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The Economy

Volume 679: debated on Wednesday 2 September 2020

While the Northern Ireland economy does have its challenges, I am confident that it has a promising economic future, with its talent, great companies, entrepreneurial spirit and world-leading sectors and universities, as well as world-class hospitality, leisure and cultural offerings. We will continue as a Government to work with businesses, the Northern Ireland Executive and local partners to ensure that we not only get the economy back up and running but are laying the foundations for a sustainable, growing and stable economic future.

In my constituency of Hertford and Stortford, the eat out to help out scheme has been a massive success and given our local economy a huge boost. Will my right hon. Friend let the House know what the uptake has been in Northern Ireland?

I have not tested all the venues in Northern Ireland that were taking part in the eat out to help out scheme, but I did my bit to support the sector, as I am sure many colleagues around the House did. Comprehensive figures are not yet available, but I do know that over 1,500 restaurants in Northern Ireland signed up to the scheme in the first week of operation, highlighting just how important the scheme has been to give people confidence to go out and businesses a chance to see their customers again.

The Secretary of State will be aware that Northern Ireland businesses are concerned about the impact of the Northern Ireland protocol. Businesses I have spoken to report very little or no progress on export health certificates for animal-related food products being shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. That potentially means increased costs for Northern Ireland businesses, and those costs will be passed on to Northern Ireland consumers. What will he do to ensure that arrangements are put in place to prevent that from happening?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. We recognise the unique position of authorised traders, such as supermarkets, with stable supply chains and comprehensive oversight of warehousing and distribution operations, moving pre-packaged products for retail sales solely in Northern Ireland. We continue to look at specific solutions for the trade, working with the trade. EHCs and accompanying notes for guidance will be made available from 1 November on the EHC form finder, to allow exporters and certifying officers to familiarise themselves with the requirements.

I welcome that news, and I want to follow that up with a question about the formal guidance that is required from the Government on the definition of unfettered access. Can the Secretary of State explain how a trader in Northern Ireland will get qualifying status in order to benefit from unfettered access in shipping goods from Northern Ireland to Great Britain and in the other direction? What extra processes would a trader in Northern Ireland face if they did not have qualifying status? The Secretary of State will be aware that this has significant cost implications for Northern Ireland businesses. Will he therefore commit to discussing this matter urgently with his colleagues in the Cabinet Office, to ensure that guidance is issued to Northern Ireland businesses on the definition of unfettered access as soon as possible?

I can confirm that we are very keen to give as much guidance and information to businesses as early as possible. We are committed, as I said, to providing Northern Ireland’s businesses with unfettered access to the rest of the UK market. I am very clear about what that means. It means no import customs declarations as goods enter the rest of the UK from Northern Ireland. It means no safety or security declarations as goods enter the rest of the UK from Northern Ireland, no tariffs to be applied to Northern Ireland goods entering the rest of the United Kingdom in any circumstances, no customs checks, no new regulatory checks and no additional approvals required for placing goods on the market in the rest of the United Kingdom. For further reassurance, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that we will introduce legislation for unfettered access shortly, and we will continue to provide that guidance.

I listened carefully to the very good questions put by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), but I do not think that that will reassure businesses. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee was very clear about what we already knew: the movement of goods from Britain to Northern Ireland will be subject to a number of administrative requirements; businesses will trade at a competitive disadvantage; and consumers in Northern Ireland are likely to see increased prices as a result. The economic facts are—and this is a real worry—that, for a population of 1.9 million, the burden on British firms will be too much, and they will cease wanting to export in large numbers to Northern Ireland. Export health certificates are a major concern and a major cost. I will check the record, but I think the Secretary of State just said that there will be more formal guidance. He has his own view. That is not an agreement, and there are additional costs, so what will the costs be for those businesses?

I did say that notes for guidance will be available from 1 November this year. We are very clear that we are one single market—we are one customs union within the United Kingdom—and that is why we are very clear about the fact that we want unfettered access and we will deliver unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to Great Britain. We have already said that there will be some limited checks from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. We have announced the trader support scheme. The guidance that we issued just before the recess was warmly welcomed by Northern Ireland businesses. We continue to work with them so that, as we develop our processes, we ensure that there is good, smooth, fast, efficient delivery, as the protocol outlines, that does not disrupt the lives of people in Northern Ireland, in a way that works for business as well as the people of Northern Ireland.

On 7 August the Cabinet Secretary flew into Northern Ireland to announce a business package of £335 million. That money is apparently designed to alleviate the costs of border checks and Brexit red tape that the Prime Minister has repeatedly said does not exist. As a signed-up member of the Brexit Cabinet, can the Secretary of State assure Scottish businesses that the same level of financial support will be put in place to meet all the costs of Scotland being dragged out of the European single market?

The support package that we put in place, which is £155 million for the IT systems we have outlined and £200 million for the Treasury support scheme, is in order to recognise the unique situation of Northern Ireland—one that Scotland has a rather different position to. I am very clear that one of the things we will be looking to deliver as we go forward is the ability for Northern Ireland to trade prosperously as part of the whole of the United Kingdom—something I am sure that Scotland will benefit from as well.

In line with the protocol, Border Force is currently recruiting for jobs in Northern Ireland advertised as open to UK nationals only. In the press this week, the Home Office claimed that this does not prevent those who identify as Irish from applying. But will the Minister accept, as indeed the Home Office did when this previously happened in 2018, that the words “Irish nationals are not eligible for reserved posts” does not reflect the rights framework in the Good Friday agreement, and will he ask the Home Office to rework the advertisement and the rules to make them compatible with Northern Ireland’s fair employment legislation?

I am very happy to have a look at that. Obviously, as the hon. Lady will know, the Home Office outlined an update to the citizenship situation to rectify it for people so that however they wish to identify they can have the full rights that they wish to exert. However, I will happily follow up on that and come back to her.