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Balance of Trade with Great Britain and the EU

Volume 707: debated on Wednesday 26 January 2022

4. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of trends in the balance of trade between Northern Ireland and (a) Great Britain and (b) the EU. (905211)

9. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of trends in the balance of trade between Northern Ireland and (a) Great Britain and (b) the EU. (905216)

We are committed to boosting trade in Northern Ireland with both the rest of the United Kingdom and the rest of the world. The Northern Ireland protocol has, as I just said, impacted businesses. It is creating barriers to trade and causing disruption. It is the Government’s priority to deal with those issues and make the protocol work better for business. That is essential to ensuring Northern Ireland continues to prosper as part of the Union.

Exports from Great Britain to the Republic of Ireland have crashed by more than 20% since Brexit, costing the GB economy more than £3 billion. Meanwhile, Northern Irish exports to the Republic, which are benefiting from still being in the EU market, have soared by 64% in 2021 alone. Does the Secretary of State recognise the overwhelming benefits of being in a market seven times the size of the UK market?

We are seeing 200-plus businesses in Northern Ireland stopping delivering to customers in Northern Ireland, medicines and drugs having issues and challenges getting to Northern Ireland, consumers having reduced choice on the shelves, and garden centres unable to get the plants and seeds they want from the rest of the UK. That is a farcical situation. It is not sustainable. It is not fair or right for the people of Northern Ireland and it is right that we focus on correcting that.

I wonder if I could invite the Secretary of State to actually answer the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson). The most recent quarterly economic survey by the Northern Ireland chamber of commerce shows that 70% of Northern Ireland businesses believe that their unique trading position of being both within the UK and the EU single markets and the customs union presents opportunities for Northern Ireland. Does he agree with the vast majority of businesses in Northern Ireland? If so, why did his Government not fight for remain-voting Scotland to have the same benefits of dual access as Northern Ireland?

I meet businesses across Northern Ireland representing all sectors of Northern Ireland on a regular basis, as does the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns). They are very clear: the protocol in its current format is not working. It is not sustainable. The EU offer is not good enough. They are very clear about that. That is something we are determined to fix. The hon. and learned Lady is absolutely right that if the protocol works in the way it was envisaged, it does create opportunities for Northern Ireland. The problem is that the EU’s requirements for implementation are failing Northern Ireland and we need to see that fixed.

The Secretary of State says the Northern Ireland protocol is not working and he is right. Why don’t we scrap it?

The Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and I are absolutely determined to ensure that we resolve the issues for Northern Ireland. We would obviously like to do that in a sustainable and agreed way with the EU. That is the best way to get legal certainty. That is our focus, but we do not rule out anything from the table to deliver for Northern Ireland.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that reducing barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is not just desirable, but vital to protecting the integrity of the United Kingdom?

Yes. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to ensure that consumers and businesses in any part of the UK can access products as they would anywhere else in the UK. That is what we are determined to deliver, and that is where our focus and work is.

I take this opportunity to associate my party with the Secretary of State’s remarks about the anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Our thoughts are very much with those who continue to grieve and who continue to be affected to this day.

When it comes to trade, the Government have not so much been ambushed by cake as by reality. While the Northern Ireland economy is thriving as part of the single market, the economy of the UK is labouring. Should the UK Government not, with the opportunities presented by the possibility of a change in Prime Minister, realign Great Britain with Northern Ireland in the single market and allow businesses across these islands to flourish?

I encourage the hon. Gentleman to do a little more research. It is very good news that the Northern Ireland economy is moving forward, as is the whole UK economy. Of course, in Northern Ireland there are more factors, not least the scale of the public sector compared with anywhere else in the UK. However, it is also true that the UK is moving forward as one of the fastest-growing economies in the G7, if not the fastest, with employment going up from where it was even before covid. That is because the Government are focused on delivering for people across the United Kingdom. I am sure he understands why, as a Unionist, I support that. He should too.