west as well as north-south. On the question of a SPS or veterinary agreement, we proposed in the TCA negotiations last year that there could be an equivalence arrangement between us and the EU. Unfortunately, the EU was not open to that. We continue to be open to such an equivalence arrangement, if the EU is interested in it.

My Lords, I too want to press on the issue of an SPS agreement. It is not only that a lot of the problems of deliveries from Great Britain to Northern Ireland concern foodstuffs and plants; exports of products such as shellfish and Scottish salmon from Great Britain to the EU have been massively hit by Brexit red tape. The noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, asked the Minister specifically whether there was any downside to an SPS agreement. He did not answer that question, so why are the Government not seeking a veterinary so-called SPS agreement?

My Lords, the downside to a Swiss-style SPS or veterinary agreement is that it would require our food and drink sector to accept not laws that were made in this country but the laws of the European Union. As far as this Government are concerned, that is quite a considerable downside to such an agreement. It is why we cannot accept one that is based on dynamic alignment.

My Lords, for over 20 years, discussion and dialogue have been at the heart of the Northern Ireland peace process and the protocol should be no exception to this. Will the Minister talk to the European Union through the joint committee, and to the Irish Government through the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, which was set up by the Good Friday agreement, and, above all, talk to all the political parties represented in the Northern Ireland Executive and their leaders? Only by talking will we ultimately resolve these issues.

My Lords, I very much agree that dialogue is extremely important. I and my team are in constant touch with Vice-President Šefčovič and his teams, and of course my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland also has many contacts in Northern Ireland. I am pleased to say that there will be a specialised committee tomorrow, 26 March, within the joint committee framework to consider all the issues related to implementing the protocol. We continue to pursue dialogue in that framework.

My Lords, while the Northern Ireland protocol remains in place, British medicines going from Britain to Northern Ireland will, from 31 December this year, need not only to comply with EU regulation but to be batch-tested inside the EEA. They could therefore be hostage to capricious EU export bans. Will my noble friend assure the people of Northern Ireland that the Government will guarantee them a continuous, reliable supply of medicines, including any necessary vaccine boosters, even if that requires the Government to take unilateral action?

My Lords, the people of Northern Ireland must of course have access to a wide availability of medicines and pharmaceutical products, just as in any other part of the UK. There is, of course, a grace period in place until the end of this year for the protocol provisions. We have proposed, as is known to the EU, that this should be extended by a further year. We continue to discuss this matter.

My Lords, given that the protocol prevents the flow of free trade within the United Kingdom internal market and stops any elected representative, either at Stormont or here at Westminster, having any say or vote on laws which govern a large degree of the economy of Northern Ireland, does my noble friend agree that these matters must be addressed and corrected at the earliest opportunity; that we as a sovereign, independent country must ensure that the people of Northern Ireland are treated in the same way as people elsewhere in the United Kingdom; and that we have to do this to ensure that we have a stable future for devolution and a balanced and proper implementation of the agreements, not a one-sided interpretation and implementation of them?

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely correct to say that the future of the protocol depends on the consent of the elected representatives and the people of Northern Ireland. If that consent is not maintained, it is difficult to see how the protocol can be genuinely durable. All sides must work to sustain it. The EU needs to be aware of the impact its decisions have had on the ground in Northern Ireland in recent months, and continue to work to implement the protocol in a pragmatic and proportionate fashion.

My Lords, touring and performing in Europe is crucial to our creative industries in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister take the opportunity to put on record today the reason why HM Government rejected the offer made in the EU draft legal text of March 2020 to exempt musicians and artists from any new visa requirements or restrictions on short-term work on the continent?

My Lords, the British people voted to end free movement in 2016 and that was a central part of our approach to the negotiations in 2020. The specific proposal made by the European Union would not have dealt with all the difficulties that cultural workers face. The proposal that we made would have, so we regret that agreement on it was not possible, but we continue to discuss this matter bilaterally now with European member states.