(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union if he will make a statement regarding checks on goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain and Great Britain to Northern Ireland under the current withdrawal agreement.
On 17 October, the United Kingdom and the European Union reached political agreement on a new withdrawal agreement and political declaration for the future relationship. That includes a revised protocol for Northern Ireland, which has been extensively debated in this House. The agreement is clear that Great Britain and Northern Ireland are one customs territory. Goods that are not at risk of moving to the European Union will attract no tariffs. These arrangements mean that Northern Ireland would remain in the UK’s customs territory and could benefit from the UK’s new trade deals with third countries. Goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland that are destined for the European Union will have to comply with European Union rules. To ensure that the correct tariffs are applied and that goods comply with the rules of the single regulatory zone, some information will be needed on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
The deal also explicitly allows the United Kingdom to ensure unfettered market access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. There will be minimal targeted interventions designed to prevent, for example, trade in endangered species, which I would have thought the House would agree on. We will work with the European Union to eliminate those limited processes as soon as possible after Brexit. The most important point is that the arrangements automatically dissolve after four years unless a majority of the Northern Ireland Assembly in Stormont votes to keep them.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, which really does matter.
There is confusion at the very heart of Government. Yesterday the Prime Minister told the House there would be “no checks” and “no tariffs” between Northern Ireland and Great Britain; that is in direct contradiction to what the Secretary of State just told the House. It is in contradiction with the steadily progressing views expressed in different statements from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Justice Secretary, who said last night on “Newsnight” that there will be checks in both directions—from GB to Northern Ireland, and Northern Ireland to GB. The manifest confusion at the heart of Government is compounded by the confusion for businesses in Northern Ireland—particularly small businesses—and the Northern Ireland civil service in planning for the long term. That is simply unacceptable. The Government were trying to ram the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill through the House in three days, but they themselves do not properly understand what they are doing. That is problematic, and we need absolute clarity.
While this is outside the Secretary of State’s immediate brief, there are other consequences. The House spent a long time arguing that there should be no hard border across the island of Ireland to prevent an impact on the nationalist community; we did not think we would now be talking about the impact on the Unionist community and political Unionism. The new Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland said:
“whatever ends up as a Brexit deal, if there is one that could be perceived in a way that sort of threatens the security of the loyalist community...our concern is also the loyalist community has at times shown it can mobilise quickly, bring large numbers of people on to the streets and engage in public disorder in support of their cause.”
I hope that every Member takes that warning very seriously, because it is a profound warning from a senior and experienced police officer.
I have a number of specific questions for the Secretary of State. First, what overall impact assessment have the Government made for the Northern Ireland economy? What assessment have they made for trading ports and airports in Scotland, Wales and England? Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs estimates that each declaration for shipments from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will cost between £15 and £56, and Border Force says that a “minimum amount” of electronic information will be required for movements from west to east. When will the Secretary of State be able to give certainty to businesses about what the checks will be and how they will be undertaken? If the Justice Secretary was right when he told “Newsnight” that there would be checks from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, when will we know the detail of what those checks will be, rather than their being superficially dismissed as of no importance?
In the end, the Government have to put an end to this confusion. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that he will make an early statement to the House about the full impact of the checks in both directions? Does he accept the warning of the Chief Constable about the potential impact and do the Government take that seriously? If so, what is their assessment? Finally, I have to ask about a political point, although it is an important one: does the Secretary of State believe that the Prime Minister himself at last understands the impact of his deal on Northern Ireland and on the relationship between Northern Ireland and the rest of our country?
I know that the House and the hon. Gentleman take these issues very seriously. He raises some very legitimate points, which I will seek to address.
First and foremost was the hon. Gentleman’s concern about any hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. I am happy to give him assurances on that; it is a key part of what the Government have agreed. If he looks at the preamble to the Northern Ireland protocol, he will see clear commitments from the EU and the UK to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. It states that
“nothing in this Protocol prevents the United Kingdom from ensuring unfettered market access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to the rest of the United Kingdom”.
The hon. Gentleman also raised a legitimate concern about the statement from the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The Government take it incredibly seriously, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland liaises closely with the Chief Constable and other senior officers. This is one reason why it is important to get the Executive back up and running, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman agrees. Part of the reason why the Government extended article 50, for which they were criticised at the time, was precisely because the previous Prime Minister took those concerns very seriously, and we have continued to work with the PSNI to address them. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman that one of the central concerns is the potential impact of no deal on the border, which is another reason it is important that the House comes together and agrees a deal, because that is the best way of safeguarding the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and addressing those concerns.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the comments of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister was distinguishing between the paperwork required, which will be done digitally and is a single form, and the introduction of physical checks. In the coming months, we will work within the United Kingdom and with the European Union to discuss how to eliminate the limited administrative processes that there are. The hon. Gentleman will know that article 6 of the protocol requires further work through the Joint Committee to minimise any impact. That is an ongoing commitment.
The hon. Gentleman made a valid point about certainty for business. It is something we hear about in our engagement with businesses in Northern Ireland. It is important to reassure businesses that this is an administrative process—an electronic form—and something as part of bookings that will be done with the haulier as an aspect of the shipment of goods. It will involve fairly straightforward data about who is exporting, who is importing and the nature of the goods. That said, I am happy to have further discussions with him, because he does reflect concerns among businesses, particularly the small and medium-sized enterprises sector in Northern Ireland, about these arrangements.
The hon. Gentleman also asked when we would come back to the House with further updates. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is keen to continue to update the House, following his discussions on this issue and, more widely, about the restoration of the Executive. I will speak to my right hon. Friend about how we keep the House updated.
The issue is that these are administrative processes pertaining in particular to international obligations on things such as Kimberley diamonds and endangered species, and to things that hauliers will be able to preppulate in their IT systems. However, it is the case—the hon. Gentleman is right—that concerns have been expressed in Northern Ireland. Indeed, concerns have been expressed, which I very much respect, by our confidence and supply partners. Again, I very much offer to work with colleagues across the House on how we address the real concerns—the very real concerns—that I know they have to minimise any disruption that they are concerned about.
The why is very clear—why a deal is important for the island of Ireland, and for Northern Ireland specifically—but may I say to the Secretary of State that that is not the case with the how and the what? Given the lack of absolute clarity from Government Ministers and indeed from HMRC, if the Government are serious about trying to sell this proposal to the communities of Northern Ireland, they are doomed to failure. May I urge that the Secretary of State, the Northern Ireland Secretary, the Prime Minister and the head of HMRC get together pretty quickly? In oral evidence yesterday, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland referred to clauses of the Bill being brought forward. The communities need to see those in a timely fashion. We actually need to see draft documents about what these requirements would be. They are causing huge concern in Northern Ireland, and the Secretary of State will not be able to sell the deal unless within the next few days we have the clarity that will assuage very legitimate concerns.
Order. I accorded the hon. Gentleman some latitude in the light of his notable celebrity as the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, but a similar latitude cannot be widely extended. At this rate, lots of people will not get in, and it will be no good their whingeing about it—that is the reality.
My hon. Friend, as the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, raises an important point about what reassurance can be given through the withdrawal agreement Bill to colleagues across the House to address some of these issues. I stand ready to discuss that with him, as I have offered to do with the shadow spokesman and others in the House, subject to the withdrawal agreement Bill proceeding, during its passage.
I remind the Chair of the Select Committee—of course he is very aware of this—that operationally these are issues that apply at the end of the implementation period, not when the withdrawal agreement is ratified, so there will be time for much more consultation with businesses in Northern Ireland to address the very legitimate questions that have been raised. Although it sometimes feels a bit longer, it was only last Thursday that the agreement was reached with the EU, and of course there are questions about what are often quite complex and technical arrangements pertaining to customs. Those are legitimate questions, and I stand ready to discuss them with businesses in Northern Ireland and also with my hon. Friend.
The Prime Minister had one job—to sort the Northern Ireland backstop—and he has made a pig’s ear of it. He has taken the parts of the backstop that many of his own colleagues and many in the Unionist community in Northern Ireland found unacceptable and put them centre stage, and he claims that to be a success. I and my SNP colleagues welcome anything that gives Northern Ireland businesses free access to markets in the Republic of Ireland. What is not acceptable is that our businesses in Scotland are then put deliberately at a competitive disadvantage.
What is worse is that the Prime Minister has attempted to do this not only without the consent of Northern Ireland but, as is now clear, against the almost unanimous opposition of all the communities of Northern Ireland, without any prior consultation even with the businesses that will have to live with the consequences of what he has done. Can the Secretary of State confirm reports that he has said that even people in Northern Ireland selling stuff on eBay to Great Britain will have to complete customs declarations? Did he say that or was he wrongly quoted in the Irish press?
Can the Secretary of State explain why it is a good idea for Northern Ireland to have closer customs links and trade links with the Republic of Ireland, but it is a bad idea for Scotland, Wales and England to have the same links? Can he tell us what assessment he or anyone in government has made about the economic impact on businesses in other parts of the United Kingdom, which will be left at a disadvantage compared with those in Northern Ireland? Finally, given that, in the view of Unionist politicians on both sides of the House, the deal potentially undermines the long-term future of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom, if the Prime Minister is prepared to play fast and loose with one of the founding principles of his party, why should anyone trust the reassurances he gives us on an NHS about which he quite clearly could not care less?
The hon. Gentleman asks some legitimate questions, but I think he finished with an unfair suggestion. The Prime Minister was always told that he would not be able to renegotiate a deal or replace the backstop, and that he could not change a word of the withdrawal agreement, but he achieved those things and deserves to be commended for doing so.
The hon. Gentleman started by saying that the Prime Minister had one job, but when Members passed the Benn legislation, many of them were saying that the Prime Minister’s job was avoiding no deal. By voting against the withdrawal agreement and the programme motion, the hon. Gentleman has made no deal much more likely.
The clear message that I get from businesses in Scotland —certainly those that I speak to, alongside my hon. Friends—is that they want the clarity and certainty of a deal, and to move forward. They want one step of changes through the implementation period, not two. That is why so many businesses across Scotland want us to get on with this. Fishing communities in particular want us to take control of our independent coastal waters once again.
When the hon. Gentleman referred to eBay, I was not sure whether he was talking about my comments or those of another Secretary of State, but if he was asking whether I have commented on that issue, no, I have not. Another Cabinet member might have made such comments, and I will be happy to clarify that. The impact of no deal, and the ongoing uncertainty of not resolving this issue, is clearly having a negative impact on business. Even business leaders who supported the remain campaign, such as Sir Stuart Rose, are now saying, “Let’s get this done. Let’s get Brexit done. Let’s get on to the future trade agreement and move the country forward.” I hope that the hon. Gentleman will think again and enable the programme motion to go through.
Let us get this into perspective: Northern Ireland to Great Britain trade is worth £14 billion a year; trade from Northern Ireland to the European Union, including the Irish Republic, is £4.8 billion; and those figures are replicated the other way. Our trade with the rest of the UK is absolutely the most important by a long way. We need to avoid checks, and there will be checks, because we are going to have export declarations for trade from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. The Secretary of State now calls them “administrative processes”, but they are exit declarations that have to be checked. From Great Britain to Northern Ireland, there will be customs declarations, physical checks, tariffs on goods going to the European Union and entry summary declarations.
The Government’s own impact assessment states that there is the potential of
“reduced trade, business investment and consumer spending”
in Northern Ireland, and that small businesses will be hit disproportionately. Let us have a bit of clarity and honesty in this House! The fact of the matter is that this will adversely affect the most important trade that we have in Northern Ireland—that is the point we have always made. No checks along the Irish land border, yes, but we cannot then have those checks in the Irish sea.
Please will the Secretary of State take seriously the point that the shadow Secretary of State made and the Chief Constable made today? You are in danger of causing real problems with the Belfast agreement, the St Andrews agreement, and the political institutions and political stability in Northern Ireland by what you are doing to the Unionist community. Please wake up and realise what is happening here. We need to get our heads together and look at a way forward that can solve this problem. Don’t plough ahead regardless, I urge you.
I do take seriously the concerns raised by the right hon. Gentleman. Like the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and indeed my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, I stand ready to work with him to address those concerns. We are absolutely explicit in standing by the commitments of this Government, and there is a cross-party commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. The Northern Ireland protocol makes that explicit within the terms of the international agreement.
I absolutely accept the right hon. Gentleman’s point: the flow of trade from Northern Ireland to GB is three or four times more than the flow from Northern Ireland to Ireland. That is why the text makes it clear that there will be unfettered access. We need to work with him, where there are concerns, as reflected by the Chair of the Select Committee, to allay those concerns. Indeed, the text enables us to do so. Again, these are not issues that start on 1 November; these are issues that apply at the end of the application period. Even before we get into the actual articles, the preamble says:
“the application of the protocol should impact as little as possible on the everyday life of communities both in Ireland and Northern Ireland”.
So that is a commitment on both sides. We will work with him and with the Joint Committee on that. He well knows of our unique circumstances and that is why a unique solution is required, but I stand ready, as does the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, to work with him to address the concerns he raises.
I have listened very carefully to these exchanges. May I perhaps suggest to the Secretary of State that there is a solution here that requires Ministers getting a grip of officials? The starting point is that we want unfettered access. We only have to apply controls in strictly limited circumstances, so why don’t we start with not having any businesses having to fill in forms and only having a requirement on businesses that present a risk of not complying with those strictly limited international obligations? That might well go some way to allaying the fears of our confidence and supply partners. I remind him—he does not need reminding as an experienced former Whip—that, if we had them with us, today we would be completing consideration of the Bill and be on track to leave the European Union next Thursday, and we are not.
My right hon. Friend is right; as a former Whip, I do not need reminding of the importance of that, not least as he was my Government Chief Whip during my time in the Whips Office. Let me be clear. Officials across Whitehall, in getting the deal against a very tight timescale, worked phenomenally hard; they got it through by last Thursday. I wish to be clear and express the Government’s gratitude for the work that many officials did against very tight timescales, working with Taskforce 50 to get that deal through.
My right hon. Friend is right that we need to be clear about the impact of the administrative processes. In my response a moment ago, I alluded to the commitment that applies to the Joint Committee to mitigate those impacts. He will be aware that there are already processes around the transportation of goods—with ferries, dangerous goods obviously go on top of the deck—but we will work with hauliers to minimise any administrative processes. As I say, we will work with Members of the House to do so.
Under the agreement, if a Northern Ireland fishing vessel leaves a Northern Ireland port and returns to a Northern Ireland port with its catch, could tariffs apply at that point to the fish the vessel has caught if there is a risk that some of the catch might enter the European Union?
It will be for the Joint Committee to determine to what extent there is a material risk of any leakage to the integrity of the single market. I think the example the right hon. Gentleman raises is not the sort of size of trade that I would expect to be a risk to the integrity of the single market. The rules say that no VAT would apply if that catch from the vessel was for use by consumers in Northern Ireland. His question, quite rightly, related to some of that catch then going into the EU and going into the EU single market. As is the norm, if goods go into the EU single market then VAT would apply—[Interruption.] But not automatically. It would be for the Joint Committee to determine to what extent it is a significant issue. Perhaps another example would be where food goes to Northern Ireland but goes into ready meals. Then it would be within scope. If it goes to Northern Ireland and is consumed in a restaurant in Northern Ireland, it would not. That is the sort of issue the Joint Committee will get into.
We have had only five Back Benchers, even though the urgent question has been running for 26 minutes. I say gently to the Secretary of State that nobody could accuse him of excluding from his answers any consideration that he thinks might be material in any century, but it would be helpful if we could expedite progress on this important matter.
In no way dispelling the fears of the Unionist community, of which I would consider myself one, may I quote what the House of Commons Library says on this matter:
“there are currently checks on animal products entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain including physical checks on livestock”?
While there is the potential for those to increase under this agreement, the agreement is not establishing a principle in that respect—that principle is already established.
My hon. Friend speaks with great experience, and I know that he takes a very close interest in matters pertaining to Northern Ireland. He is absolutely right in respect of the single epidemiological zone that is the island of Ireland, pertaining to animal and plant health, but at the same time, I accept that there are concerns from a number of Members about what additional requirements will be needed. Those are valid concerns and we stand ready to work with them on those issues.
Fish landed by Northern Ireland and UK fishing boats going east to west and west to east will be subject to landing tariffs that will be paid before landing. That is the information in the paperwork that I have seen. The Secretary of State stated yesterday at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that the Government will ensure that tariffs will be covered. I remind the Minister gently, but firmly, that there is nothing whatsoever in the small details that I have seen—the same papers that he has—that refers to that. This will cost Northern Ireland fishermen from Portavogie, Ardglass and Kilkeel, and indeed, all fishing boats in the UK. This withdrawal deal is absolutely rubbish. I used the word “codswallop” before—that is what it is.
A moment ago, the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) raised the very correct point about the importance of the trade from Northern Ireland into GB, and how much more of that there was compared with trade from Northern Ireland into Ireland and the EU. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, for those fishing vessels, as for other goods, there are no tariffs applied in terms of NI into GB, nor will there be any tariffs in terms of those who land their catch back into NI. We are dealing with a subset, which is, where it goes into the EU.
Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that the matters that are being discussed are a symptom of a very serious problem that we need to resolve by good will and negotiation and with regard to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland? In that context, I urge him to listen carefully to the arguments not only from those in the Democratic Unionist party, but from our Back Benchers who realise that this is a matter of such importance that it absolutely requires 100% attention from the Government.
My hon. Friend rightly raises the point about the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. He will know that the text specifically says that there must be regard to
“maintaining the integral place of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom’s internal market”,
and there is specific reference to its “constitutional status”, so he is absolutely right about that. He is also right in his recognition that these issues need to be addressed in the context of the future trading relationship that will be reached between the UK and the EU, and we have set out our ambitions for that. We are trying to address the period ahead of that, but we have the implementation period and we are confident that we can get a free trade agreement in place on the timescale that applies—to December 2020. That, as he rightly identifies, then addresses the points in his question.
The head of Border Force told the Home Affairs Committee yesterday that there would be checks and said that it is yet to be worked out in detail who would do them between Britain and Northern Ireland. A memorandum from the Home Secretary that we have published this morning rules out checks from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, but accepts that there is going to be a process from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. However, does the Secretary of State not accept that fudging the language on this is a serious problem when trust is needed? Will he clarify that enforcement will be needed if there is a process and, therefore, when he says “minimal targeted interventions”, that includes physical checks?
The right hon. Lady has referred to the Home Secretary’s evidence to the Committee that she chairs. I understand that the Home Secretary wrote to her Committee this morning to clarify her comments. The right hon. Lady has indicated that she has had a chance to see that. I just put that on the record. As was referred to earlier, checks already apply in terms of rest of the world goods and the single epidemiological unit. Those are quite right. But underpinning all the detail that Members quite properly want to probe is the principle of consent. Any issues that apply will be subject to Northern Ireland. The key issue on that is that that aligns with the EU and the UK wanting to minimise any impact, because both sides know that the arrangements will be subject to a consent mechanism in the Northern Ireland Assembly in a way that did not apply to the backstop.
Will my right hon. Friend commit himself to the use of maximum leverage in our future negotiations with the EU to ensure that this scenario does not come about in the first place, and to maximum use of the simplifications available in the Union customs code to ensure that you do not have to have controls at the border itself?
My hon. Friend is right. In some ways I can go further and better than that, in that the text actually requires both sides to work to minimise the concern to which he has referred. So I would not see it so much as requiring to put leverage on the EU. I think there is a common interest in minimising this, because the text requires it and because, as I said in my response to the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), the EU is incentivised to minimise the impact to ensure that the arrangements gain the consent of the Assembly in Northern Ireland.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
“We could not support any deal that creates a border of any kind in the Irish Sea and undermines the Union or leads to Northern Ireland having a different relationship with the EU than the rest of the UK, beyond what currently exists.”
Those are not my words, but the words of the former Secretary of State for Scotland and Ruth Davidson, the recently resigned leader of the Scottish Conservative party—an intervention that was described at the time by an unnamed Scottish Conservative spokesperson as “an article of faith” for the Scottish Conservatives. Can the Secretary of State tell the House: when did the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party lose its faith?
I think that what has shaped these arrangements is something on which I hope the right hon. Gentleman and I can agree. There are unique circumstances in Northern Ireland. That does require a unique solution. There are already unique circumstances pertaining to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. That is what the solution has put in place. He would, I think, be the first to criticise the Government if we proposed a solution that in any way compromised or involved infrastructure on the border between north and south. Therefore, that does require a degree of flexibility and creativity on all sides; that is part of a negotiation. It is to the credit of Taskforce 50 that, having for a long time said that the backstop was all-weather and all-insurance—having said that it could not be changed, that not a word could be amended—the taskforce did apply creativity and flexibility, and perhaps he should do so as well.
The Secretary of State has referred to electronic declarations for goods going from west to east. Is he planning to build a new system in the next 14 months, or is he planning to use an existing system such as CHIEF, the customs handling of import and export freight?
My hon. Friend is right that this is a straightforward process. In terms of documentation, hauliers and the transportation of goods, often, a firm will be making the same journey to their supplier, which is why any impact of the administrative procedures will be mitigated over time and the systems will ease them. However, we will work with the Joint Committee to reduce the impact of those. That is exactly what the implementation period is for.
I hope the Secretary of State will realise the difficulties that this will make for the agrifood industry in Northern Ireland; they will be massive. But I want to ask him a very straight question and I would appreciate a straight answer. My constituents are asking me this question, especially this week, when we have been inundated: why is it that the Conservative and Unionist party has done this in Northern Ireland? Are we the sacrificial lamb that was required in order to get the deal over the line?
I know the hon. Gentleman reflects the very legitimate concerns in his constituency as to some of the details, but I do not accept his characterisation of this. The strong representations we have had in government were on the need to safeguard the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, to ensure there was no infrastructure at the border in Northern Ireland, and to mitigate. Indeed, our commitment to Northern Ireland to address specifically the concerns he raises is reflected in another part of this package that has not been mentioned at all this morning, which is the new deal for Northern Ireland that the Secretary of State has been discussing with parties in the wider context of getting the Executive back up and running. It would be an odd position to suggest that the Conservative and Unionist party is not committed to Northern Ireland when indeed part of this package is a new deal which addresses the levelling up that the Prime Minister has committed to, in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom.
It is quite understandable that hon. Members who represent Northern Ireland raise concerns about this issue, but is not the key point that these arrangements will be superseded by a future free trade agreement, and that there are compelling reasons to think we can strike a deal that suits both sides, not least because of the impact on Ireland if we did not? Its GDP growth rate is currently 5%, but it will go into recession if we do not agree a UK-wide free trade agreement.
As a senior business figure in his previous career, my hon. Friend understands both the dynamic impact from an economic point of view and also the terms of the agreement, which are exactly as he says: the free trade agreement will supersede these arrangements. These arrangements can be part of this, but the free trade agreement is where we will then take it forward.
The Secretary of State has a very interesting definition of “unfettered”, because what we are talking about here are checks, charges and confusing processes on trade within our own country—within the United Kingdom—and that of course has huge implications not only for Northern Ireland, and for Scotland and England, but also for Wales. Can the Secretary of State answer the question that the Home Secretary did not answer yesterday in the Home Affairs Committee and the officials did not answer either: will UK Border Force officials be involved at any stage in the checks and processes that both he and the Home Secretary have referred to?
The hon. Gentleman talked about this being within Great Britain. There are no requirements in the protocol pertaining to Great Britain. We will have control, and this is part of it being unfettered; we will have sole control as to how we wish to address this. [Interruption.] With respect, the hon. Gentleman asked the question, and I have been trying to give full answers— perhaps slightly too full in the view of the Chair. The simple answer is that there are no requirements in terms of Great Britain: we will have sovereign control, as a sovereign country.
As I understand it, a majority vote is required for Northern Ireland to escape the existing deal, which of course is a change from the cross-community agreement, and this has, I know, upset our friends and colleagues representing Northern Ireland. Can this be looked at, so that at least in December 2020 when we leave the EU Northern Ireland comes with us in whole?
First, Northern Ireland will come with us: it will be part of the customs union, it will benefit from our trade deals, and we are absolutely committed to leaving, as the Prime Minister repeatedly says, whole and entire. My hon. Friend does raise a concern that has been raised on the Benches opposite in terms of the consent mechanism, but the concern is about giving one community a power of veto, not least because these are reserved matters pertaining to international relations that fall outside the scope of the Good Friday agreement. It is important to understand what the consent mechanism is applying to, and it is for that reason that it is by simple majority.
The Secretary of State noted the comments of the Chief Constable, and we all want to avoid any descent into community disorder. He also acknowledged the scale of east-west commerce and business. Does he now acknowledge that what we need are not warm words or reassurances on what will follow, but to ensure that the text reflects the potential to grow the east-west business, and not to risk jeopardising it for the sake of north-south business?
The hon. Gentleman and I would agree on the desire to grow that business, because economic ties underpin the democratic relationship that we have, and we both share a common desire to have a strong Union with Northern Ireland as a central component of that. There will be scope, both during the passage of the withdrawal agreement Bill and then in the implementation period, to look at the things that can be done to strengthen that. I would draw his attention, for example, to what we secured on state aid in Northern Ireland, where there is scope to look at the UK economy as a whole, which again enables us to ensure that Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom is central to the decision making of this and any future Government.
I welcome the tone of these exchanges, which seem to me very calm and very sensible and do recognise the concerns being expressed from Northern Ireland. I suggest that we need to separate two things—the symbolism of a process of compliance required between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, and the substance of the effect of that policy. It seems to me that all the questions are about the substance of compliance, and that those are fears that possibly can be assuaged, and that we should seek to assuage, while recognising that there will still be deep concerns in the loyalist community in Northern Ireland about having any kind of agreement that requires that compliance.
My hon. Friend absolutely captures a key point in terms of that distinction, and I very much agree with him. I would expect most firms to get intermediaries to complete the administrative process required for moving goods, so he is absolutely right in the distinction that he draws. Indeed, that is exactly what the implementation period would be used for—to address that distinction.
On exiting the EU, trade between the port of Rotterdam and England will be subject to checks. If the same goods go from other EU countries to England through the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, will they be subject to the same checks, and if so, where will those checks take place?
I visited the port of Rotterdam to discuss the arrangements that it is making. For goods coming from Rotterdam to, say, Northern Ireland and then on to Great Britain, any requirements are within the control of Great Britain and the UK; there are no requirements on that in the protocol. The hon. Gentleman knows that most of the time—this is what I was discussing with the port of Rotterdam—these issues are intelligence-led in any event. That is the case now and that will be the case in the future.
On a very practical level, PTI Express Ltd is a haulage company based in my constituency, transporting goods to and from both Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it were very concerned about the threat to its business—about the prospect of no deal. Of course, that threat to its business has now been abated as a consequence of the vote in the House earlier in the week, but what arrangements should it put in place for future circumstances?
I agree with my hon. Friend in part, in that I think the central concern of many businesses, as with those in his constituency, has been around no deal; but because of the decision that the House took on the programme motion, I would not say that has been abated. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has had to step up our no-deal preparation, Yellowhammer. The sooner we can reach a deal, the sooner we can address fully the concerns of my hon. Friend’s constituents, because he is quite right: many members of the business community are concerned about no deal. That is why they want this deal done and they want us to move forward.
May I say that it is frustrating, to put it mildly, to hear that black is white and to hear contradictory comments that do not reflect the text in the withdrawal agreement or the outworkings of it? Can I say to the Secretary of State—I hope he takes this seriously—that this is fundamental for us? The sixth article of the Act of Union (Ireland) 1800 states that there will be
“No duty or bounty on exportation of produce of one country to the other.
All articles the produce of either country shall be imported free from duty.”
That is an article of the Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland. That is how fundamental this is.
What article 6 makes clear is that there will be unfettered access—[Interruption.] That is article 4, sorry—[Interruption.] I had actually lifted out the page from my folder. What is made clear is that there will be unfettered access and that the UK has sovereign control—[Interruption.] I was actually quoting it correctly, because article 6.1 of the withdrawal agreement states:
“Nothing in this Protocol shall prevent the United Kingdom from ensuring unfettered market access”.
My point is that article 6 allows for unfettered access, and that is exactly what the text says.
The UK Government have an unequivocal obligation to ensure unfettered access for Northern Ireland into the GB market. It is not good enough to say, “We will wait six months until the Joint Committee to try to sort this out,” because the trust is not there. There is nothing to stop the UK Government setting out now how they intend to achieve unfettered access, both through the future relationship that they want with the EU and a package of unilateral domestic measures that they could take to prevent any of these provisions from coming into force. When will we see those measures?
Such issues can quite rightly be discussed in more detail during the passage of the withdrawal agreement Bill.
Just to correct things, I slightly misheard the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), but I am happy to pick up his specific point following this discussion.
Peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland are far too important to be treated with the cavalier obfuscation that we have heard from the Secretary of State this morning. Can I take him back to the document that the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), published on Tuesday night? Will he confirm that it says, between paragraphs 294 and 319, that £7.5 billion-worth of trade involving 20,000 businesses is in jeopardy as a result of checks and other issues at the border, and that there is a risk that prices will go up for consumers in Northern Ireland? Will he confirm whether that is true and whether he thinks it is a good thing for his Government to do?
It is misrepresenting the issue to say that such things are in jeopardy from a simple form—I have it here—that will need to be filled out. There are legitimate questions about administrative processes that we have been exploring in the House, and I stand ready to discuss them further, as does the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. However, it does not help the debate to describe a fairly simple form pertaining to what goods are moving from whom to whom and what is contained in the cargo as putting our future trade with Northern Ireland in jeopardy.
In addition to the symbolism of the issue, there is also a matter of practicality, given the limited number of businesses and transactions that may require declarations. Are the Government able to provide financial support or fiscal support to the limited number of affected businesses in Northern Ireland?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. He will fully understand that as a Minister of the Crown it is not for me, on behalf of the Chancellor, to make fiscal commitments of that sort at this stage. However, my hon. Friend is opening up a wider discussion. As part of the new deal for Northern Ireland, as part of restoring the Executive, and as part of the Joint Committee looking at how we can reduce the impact of any administrative processes, it is important to understand what the concerns are and what the Government can do to mitigate them.
The raft of contradictory statements by senior members of the Government has caused nothing but confusion and anxiety for businesses over the past 24 hours. Given that the Prime Minister does not even seem to understand or be able to be straight about the impact of the Brexit proposals on the future of £18 billion- worth of trade within our own country, why on earth would anyone trust him to negotiate our future trading relationships with the EU or the rest of the world?
The hon. Lady has previously raised a similar issue, saying that she did not trust the Prime Minister to get a deal. He has got a deal, and that deal includes unfettered access for those goods, which is why it will not be a threat to that trade. Quite rightly, where there are issues of concern—and particularly given the concern of the Chief Constable—we stand ready, both with the shadow Secretary of State and with others, to ensure that we work together to mitigate those concerns.
We have heard this morning that the impact on trade with the rest of the world will be around 1%. The Government are in danger of losing and turning what was a practicality point into a political point unless they provide clarity. Will they release a list of indicative goods to which the EU customs code is likely to apply, in order to provide that clarity for DUP and Conservative colleagues?
I am happy to write to my hon. Friend to see what further clarity can be provided, but I refer to the answer I gave a moment ago. These issues will apply at the end of the implementation period, as opposed to when the withdrawal agreement is ratified.