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Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland

Volume 812: debated on Thursday 27 May 2021


Asked by

To ask the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office (Lord Frost) what steps Her Majesty’s Government will take to prevent any negative impact on Northern Ireland from the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.

My Lords, as I have set out on many occasions, it is clear that the protocol is presenting significant challenges for many in Northern Ireland and across the whole of the UK. Solutions must be found urgently to address these. We remain committed to working through the issues with the EU, and we hope that it will show common sense and take a pragmatic risk-based approach to the problems. We continue to consider all our options in meeting our responsibility, which is also the purpose of the protocol, to protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the peace process.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. In the protocol court case that is being taken in Belfast, the Government have argued, astoundingly, that parts of the Act of Union itself have been impliedly repealed by the protocol. That is an incredible position for a Conservative and Unionist Government to find themselves in. Does the Minister accept that, as well as the serious economic difficulties and diversion of trade being caused by the protocol, this assertion of constitutional vandalism will add immensely to the serious societal difficulties in Northern Ireland, one expression of which is the almost nightly occurrence of peaceful protests in Northern Ireland, which are largely unreported but reflect a widespread dismay at the unbalanced approach to the political and peace process? The Minister talked about solutions. Can he indicate a timetable for solutions that reflects the urgency and gravity of the situation?

My Lords, obviously I am not able to comment on the specifics of litigation while it is ongoing. I point out that the protocol itself is clear that it is without prejudice and has no effect on the territorial integrity of the UK or its essential state functions. That is a very important element of the protocol.

We understand the dismay and concern about identity that is provoked by the way the protocol is currently being implemented, and we are attempting to respond to that as a matter of urgency. There are a number of timetables in parallel here: the negotiating process, the grace periods themselves and the political timetable in Northern Ireland must all be kept in step if we are to find solutions to these issues.

My Lords, it is fairly clear that the Minister is unhappy with the protocol, or at least the way that it is working out. Will he indicate what the Government’s strategy is for achieving a better outcome regarding the protocol, given that, if neither we nor the EU know what is going on, it is hard to see how we are going to move forward? What is the Minister’s proposal?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to observe that we are not particularly happy with the way that the protocol is being implemented. Our hope is that we can find solutions to this with the European Union. I speak frequently to my EU colleague, Maroš Šefčovič, and our teams are in regular touch. Talks are going on semi-continuously on these questions and we hope to have made progress in dealing with some of the most difficult issues by the time of the joint committee, but obviously it takes two sides to move forward and find pragmatic solutions. Progress is limited at the moment but we keep working at it.

My Lords, we would have liked, in the negotiations last year, to have established as part of the TCA an agreement on equivalence for SPS and food standards that could have been framed as a veterinary agreement or in other forms, but the EU was not willing to agree such a process. We remain willing to try to do so if it wishes to. What we cannot agree to is dynamic alignment of our rules with those of the EU because it is a fundamental tenet that we must have control of our own laws and rules if we are to do free trade deals and get the full benefits of Brexit. Once again, we keep working to see whether we can find a compromise on this issue that works within both sides’ red lines, but at the moment we are not succeeding in doing so.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is completely insane that a packet of Sainsbury’s Cumberland sausages destined for its Forestside store in Belfast has to undergo cumbersome checks on entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain due to fears that it might illegally enter the EU single market, when Sainsbury’s does not have a single store in the EU? Could there be a clearer example of the pressing need on the part of the EU to adopt a more sensible, pragmatic and proportionate approach to the implementation of the protocol, and to put an end to this utter madness?

I certainly agree that it seems curious to us that there needs to be extensive process paperwork as well as the possibility of checks for goods that do not present any risk of moving into the EU’s single market. Obviously we agree that it is important to protect the integrity of the EU’s single market, but that needs to be done on a sensible risk-based basis. It was because of concerns such as this that we had to extend the grace period relating to supermarkets earlier this year, as is well-known, and why we remain concerned that a permanent solution to this problem has not been found yet.

My noble friend the Minister will be aware of the report from Marks and Spencer yesterday which revealed the cost to that company of its operations on both sides of the Irish border. This huge, undemocratic and bureaucratic superstructure we have created is surely totally out of proportion to the tiny amount of trade, in European terms, that flows across the Irish border. Will my noble friend and the colleagues he is negotiating with at the EU seriously talk to some people about realistic alternatives that achieve the objective of protecting the single market but do not cause the divisions within the United Kingdom that this protocol has caused?

My Lords, we looked very closely, obviously, at the report from Marks and Spencer earlier this week and the costs that it has identified as being connected to the protocol. It is important to note that, although it is sometimes said that we are not trying to implement the protocol, in fact both companies and this Government have shouldered very considerable costs trying to do so—both in the private sector and, for us, in the trader support scheme, movement assistance scheme and so on. All of that is having a chilling effect on the ability to move goods across the whole of the UK, which is causing so much difficulty, so we need to find a realistic and lower-cost, risk-based approach to doing this. That is what we hoped to see and we continue to hope that we can agree with the European Union.

My Lords, dialogue is always better than legal writs and newspaper articles, so I welcome the Minister’s recent visit to Northern Ireland to meet businesses and communities. Can he now tell us if he has any immediate plans to meet officials of the European Union, the Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney and the leaders of all the political parties in Northern Ireland to discuss these difficult issues around the Northern Ireland protocol?

My Lords, I remain in contact with all those whom the noble Lord has suggested that I should be in contact with. I talk to my European Union opposite numbers frequently—in fact, I had a meeting with the EU ambassador this morning. I remain in close touch, as does my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, with all ranges of opinion in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, the protocol is causing immense harm to peace and stability in Northern Ireland, as well as to businesses and consumers. However, now people all over the UK are angry about the ridiculous EU rules on pets traveling from Northern Ireland to GB and from GB to NI. What message would the noble Lord give to Christopher, who is a 13 year-old boy in County Fermanagh who helps train dogs for search and rescue? He is a champion at dog trials but now, because of the cost and bureaucracy of travelling back taking his dog, he will not be able to attend dog trials any more. There are rabies injections, worming and pet passport paperwork, which are all needed each time he takes his dog from one part of the UK to another. The EU is clearly not listening to the people of Northern Ireland, nor cares about the people of Northern Ireland. Does the Minister? I know he does, so when will the Government recognise that the EU does not care and just pull the plug on this protocol?

My Lords, this is a good example of a problem that we saw no reason should arise when the protocol was negotiated but has nevertheless arisen. We are concerned about the difficulties in moving pets from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and in the other direction. The EU has it in its power to deal with this problem by giving us part 1 listing for pets as it does for many other countries and for which dynamic alignment is not required. We had assumed that this would be what happened; unfortunately, it has not been granted to the UK. We have part 2 listing and that is why the problems persist. It remains in the EU’s power to change this situation if it wishes.