The Government’s policy on future customs arrangements in Northern Ireland is very clear. We will not accept a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, and we are committed to avoiding a hard border with Ireland, including any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls.
The Good Friday agreement, which underpins the peace process in Northern Ireland, was not universally welcomed, although it was overwhelmingly welcomed on both sides of the border. One main pillar of the agreement is that there will be no border infrastructure between the north and the south of Ireland. Why can the Secretary of State not tell us categorically today that the answer to my question is that no additional customs officers will be needed for the Irish border? Is it because the Government are going soft on their commitment to the Good Friday agreement?
The Government’s commitment to the Belfast agreement and to the joint report that was issued before Christmas is steadfast—we remain committed to all.
The Home Office has pledged to recruit an extra 1,300 customs officials by December 2020. How many of them will be based in Northern Ireland, and how many will be based on the Irish border?
I repeat that we remain committed to what we set out in the joint report that was issued before Christmas, which means that there will be no new physical infrastructure between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and no border down the Irish sea.
The latest InterTradeIreland report said that only 8% of cross-border traders had made any plans for post-Brexit trading. How many of the Secretary of State’s new customs officers will be tasked with reassuring those businesses and helping them to prepare for the future?
The reassurance I can give to those businesses is that this Government are committed to leaving the customs union, and to doing so in a way that respects our commitments under the Belfast agreement and the joint report for no hard border on the island of Ireland.
Is it not the case that we cannot know what arrangements, if any, will be needed on the Irish border until we know what kind of deal we have got with the European Union? Is not the EU putting the cart before the horse when it insists on arrangements being made now?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point but, as I say, the Government are committed to no hard border, no new physical infrastructure at the border, and no related checks and controls at the border. I hope that that is clear enough.
Does the Secretary of State agree that with investment in technology, and investing now, we can be ready on day one for trade to continue on the island of Ireland as it has always done, and that there will never be any need for physical infrastructure or customs checks at the border?
It would not be right for me to comment on the work that is being done within government on customs arrangements, suffice it to say that we are committed to no hard border on the island of Ireland, no border down the Irish sea, no new physical infrastructure, and no new related checks and controls.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that as it is our policy that there will be no hard border between the Republic and the north, there is no need for any extra officials, but that if Brussels insists that the Republic puts in a hard border, the customs officials will be required in the Republic, not in Northern Ireland?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. As I say, I do not want to be drawn on speculations regarding this matter. All I will say is that we are committed to no hard border.
I thank the Under-Secretary for welcoming me to the Dispatch Box earlier.
We strongly welcome the Secretary of State’s words today, which are consistent with those of the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland when he warned that any physical infrastructure would be a potential target and could eventually put lives at risk, but if her Government are going to reject a customs union—a realistic proposal put forward by the Labour party—what proposals can she set out to the House today that will make it clear that she can make this “no hard border” work?
May I now welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post? I look forward to working with him over the next few weeks, months and, possibly, years—we never know how long each of us will last.
We have discussed this matter ourselves, and the Government are committed not only to no hard border, but to respecting the result of the referendum, which means that we are leaving the single market and the customs union. We set out possible alternative arrangements in our customs paper last summer and we are working towards them.