With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the Government’s approach to the Northern Ireland protocol. The statement is being made simultaneously in the other place by my noble Friend Lord Frost, Minister of State at the Cabinet Office.
The Northern Ireland protocol was designed to achieve a delicate balance between a number of different aims. It reflected a truly extraordinary compromise by the Government in 2019, driven by our steadfast commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions. Just over a year later we concluded the trade and co-operation agreement, the broadest and most far-reaching agreement of its kind that has ever been struck. Together, these offered the building blocks of a strong, constructive partnership between the UK and the EU as sovereign equals. However, we have not yet been able to unlock the potential of that new partnership in full.
The impact of the current protocol is at the heart of that. There is no doubt that we have tried to operate the protocol in good faith. We worked throughout 2020 to finalise the areas left open by the protocol text itself—without, of course, knowing what the real-world impacts on the ground would be, as is the case with negotiations. We are planning already to invest, and are in the process of investing about £500 million in delivering systems and support service. We have worked with businesses to help their preparations for the new trading arrangements.
But as we have sought to operate the protocol, it is clear that its burdens have been the source of considerable and ongoing disruption to lives and livelihoods. We have seen reductions in supermarket product lines, we have seen more than 200 suppliers decide they will no longer sell to Northern Ireland, and we have seen difficulties not just on the famous chilled meats but on medicines, pets, movement of live animals, seeds and plants.
Nowhere is this more visible that in the fact that the Northern Ireland protocol means that Northern Ireland accounts for 20% of all EU documentary checks on products of animal origin, despite a population of only 1.8 million people. What is worse, these burdens will get worse, not improve over time, as the grace periods expire, leaving businesses facing ever more unsustainable burdens.
These impacts risk being felt in the fabric of our Union, too. All dimensions of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement need to be respected, Northern Ireland’s integral place in our United Kingdom just as much as the north-south dimension, yet there is a growing sense in Northern Ireland that we have not found this balance. That is seen in a difficult ongoing political climate, in protests and regrettable instances of disorder, and in strains within a power-sharing Executive already dealing with an unprecedented pandemic.
We have worked with the EU to try to address these challenges. Some avenues for progress have been identified in certain areas, but overall these discussions have not got to the heart of the problem. Put simply, we cannot go on as we are. We have therefore had to consider all our options. In particular, we have looked carefully at the safeguards provided by article 16 of the protocol. They exist to deal with significant societal and economic difficulties, as well as trade diversion, and there has been significant disruption to east-west trade, a significant increase in trade on the island of Ireland as companies change supply chains, and considerable disruption to everyday life.
There has also been societal instability, seen most regrettably in the disorder across Northern Ireland at Easter. Indeed, what could be seen as a false but raw perception in the Unionist community of separation from the rest of the United Kingdom has had profound political consequences.
These are very serious effects, which have put people, businesses and the institutions of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement under strain. It is plainly clear that the circumstances exist to justify the use of article 16. Nevertheless, we have concluded that this is not the right moment to do so. Instead, we see an opportunity to proceed differently, to find a new path and to seek to agree with the EU, through negotiations, a new balance in our arrangements covering Northern Ireland, to the benefit of all.
It is in that spirit that today’s Command Paper outlines the new balance we wish to find. It is a balance that needs to ensure goods can circulate much more freely within the UK customs territory, while ensuring that full processes are applied to goods destined for the EU. It is a balance that needs to enable all in Northern Ireland to continue to have normal access to goods from the rest of the UK by allowing goods meeting both UK and EU standards to circulate. And it is a balance that needs to normalise the basis of the protocol’s governance, so that the relationship between us and the EU is no longer policed by the EU institutions and the Court of Justice. We should return to a normal treaty framework, similar to other international agreements, that is more conducive to the sense of genuine and equitable partnership that we seek.
We also recognise our share of responsibility in helping the EU protect its single market. We are willing to explore exceptional arrangements on data sharing and co-operation, and penalties in legislation to deter those looking to move non-compliant products from Northern Ireland to Ireland.
I repeat that all of this is entirely consistent with maintaining an open border, without infrastructure or checks, between Ireland and Northern Ireland. These proposals will require significant change to the Northern Ireland protocol, and we do not shy away from that. We believe such change is necessary to deal with the situation we now face. We look to open a discussion on these proposals urgently. At the same time, we must provide certainty and stability for businesses as we do so, so we believe we should also quickly agree a standstill period, including maintaining the operation of the grace periods that are in force and freezing existing legal actions and processes, to ensure there is room to negotiate and to provide a genuine signal of good intent on finding ways forward.
The difficulties that we have in operating the Northern Ireland protocol are now the main obstacle to building a relationship with the EU that reflects our strong common interests and values. Instead of that, we are seeing a relationship that has been punctuated with legal challenges and characterised by disagreement and mistrust. We do not want that pattern to be set, not least because it does not support stability in Northern Ireland. It is now time to work to establish a new balance in which both the UK and the EU can invest to provide a platform for peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland and allow us to set out on a new path of partnership with the EU. We have today set out an approach that we believe can do just that. We urge the EU to look at it with fresh eyes and work with us to seize this opportunity and put our relations on a better footing. We stand ready to deliver the brighter future that is within reach. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.
Almost two years ago, this Prime Minister negotiated every dot and comma of the Northern Ireland protocol. He said that it would mean no checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. He described it as an “ingenious solution” and that it was
“in perfect conformity with the Good Friday agreement.”—[Official Report, 19 October 2019; Vol. 666, c. 583.]
He was not alone. Lord Frost said that he was “pleased and proud” to secure this “excellent deal” for the UK. The Secretary of State wrote that it would allow all businesses
“to trade unhindered across the UK.”
Today, not for the first time, the Secretary of State is back before Parliament to renege on those promises and to discredit the deal that his Government were authors of and cheerleaders for, claiming that they could not possibly have known what the real-world impacts on the ground would be. The country will be asking once again: is this bad faith or incompetence. Whichever it is, the shambolic approach, the dishonesty, the recklessness and the utter ineptitude have come at a real cost. It has destroyed trust in the UK Government, an essential component of the Belfast Good Friday agreement. It has fanned the flames of instability and, as ever, in the middle of this are the communities and businesses of Northern Ireland that have been repeatedly failed.
Today, ahead of another difficult summer, a resolution is further away than ever. Today, businesses and communities needed reassurance. They needed to see the Secretary of State announce to the House an agreement on a sustainable way forward that will fix the problems that the Prime Minister created. Instead, they have more political brinkmanship, and more threats to tear up the protocol with nothing to take its place. Communities are tired of these games from a Government they have totally lost trust in. They just want to see sustainable solutions. All of us want to see serious proposals that lower the barriers down the Irish sea and protect the economic integrity of the United Kingdom.
Can the Secretary of State outline whether the proposals have any hope of gaining support? Can he tell the House what conversations he has had with his counterparts that lead him to believe that this approach will be successful? How did the Taoiseach respond to his call with the Prime Minister yesterday, given that the Government’s strategy so far has left Anglo-Irish relations at an all-time low? How is he intending to bring the people of Northern Ireland and their representatives into these discussions so that they have a direct relationship with the EU? That is clearly necessary, given that this Government have demonstrated that they have no understanding of Northern Ireland and the delicate balance of identities that must be protected.
Does the Secretary of State accept that these proposals bring us right back to square one of the Brexit debates, rehashing arguments around alternative arrangements that have long been rejected, and returning the debate to the border north-south on the island of Ireland? What is the timeframe for these talks? The Command Paper is entirely silent on how they will proceed and whether there is any agreement from the EU that they should.
This ongoing stand-off is having consequences not just for Northern Ireland, but for our relationships with current and future trading partners. The eyes of many Governments around the world are on the noble Lord Frost and the Secretary of State this afternoon. President Biden and Prime Minister Ardern are among many who want to know that the UK will abide by international law, by the agreements that they signed, and be a partner that they can trust. These endless games are shredding our international reputation and undermining our ability to secure trade deals that are in the best interest of the UK.
As we have acknowledged many times in this House, peace in Northern Ireland is still fragile. Advancing the peace process has always required responsibility, honesty and leadership—qualities that are in short supply in this Government. Too often in recent years, the Prime Minister has put his own interests over and above the interests of Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland are sick to death of being put in the middle of these games. Another Brexit groundhog day; another stand-off with the EU. It is time to get real, show some responsibility, and find a genuinely sustainable way forward.
I was kind of waiting for the point at which the hon. Lady would actually stand up for the United Kingdom and the people of Northern Ireland in getting a solution. I remind her that she may want to think about joining the UK Government in making the point to the EU that it also has a responsibility—which it has previously accepted but needs to deliver on—in terms of the people of Northern Ireland. In January, there was an agreement to work at pace; we are now in July and the issues remain unresolved. We saw the EU’s attempt to trigger article 16 in a way that for many detrimentally affected the sense of feeling around the institutions of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement. We are still dealing with the fallout from that action—that is just a reality of where we are.
We want the EU to engage with our proposals. We have sought the EU’s engagement with our proposals in good faith in the dozen or more papers that we have put to it about ways to move forward. The reality of where we are now is that instead of having a continual, piecemeal approach to dealing with things as we go along and coming up against the grace periods that cause disruption for businesses and communities, we think it is right to take an approach that deals with the problem—not just the symptoms but the underlying problem that we need to see corrected—in the round. I suggest that the Opposition would do better to defend the people of Northern Ireland and the UK than to continue to defend the actions the EU takes to undermine the strength of the integral market of the people of the United Kingdom.
We do have good relationships, and I have good relationships, as does the Prime Minister, with our counterparts in Ireland—the Taoiseach, the Foreign Minister and the Tánaiste—and we continue to develop on those. It is a bit rich of the hon. Lady to talk to us about understanding Northern Ireland when not only do prominent members of her own party—including the former shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott)—claim that Labour is not even a Unionist party, but Labour does not even stand candidates in Northern Ireland.
We will continue to do what is right for the United Kingdom. We want to work with our partners in the EU. When people get a chance to read through the Command Paper, they will see that we are not taking the opportunity to trigger article 16, because we want to work in partnership and find a solution to all the problems that works for people in Northern Ireland. When we even have the Chief Rabbi and the president of the Board of Deputies coming together to make clear the substantial problems of the Jewish community in Northern Ireland, that should make it clear that the protocol is a problem for communities right across Northern Ireland. We have a duty to resolve it, not play politics with it.
On the arrangements that have just been announced, I greatly welcome the realistic and reasonable approach of the Prime Minister, Lord Frost and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Does my right hon. Friend agree, that given the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland, as set out in the protocol, the EU must understand that the UK, having recently and democratically left the EU, rejects the EU’s legalistic intransigence but will continue to negotiate in the short term, on the clear understanding that our national interest requires equal reasonableness and realism from the EU, or the Government will take the necessary steps that my right hon. Friend just outlined —and that they mean what they say?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we do want to take that approach. The reality is that in practice the outworkings of the protocol are having a detrimental effect. One of the key things in the opening part of the protocol itself is the determination that we would not disrupt the everyday lives of people in their communities. Regardless of people’s constitutional view of Northern Ireland, the protocol is having an impact, which is why the First Minister has also pointed to issues in the protocol that she wants to see resolved. Obviously, people across the communities are having issues as well. We need to get this resolved for all the people of Northern Ireland, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to do so in a realistic why, recognising the challenges on the ground, and to deal with it as partners with the EU in a way that can deliver for the people of Northern Ireland, with the understanding that, of course, Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.
Let us not lose sight of the fact that a protocol setting the terms of trade has only been made necessary because of an EU withdrawal agreement that the Prime Minister—irrespective of its entirely foreseeable impact on Northern Ireland—defined the parameters of himself and then signed up to freely. Everybody knows that article 16 exists, but the continued threats from the UK Government to deploy it have worn so thin as to be utterly transparent in every sense, and can be doing little to help increase the trust and confidence necessary for the Government to achieve their stated objectives.
Let us also be clear that if we move from the current agreement, there will have to be another put in place that is likely to differ in substance, to use a phrase, only in limited and specific ways from that which it will be replacing. If the UK Government wish to return to the freest possible conditions for the movement of goods between GB and Northern Ireland, consistent with their international obligations, they could sign up right now to a dynamic deal on food and animal welfare standards.
A pragmatic renegotiation of the protocol in the light of experience, and in the light of everything that has come from the nature of Brexit, would clearly be desirable in order to remove not just the barriers that exist but also the symbolism that these trade frictions are causing that are being felt so keenly in Northern Ireland at the present moment. In that regard, will the Secretary of State ensure that the Government, in contrast to their approach to Brexit to date, set the tone of all their discussions with the EU in good faith around the negotiating table, rather than through the pages of The Telegraph or the tabloids, and at all times in a manner that builds, rather than undermines, the trust necessary to be able to secure a better deal for the people of Northern Ireland?
As I outlined in my statement, we are actually not using article 16. That is something that the EU attempted to do—I think, mistakenly—earlier this year, which has caused an issue and a sense within the Unionist community that is still an issue today. The hon. Gentleman should sometimes stand up a bit more for the people of Northern Ireland and across the UK as a spokesperson on this issue, rather than just for the EU.
The hon. Gentleman mentions talking to the media. When we are dealing with the EU, it is a bit odd for us to be told by a journalist about a plan for medicines or for chilled meats, when it could be days or weeks later that we formally hear from the EU. We do want to work with the EU, which is why we are proposing, as we have done today in our Command Paper, a way to move forward and work together to resolve the core problems, rather than continually to deal individually with the symptoms that continue to build issues of trust and frustration. Ultimately, that is the best way to get a result for the people of Northern Ireland and to have that strong, positive relationship between the UK and the EU.
As my right hon. Friend has just mentioned, the European Union’s attempts to trigger article 16 earlier this year caused political reverberations that are still being felt in Northern Ireland. With communities across Northern Ireland now divided in their support for the protocol, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is no longer sustainable as it currently stands, and that an internal border that reshapes and undermines our United Kingdom is unacceptable?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I referenced earlier the First Minister’s views on this. The Deputy First Minister has also been very clear that there are issues with the protocol that need to be resolved. I cannot really remember a single person in the business community or the political community in Northern Ireland whom we have spoken to who has not identified that there are at least some issues that need to be resolved, but there might be differences of opinion about how to do that and to what degree. We want to do that by agreement with the European Union and recognising the sovereignty of the integral market of the United Kingdom, and in a way that means that consumers and businesses in Northern Ireland can go about their lives, enjoying their lives in the way that they always have done as citizens of the United Kingdom.
We welcome the acceptance by the Government that the protocol is not working, that it is causing real harm to our economy in Northern Ireland and that it is simply not sustainable. Today’s statement is a welcome, significant and important first step. To be clear, tinkering around the edges simply does not work. I trust that the EU will approach new negotiations in good faith and recognise the need to enter into new arrangements that remove the Irish sea border. For our part, we will apply our seven tests against any outcome of this process.
Will the Secretary of State assure the House that these negotiations will not be dragged out, and, if unsuccessful, that the Government will invoke article 16 to introduce measures that provide for the free movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, and which ensure that products complying with British standards are available in Northern Ireland, that the principle of consent is fully respected, and that Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom is properly and legally protected?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a series of important points. We are very clear that, as I said earlier, we want to take this forward and negotiate these issues as a whole, rather than have a piecemeal approach, so we solve the underlying issues that are causing so much disruption for businesses and people in Northern Ireland. That would be a better way forward because we will not have to keep coming back to these things and keep having these issues and challenges around grace periods that just create cliff edges. We have to avoid that, and that is why we are suggesting a stand- still period as well as we go forward.
Ultimately, we must recognise that this is an issue that affects everybody, the whole community of Northern Ireland. Wanting to see these issues resolved has united people across communities, and we think there is a realistic way to do that within the framework of the protocol. We have always recognised, and we are still clear about this, that the single epidemiological unit of the island of Ireland has been there for a very long time— and those checks in one form or another since about the 19th century—but we have got to find a way to do this, and we believe there is a way, that ensures that products moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland to be used and consumed in Northern Ireland can flow in the way they would within any other part of the United Kingdom, while fulfilling our responsibilities to the EU in terms of helping them ensure they can protect their single market.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement today, which is balanced and pragmatic. The Northern Ireland protocol was always a difficult compromise but it was made in good faith to protect the Good Friday agreement, while respecting the EU’s single market and our own single market and Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. As this Command Paper makes clear, it has not managed to do that, so what conversations has my right hon. Friend had with the European Union, do they accept that premise and if they do not accept it and will not engage meaningfully, as the Command Paper and negotiators want, does article 16 remain on the table?
We have always said that we cannot take any options off the table, but we want to work through this in a negotiated way to get a realistic solution that delivers for the people in Northern Ireland. We have been speaking consistently over this year, both Lord Frost and myself, with the Cabinet Office lead on the negotiation on the protocol and with European Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič directly. I think the European Commission does recognise that there are issues that need to be resolved. The challenge we have had is getting agreement on the resolutions.
One of the reasons we took the action we took in March to extend the grace period was that we got to a point where we needed an agreement to be able to ensure we were able to keep food products on the shelves. It was interesting at the time that the EU was complaining not about the process and the issues we were dealing with, but about the fact we had not done it by agreement. That comes back to the point the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) made: to work by agreement, ultimately, we need the EU, our partner, to also come to agree things in the first place. We have not managed to achieve that yet, but I am hopeful that, given where we are now and the proposal we are putting forward, there is a realistic way to do that in the months ahead.
“Northern Ireland is uniquely placed…to prosper from this deal.”
That is a direct quote from the Secretary of State last Christmas eve. Then on new year’s day he said:
“There is no ‘Irish Sea Border’…The government and businesses …are keeping goods flowing freely…between GB and NI.”
But then earlier this month he said that
“the current arrangements could corrode the link between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.”
This statement is the second attempt in one week that this Government have made to distance themselves from agreements they have negotiated. Why does the Secretary of State think that any other country, or any person in Northern Ireland, would trust anything that this Government say from this day forward?
The implications and outworkings of the protocol are a frustration and a problem for people across communities, and it would be wrong of us as a Government to not recognise that there are problems with the protocol; the way that it is being implemented on the ground is causing problems for consumers and for businesses. I cannot believe for a moment that the hon. Gentleman would want the Government to sit back and see that continue and see his constituents be detrimentally affected by the way the EU wants this to be implemented. That is why it is important that we find a way forward to deliver this in a way that works for people across all of Northern Ireland.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and today’s White Paper. Is he aware of anybody serious who now doubts that the protocol is failing in its own terms by causing, to use the words from the protocol,
“serious societal and economic difficulties”
and “diversion of trade” which is a threat to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement? The answer is no. Is that what the EU intended when it signed this protocol? Of course not, and that is why all parties, including the EU, should now be able to accept, as the Government now do, that this protocol is not working. So I commend my right hon. Friend for his cautious, reasonable and responsible approach. We are absolutely right to try everything to bring the EU to the negotiating table, but how long have we got before we have to act to safeguard peace, security and political stability in Northern Ireland?
My hon. Friend makes an important point and he is right. I think the EU does recognise this, wants to ensure that we get the right outcome for the people of Northern Ireland and does recognise the sensitivities there. That is why it is important that we deal with the core problem underlying all the symptoms that we are seeing. He is also absolutely right about stability in Northern Ireland. When we are seeing people who are party to the Good Friday/Belfast agreement being very clear about the disruption this causes and the threat it is to the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, it is right that we listen to that. It is also right that we get to work on this with the European Union, in a spirit of partnership, to find a solution to the core problems. We should bear in mind, as I say, that if we imagine a place where the framework of the protocol is delivering in the way that was always intended, with the free flow of goods, we really do have a huge economic opportunity for the people of Northern Ireland. We need to get to that space in order for it to be something that is sustainable and has the consent of the whole community of Northern Ireland.
This statement is full of bluster and a rewriting of history. It creates more uncertainty and instability. The Government are choosing confrontation rather than adopting the obvious solution on the table, which is a comprehensive veterinary agreement. The Secretary of State should know that the only really sustainable way forward to achieve the necessary flexibilities and mitigations is through agreement with the European Union, either within the protocol or building on the trade and co-operation agreement. Does he recognise that achieving that requires trust to be built and sustained, but all the Government’s actions around the protocol this year have undermined that, including, today, the empty threat around article 16?
I would gently suggest that the hon. Gentleman looks back at the statement I made and has a read of the Command Paper, which is looking to a formal agreement with the EU and to doing this in a way that is reasonable and sensible and deals with the fundamental problems that are affecting his constituents as well. Again, perhaps he should be standing up for his constituents more than he is standing up for the EU at the moment. He seems to be forgetting that it is the EU that said that it would work at pace to resolve these issues, seven months ago; it is the EU that sought to trigger article 16, which caused so many issues for the Unionist community in Northern Ireland; and it is the EU that has not yet come to agreement on a range of issues that we need to resolve for the people of Northern Ireland. It is right, therefore, that we take this opportunity to outline a way in which we can move forward in a positive way that can rebuild the relationship with the EU and fundamentally resolve the core issues that are detrimentally affecting so many of his constituents and people across Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland protocol was pursued and negotiated by this Government less than two years ago, and it is a reflection of the decisions made by them in relation to the nature of Brexit. In the statement, the Government suggest that they have tried to operate the protocol, but they have not yet pursued the option of making supplementary agreements with the EU that would work within the protocol, such as a veterinary agreement, which businesses such as Marks & Spencer support. Given that the Secretary of State has said that the article 16 grounds have been met, how many of the businesses he has consulted agree with him, have asked him to do that and think it is sustainable way forward?
I suggest that the hon. Lady looks again at the statement and the Command Paper. I specifically said that we are not triggering article 16. We want to negotiate a solution to the problems for businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Will he confirm, for the benefit of the record, that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom and should therefore enjoy the benefits of the free trade area within the United Kingdom, as well as integrate with our friends from the European Union, ensuring that the people of Northern Ireland can have the benefits of both elements—the United Kingdom and the European Union—in doing trade deals, but also, more importantly, gain the opportunity, as we negotiate free trade deals around the world, to trade around the world as part of the United Kingdom?
Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. The hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) referenced a quote of mine about the opportunities for Northern Ireland. If we just imagine the place we can get to where the protocol is working—where we can resolve the issues within the protocol—we really do have a huge economic opportunity for the people of Northern Ireland. That is the vision that we always had for the protocol and that is how it should be working. We need to get to that position.
There is clearly a problem here that needs fixing. As the head of Marks & Spencer made clear today, the full checks that are currently being applied on M&S goods going to the Republic are resulting in some consignments being sent back because they have the wrong colour typeface on the form. Mr Norman has said that a veterinary agreement would be
“by far the best way of delivering a smooth trade flow.”
The Secretary of State just made reference to that. Given that we are, in effect, following EU food standards anyway, because they have not changed since 31 December, is that not the best way forward? I encourage the Secretary of State, if he agrees, not to be too purist about the form of such an agreement, because it would bring huge relief to so many people affected by the current fears and arrangements.
The issues that companies such as Mr Norman’s have found are the very issues we want to resolve as part of the wider package. It is important to note, as we look at the Command Paper, that we want to deal with a wide range of issues. That is my point about dealing with the fundamental problems, rather than going piecemeal through the symptoms. That is why there is a range of options in there, some of which will make a veterinary agreement redundant, because it will not be required in that kind of process, potentially. That is part of the discussion we want to have with the EU to get a resolution to all these issues; it is more than just the food and chilled meats issue.
I welcome the proposal in paragraph 48 of the Command Paper for a light-touch customs regime for goods that are staying in Northern Ireland and not moving on to the Republic, but will the Secretary of State confirm how small businesses could comply with the requirement to provide
“complete transparency of their supply chains”
to the various authorities? I can see how a large supermarket chain could do that, but how could a small trader do that?
My hon. Friend highlights an important point. We are talking to small businesses and, indeed, the wholesale groups that they often work with to make sure that there is a way for them to be able to work through this, and we will continue to work with them as we go forward. There is technology now, similar to the technology that large companies use, that smaller businesses can use—the trader support service is hugely helpful in this—but my hon. Friend highlights one of the core problems: making sure that goods that are moving to Northern Ireland purely to be consumed in Northern Ireland do not have the same kind of rigmarole and checks. I think that I have mentioned before in the House a large supermarket chain that has no stores in Ireland yet has to go through the same checks. That cannot be right and needs to be resolved.
May I, too, say how much I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement? It is absolutely clear that the protocol is having unintended and adverse consequences for daily life in Northern Ireland and it needs to be fixed. Will he please confirm that he and his colleagues have made it clear to the EU that the UK is keen to resolve these issues and will negotiate positively, and that other, more flexible arrangements, such as mutual enforcement, can be put in place that will respect the integrity of the internal markets of both parties without causing the difficulties that we have witnessed since January?
Yes, and we are looking forward to having those very conversations with the EU in the weeks ahead.
The Secretary of State knows as well as I do that the bulk of commerce and industry in Northern Ireland is getting on with making the protocol work, but a veterinary agreement would solve the problems that have not yet been resolved. Does he not recognise that public diplomacy and unilateralism may please his Back Benchers, but it is dangerous in the context of Northern Ireland? Will he insist to the Prime Minister and the noble Lord Frost that they get back to the negotiating table and do that in private until they come up with an acceptable result?
Again, perhaps the hon. Gentleman should have a look in detail at the statement I gave a short while ago and the Command Paper, because we are specifically setting out that we want to negotiate a solution with the European Union. I would just say to him that we are the party that has put forward a whole series of pages to the EU, which we are waiting for proper engagement on. We have not publicised them; we have not gone to the press about that. We have been doing that because we want to give space for a proper negotiation and the freedom to do that, to get a proper solution for the people of Northern Ireland. I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider getting behind the UK Government to get a positive solution for Northern Ireland.
I warmly welcome the statement for both its timeliness and its content. In the negotiations that the Secretary of State and Lord Frost are plainly keen to have with the European Union, will they look seriously at the option of mutual enforcement, as advocated by none other than the Nobel peace prize winner Lord Trimble, as a way through these challenges? As the Secretary of State reminded the House, the EU invoked article 16 back in January, not us. If the EU continues to be unreasonable despite every effort to persuade it, are we prepared, in extremis, to use article 16 and, if necessary, even to legislate domestically to maintain the integrity of the United Kingdom?
On mutual enforcement, we have sought to draw from ideas such as the suggestion of penalties for moving non-compliant goods to Ireland from Northern Ireland. We think that there is a reasonable evolution from where we are now that is capable of respecting everybody’s objectives and delivering better results, exactly as my right hon. Friend outlined. He is also right that it is important to be clear that we take nothing off the table. We are determined to deliver for the people in Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, and the protocol itself outlines that it will respect the sovereignty of the UK internal market.
I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests with regards to the legal action being taken against the Government on behalf of commercial entities in Northern Ireland, and I note Mr Speaker’s mention of a wavier on commenting on such matters. Given the seriousness of what the Secretary of State has said and as a result of the Command Paper, the legal team and claimants in that case will consider staying or pausing that commercial action. That is significant and opens up an opportunity for us to get a resolution for commercial entities in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Secretary of State and Government take that in the spirit in which it is meant and understand the seriousness of that.
I must say for the record that I do not care what the Dublin Government think about this—I do not care at all. All these Pavlov dogs from academia and some political parties are salivating at supporting the EU and what it needs, but none of them has put their shoulder to the wheel to try to solve the business problems unfortunately created by the protocol. I hope they will listen carefully to people such as Archie Norman, who has called the protocol a “pettifogging enforcement” of rules that protect nobody in Northern Ireland. He has said that 40% of his business deliveries are being delayed and that a quarter of what he hopes to deliver will be frustrated. The Command Paper says at paragraph 79 that discussions will move forward “at pace”. I hope that the Secretary of State can put some meat on the bone. What does that mean in terms of the timeline? We need to know within a matter of weeks that this will be finally resolved.
We are not looking to set arbitrary timelines. We want to let the EU respond and to negotiate with it, and in the weeks ahead we will all see how that negotiation works through. I note the hon. Member’s comments about the legal case. It is important that we can show people and businesses in Northern Ireland that, among the EU and the UK, diplomacy, democracy and talking can work to deliver positive outcomes. This issue affects people in commerce across Northern Ireland as well as consumers and the whole community, so it is right that we work together to find a solution.
We are clear and have always said that we do not want to see cliff edges, and we have some grace periods coming up. That is why we think it is right to have a standstill agreement so that businesses have certainty and people can see a positive way to move forward to get a result by agreement. However, as I say, we cannot take anything off the table, because we want to ensure that ultimately we get the right result for the people in Northern Ireland.
I welcome the statement, not only because of its contents but because the Government have brought it forward before recess. It is of great credit to the Government that they have made a statement that we can now scrutinise. Further to the previous question, it seems to me that, to get an agreement with the EU on anything, there must be an end date for the negotiations, because the EU run negotiations until the end date and, without one, they will go on forever. Will the Secretary of State have a word with Lord Frost and announce the date on which we will not go on any further with negotiations? Otherwise, I think this will drag on and on.
I take my hon. Friend’s point: this is not something that we can allow to drag on and on. I think our track record shows that we will do what we need to do when the time is right, as we did when we took action in March to give certainty to businesses. We obviously have grace periods coming up, which is why we are recommending a standstill option to give businesses that certainty, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right: this cannot go on. That is why we need to resolve fundamentally the underlying problems, and do so soon.
I was interested to hear the Secretary of State say that he took heed of a party to the agreement warning of disruption. I hope that he will soon begin to listen to other parties to the agreement, as well as to businesses in Northern Ireland. A recent Northern Ireland business survey found that two thirds of companies would like to take advantage of the opportunities of the protocol. Invest Northern Ireland has reported many expressions of interest, and companies such as Arla and Dale Farm have agreed on major investment thanks to our unique dual market access.
Where there are practical issues of course they need to be resolved, but in his statement the Secretary of State referred to the potential of partnership, while in the same breath undermining it with uncertainty. This is no longer about the Government failing to capitalise on the opportunities, although they have abjectly failed to bother to do that. Why are they now actively thwarting those who want to create, privately, jobs and prosperity after decades of economic underperformance?
Let me point out to the hon. Lady that there are two parties to the agreement, the UK and the EU. I can only assume from her suggestion that we should take more notice of other parties that she is joining some others in backing the EU over the people of the United Kingdom and, therefore, the people of Northern Ireland. This is a Government who have invested in Northern Ireland not only the largest financial package of city and growth deals that we have seen around the UK to deliver prosperity and growth, but £400 million in a new deal package which will also bring prosperity and growth, as well as the increase in the spending review in money for the Executive. We will continue to support that economic growth.
I agree with the hon. Lady in that, as I said earlier, I think there is a big opportunity for Northern Ireland as a fundamental, intrinsic part of the UK market with the ability to trade with the EU. That is what the protocol could bring about. There is a huge economic opportunity, but it can only deliver if it is working—if it is acceptable to the whole community of Northern Ireland —and business after business and business representative organisation after business representative organisation have made clear to us that there are problems which need to be resolved. What we are saying today is that rather than maintaining a piecemeal approach that creates continual cliff edges, we want to work with the EU to fix the underlying problems, so that we can see the economic opportunity that the hon. Lady has described delivering for Northern Ireland.
The UK has the ability, the will and the right to invoke article 16, but does my right hon. Friend agree that softer politics is still the way forward, and that working alongside the EU as an equal trading partner rather than an intransigent political hegemony will offer the best outcome for the people of Northern Ireland?
Yes, I hope that the EU will engage in a positive way, because I think that as equal partners and equal sovereign states we are able to conduct a proper negotiation to resolve these core issues. That is in the EU’s interests, because obviously it will ensure that we can deal with its concerns about the single market, but it is also in the wider interest, to ensure that we are protecting not just the Belfast/Good Friday agreement but the sovereign integrity of the UK internal market, which I hope the EU respects as much as we respect its single market.
Unlike representatives of the Alliance party and the SDLP, who seem to think that their job is to be EU representatives in the House rather than to voice the concerns of their constituents who are hurt every day by the Northern Ireland protocol, I welcome the proposals that the Government have presented today, especially those relating to customs, trade barriers, checks on goods, VAT, and the ending of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland. However, in paragraph 71 the Secretary of State still refers to the need for EU law to apply in Northern Ireland. Does he recognise that that is undemocratic and will lead to future conflicts and future trade barriers. Does he accept that the introduction of the mutual enforcement of regulations would do away with the need for EU law to be applied in Northern Ireland and would therefore remove those problems and the undemocratic nature of the existing arrangements?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his wider support and I share his frustration at hearing people who purport to represent UK citizens and Northern Ireland citizens in this Chamber and virtually continuing to support the EU, which is making their lives more difficult. I welcome his support for his constituents. In paragraph 71, we are clear that we think there is potential for more robust arrangements to ensure that, as the rules are developed, they take account of the implications for Northern Ireland and provide a stronger role for those in Northern Ireland. That is an important part of it and he is right to outline that. It is why the consent mechanism is so important as we move forward and why it is important that we recognise that, although the protocol is having an impact detrimentally on people across the whole community of Northern Ireland, for any form of protocol to survive it clearly has to have the consent of the whole community of Northern Ireland. At the moment, it simply does not have that. That is why, in its current format, the protocol as it is working is unsustainable.
We know that the protocol was entered into with the best intentions by both sides, but the simple truth, is it not, is that the EU’s approach to its implementation has been so rigid as to risk considerable harm to Northern Ireland’s economy and society? Does my right hon. Friend agree that what is required now is a far more pragmatic attitude from the EU, whose leaders should recognise that a peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland is in the best interests of us all?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I recognise and believe that both vice-president Maroš Šefčovič and the wider EU want an outcome that is good for the people of Northern Ireland, as well as, obviously, protecting and defending their own single market. What we are saying is that to do that let us work together to get a solution that means we can deal with the issues that are fundamentally undermining the protocol, affecting its sustainability and detrimentally affecting the people of Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: for peace, prosperity and sustainability, it is in everybody’s interest to get a positive outcome to the negotiations.
Trade is the way to the peace and prosperity we need to see in Northern Ireland, and it is ready to make the best of both worlds. This issue needs to be resolved very quickly. The Secretary of State chooses his words very carefully. I think this afternoon he has told us that he respects the epidemiological unit of the island of Ireland and that, in answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), the agreement being sought will avoid the need for a veterinary agreement and make it redundant. Is the agreement that the Secretary of State is now seeking a single agreement across the island of Ireland and the island of Britain?
The agreement we are seeking is one that recognises that Northern Ireland is fundamentally part of the UK internal market. That means not only the goods which at the moment can move unfettered from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, but getting to a point where goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, to be used and consumed in Northern Ireland, are also able to flow freely. We fully recognise the need to deal with checks and issues for products that are moving into Ireland, and therefore the EU and the single market. We will continue to do that. We think there is a realistic, practical and pragmatic way to do that, so that we avoid all those goods, including from companies that do not even trade within Ireland, having still to go through the same checks as if they were going into the single market. That is just not sustainable. It is not right for businesses and it is not right for consumers in Northern Ireland.
This is a welcome step and we await the response from the EU. Of course, its refusal to recognise the fundamental flaws of the protocol and the intransigent approach of the Dublin Government must change if this process is to succeed. We will wait and see if they have the capability to be flexible. The Prime Minister, in his foreword to the Command Paper, references the protection of the peace process and the Belfast agreement in all its parts as the rationale for the protocol. Does the Secretary of State agree that a fundamental building block is the principle of cross-community consent? Does he agree that whatever the outcome of the negotiations it must have the consent of the Unionist community, which is entirely absent from the current arrangements?
The hon. Lady makes a very important point. The issues with the protocol and the problems it has created for consumers and businesses affect all communities in Northern Ireland, but she is absolutely right that there is a fundamental problem that the Northern Ireland protocol, as it is currently working, does not have the consent of all, in all communities. It has to have that to have stability and the ability to deliver peace and prosperity. That is why it is important to enter the negotiations with the absolute aim of ensuring an outcome that resolves those underlying problems and works for people of all communities in Northern Ireland. She is absolutely right: it has to have the consent of all of them, including, obviously, the Unionist community.
The Act of Union has long been the foundation for Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of course the Good Friday/Belfast agreement has secured consensus on peace within Northern Ireland. By contrast, the protocol has challenged the integrity of the UK. It has seen tensions increase between communities within Northern Ireland, and it has been used to introduce barriers to trade.
I welcome the Command Paper and this statement as a timely and pragmatic response, but can my right hon. Friend confirm that he sees the integrity of the UK as the foundation for our pursuit of opportunities and for a peaceful and prosperous future?
My hon. Friend’s comment is absolutely spot on. The Command Paper is clear that we seek an agreed new balance to meet the commitments in the protocol in a way that fully respects Northern Ireland’s place in the UK market. Obviously, we understand that we have a duty to help maintain the integrity of the EU market, and we take that seriously. We think we can deliver on that, but we also have to be clear about the fundamental integrity of the UK market.
The Secretary of State will know that aerospace is a key industry in my constituency. If we needed a good example of the flaws of the piecemeal approach, the resolution on steel is a great example. When we raised aluminium, the European Union was of the view that we needed a separate and bespoke negotiation to resolve those issues. That crystallises the conundrum that has led to this White Paper.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) and the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) have all raised the timescales. I understand the Secretary of State’s reluctance to give arbitrary timescales, but there will be two choices: the European Union will either indicate very quickly that it has no interest in engaging with this process, or it will start to engage.
Will the Secretary of State at least commit not only to put his best efforts into achieving the right outcomes but that he will come to the House, when we return in September, to update us on progress or on the steps that may be necessary at that stage?
The hon. Gentleman perfectly outlines the reason why it is important that we deal with the underlying problem, rather than looking separately at all these different symptoms. Many hon. Members have talked about a veterinary agreement and, as he has outlined, that will not solve the overall problems. He has given a very good example of that, which is why we want to take this approach to find a fundamental resolution to the underlying problems.
On the timeframe, as I have said, we want to work positively with the European Union. We are looking to agree a standstill so that we avoid any cliff edges that the grace periods may create, and that would also give us the space to have these negotiations to get a permanent, fixed, long-term solution. It would be wrong of me to put timeframes on that at the moment.
The hon. Gentleman is right that we will have to see how things work over the next few weeks, and I have no doubt that the opportunities in this House will be abundant for him and others to raise these questions and make these points to me on our return after the recess.
It is always a pleasure to ask the Secretary of State a question, but I am very pleased to have heard today’s statement. I thank him for proposing a possible solution to where we are.
I have been in this Chamber all too often to discuss the Northern Ireland protocol, and here we are again, still trying to find some sort of solution. It has been said that the protocol was put in place to prevent Brexit from disrupting the peace process. However, the enforcement of the protocol in Northern Ireland has done the exact same. The protocol is not sustainable.
I believe very sincerely that there seems to be little willingness from the EU to find a way forward or to find a solution. What steps can the Secretary of State take to ensure an agreement is made to get rid of the protocol? Can he provide an assurance that all options will be considered, including invoking article 16, as he mentioned earlier?
The hon. Gentleman is right. As other colleagues have said today, it is important, and we are very clear, that we are not taking any options off the table. We need to ensure that we have the ability to do what is right for the people of the United Kingdom, and particularly, in the instance of the protocol, for the people of Northern Ireland. We think this is the right way to move forward, in order to find a way to resolve these underlying issues within the protocol, which we are fundamentally implementing for Northern Ireland and for the EU. These are fundamental issues that need to be resolved.
I have always been very clear, as have the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the noble Lord Frost, about our determination to deliver an outcome that is right for the people of Northern Ireland and that is sustainable and has the consent of the entire community of Northern Ireland. That is the only way that this can work in a positive way. We will then get to the stage where Northern Ireland has real opportunity to deliver huge economic growth and jobs in the future, as part of the UK internal market but also working with our friends and partners in the EU, with access to their market as well.
Thank you. I will now briefly suspend the House for three minutes in order that arrangements can be made for the next item of business.