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International Road Passenger Transport (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019

Volume 797: debated on Monday 20 May 2019

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 3 April be approved.

Relevant document: 47th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, I will start with some background to these regulations. EU legislation governs access to the international passenger transport market. The EU regulation establishes the conditions for the international carriage of passengers by coach and bus within the EU, and cabotage within member states by non-resident EU operators. It covers regular timetabled services and occasional services such as holidays and tours. It establishes for this purpose a system of community licences, which act as the international bus and coach licences used within the EU, and for these licences to be issued by the competent authorities of member states.

To ensure the continuation of bus and coach services in the event of no deal, the Government have already made the regulations on common rules for access to the international market for coach and bus services. These were approved by this House on 25 March. That SI amends the retained UK version of the EU regulation on a UK-wide basis. It allows EU-based operators to continue to access the UK market through the continued recognition of community licences and control documents issued by EU member states.

Turning to the content of this SI, Section 2 of the withdrawal Act will retain EU- derived domestic legislation which gives effect to the EU regulation in Northern Ireland. This SI, which applies to Northern Ireland only, adjusts the language and references in those pieces of retained legislation. The draft regulations make minor and technical changes to reflect the fact that the UK will cease to be an EU member state. For example, they remove references to “community licence” and “community rules” from relevant Northern Irish domestic legislation. The regulations also ensure that domestic enforcement provisions may continue to be applied to EU operators so that the Driver and Vehicle Agency, the relevant enforcement body in Northern Ireland, can continue to take action.

I turn to our approach to maintaining UK access to the EU. In the event of no deal, UK operators will be able to continue to access the EU market through the Interbus agreement in respect of occasional services. That agreement is an EU multilateral agreement which allows bus and coach operators to carry out occasional services between the participating countries: currently, the EU and seven other contracting parties in eastern Europe. The UK has completed the accession process and will become a member of the Interbus agreement in its own right in the event of no deal.

The agreement will be extended to regular services in due course but, until the end of 2019, access for existing regular services would be through the EU contingency measure on basic road freight and road passenger transport connectivity. This contingency measure, which was approved in March, will enable UK operators to continue operating existing regular timetabled services to EU member states until 31 December 2019. Since it was agreed, an extension to the exit date has been granted until 31 October, so we will work with the EU to determine the impact of this on the timing of the measure. This is particularly important to the ability to carry out bus and coach cabotage in the border counties of the Republic of Ireland, which is currently allowed only until the end of September.

The EU contingency measure is dependent on the UK reciprocating. If it does not, the EU could suspend rights for UK operators to continue running regular services under the EU regulation, ensuring basic road connectivity in the event of no deal. In this case, no UK regular services would be able to operate in the EU.

UK regulations providing reciprocity, such as these, are a temporary, stop-gap measure. In the event of no deal, once the Interbus agreement has been extended to regular services, it is intended that reciprocal access will be provided through that agreement instead. However, we will work and are working with the European Commission and the Republic of Ireland to ensure that any future UK-EU transport arrangements take into account the unique transport demands on the island of Ireland, particularly in the border counties where cabotage is important.

The Government have made a commitment to reduce the adverse impact of EU exit on businesses and citizens. This applies to the ability of people to make international journeys by coach or bus. In Northern Ireland, travel across the border is a commonplace daily activity, with 900,000 such journeys per annum. While the Common Rules for Access to the International Market for Coach and Bus Services (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations ensure that EU operators can continue to access the UK market, these draft regulations will ensure that the relevant domestic legislation in Northern Ireland is adjusted to reflect the UK ceasing to be an EU member state.

I thank the Minister for her explanation of the content and purpose of these regulations, which seek to ensure that current access rights for EU bus and coach operators, into and within Northern Ireland, remain in place after our withdrawal from the EU. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee recommended an upgrade of these regulations to the affirmative procedure.

This SI applies to the access rights of bus and coach operators, which is a transferred matter for Northern Ireland. The EU regulations currently provide reciprocal liberalised market access for regular and occasional coach services between the UK and the European Union. Apparently, reciprocal rights for UK operators in the EU market cannot be guaranteed after a withdrawal from the EU so, as the Minister has said, we will join the Interbus agreement as a contracting party in our own right if we leave the EU without an agreement.

The Interbus agreement is a multilateral agreement between the EU and seven other contracting parties in eastern Europe, which currently allows occasional international coach travel for tours and trips between those parties. As the Minister has said, since the Interbus agreement does not cover scheduled coach services, including those that take passengers to school or work, the European Union has agreed temporary contingency measures to enable operators licensed by the UK to carry passengers between the UK and an EU member state, if the withdrawal agreement is not adopted before we leave the EU. These temporary measures would enable scheduled services delivered by UK operators in the EU to continue until the end of this year. The Interbus agreement does not cover cabotage services, but the temporary agreement with the EU will allow UK operators some cabotage operations in the border regions of Ireland until 30 September of this year, as the Minister has said.

In its report, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee said that the scope of Interbus is being extended to cover scheduled services, which the Minister confirmed. However, if this extension is not agreed, the Northern Ireland Administration will look to negotiate an extension with the EU or seek to put in place bilateral arrangements with specific countries to secure the access needed to keep UK passenger transport operators moving. That is potentially a little vague about what might happen in the future. The report says that, in respect of cabotage, the Northern Ireland Administration,

“will continue to work … with the European Commission and the Republic of Ireland to ensure that any future UK-EU transport arrangements take into account the unique transport demands on the island of Ireland”.

That could, once again, be regarded as a statement of hope or as something that will definitely be delivered, so I have one or two questions.

What exactly are the extent and scope of the limited cabotage arrangements that will continue until the end of September in the border regions of Ireland? What will the practical impact and consequences be if those arrangements cease to have effect from the end of September? What are the prospects of the Interbus agreement being extended to cover scheduled services before the end of this year? Again, what will the practical impact and consequences be if the agreement is not so extended by the end of this year? Presumably the date of 31 December 2019 does not have the same urgency for the other signatories as it could have for us.

My Lords I have one question for the Minister, following on from my noble friend’s more detailed questions about what will happen after 31 December 2019. It is all set out in paragraph 7.3 of the Explanatory Memorandum. Apart from asking what happens after 31 December, as my noble friend did, I note that:

“The EU have agreed a legislative measure that will allow UK operators currently running regular and special regular services to the EU to continue doing so until 31 December 2019”.

My question concerns the word “currently”. If an operator wishes to start a new service this year, they will presumably not be allowed to, because they are not doing so currently. If this legislation continues with the same wording, they will not be able to do so in future. That looks to me to be starting to create a kind of monopoly of existing operators, because new ones will not be able to do it unless they are operating currently. I hope that the Minister can put my mind at rest and say that this does not actually mean that no new ones could start and that it is just a quick and easy way of expressing what might happen—but it is a worry, because at the moment any operator should be able to operate across the frontier, and let us hope that that can continue in the future.

My Lords, I draw the Minister’s attention to the report published this very day by the Select Committee sub-committee that I chair on road, rail and maritime transport post Brexit. I will of course allow the noble Baroness a day or two before we get the official government response, but it has a chapter on the Irish dimension, covering not only bus and coach travel but also road haulage and rail.

I will focus on these regulations. Since the Good Friday agreement, and in some cases before the Good Friday agreement, bus operators have operated across the border and have improved the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic in a positive way, with people moving for work and for other reasons. The fact that that whole arrangement is now subject to some doubt is a serious problem, which goes well beyond the details of any transport regulations, frankly.

While our report focuses primarily on the possibility of moving to an agreement with the EU, it nevertheless has regard to the possibility of no deal. With no deal, as my noble friend has just underlined, as of Halloween we will be faced with a situation where the present propositions from the European Union will last only between then and New Year’s Eve. That is not a satisfactory position for any mode of transport. In particular, it is not a satisfactory understanding for a mode of transport by which individuals move to their work or families and which they have relied on for a decade or two to operate in a regular way.

I appreciate that my report—our committee’s report; I must not be so egotistical as two members of the committee are sitting here today—raises a number of issues related to Ireland. I hope that the Department for Transport in London is apprised of the situation in Northern Ireland, because there are some serious difficulties there. My noble friend raised the question of the decision to extend the Interbus arrangements to cover scheduled transport. That is unlikely to take place before the end of October—or, indeed, between the end of October and the end of the year. That will place a number of those routes in Ireland in doubt. I hope that the Minister and her department—in conjunction with the appropriate officials in Northern Ireland, since at the moment it does not have a devolved Assembly—will be able to resolve this issue in a way which, at least temporarily and in default of any longer-term agreement, will ensure that such services continue to operate. In the meantime, I commend the totality of my report to the Minister—no doubt her officials are studying it already.

My Lords, I will start by underlining the gratitude we must feel to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which has yet again done an excellent job in recommending that this SI be upgraded to an affirmative instrument and in referring these regulations to us. Although they seek to ensure that current access rights for EU bus and coach operators in Northern Ireland remain as they are at this time, in practice the picture is complicated, as other speakers have already made clear. The situation of Translink is much more important and fundamental to the daily way of life of people in Northern Ireland than that of coach and bus operators going abroad from the rest of Britain.

The Minister mentioned 900,000 journeys a year. I am grateful to her for the statistic; she will find more in the report that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, has just referred to. The evidence to the committee, of which I am a member, underlined the significance of the Translink service—and of the similar service coming from the Republic of Ireland to the north—to everyday life in Northern Ireland.

The Government’s attempts to overcome the problem by joining the Interbus agreement are obviously sensible, but I recall that when we discussed this in relation to the original SI for the rest of Britain there was some issue about the speed with which signatories were signing the extension of the Interbus agreement so that it would cover regular and special regular services. So can the Minister update us on how many countries have now signed up to that in the couple of months since we had that debate, which I believe was in March? Is the way clear so that in future we can rely on the Interbus agreement?

The EU tried to play its part by extending the current situation, and we were given two dates for that extension: 31 December and 30 September. Those are of course inadequate now, because by 30 September we might not have made any progress from where we are now. So can the Minister say a little more about the discussions the Government are having with the EU about how we will extend those dates? That is based on legislation, which requires the European Parliament to meet and pass it, and it is self-evident that the Parliament is not meeting at the moment and will not be up and running for some time. So an update on that would be very welcome.

The importance of cabotage in these services in Northern Ireland is very much greater than in the rest of the country, so it is important that the issue is solved as part of the Interbus agreement.

Finally, I will comment on the fact that there is no impact assessment, despite the fact that we are talking about services—at least I believe that there is no impact assessment. I read through the final part of this SI, which said that there was no impact assessment—but I apologise if I have made a mistake. If that is true, I am concerned, because there would be a considerable impact on the industry and the daily life of people in Northern Ireland. However, if I misread that, I stand to be corrected by the Minister.

I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in our short debate today. It is an important debate, however, and is vital for the 900,000 journeys made across the Northern Irish border. A number of issues were raised. I will start by discussing how we ended up with this slightly odd mismatched date situation, with the September and December dates, and then I will cover the Interbus agreement, cabotage and what this means for new services in Northern Ireland.

The arrangements for both regular services and cabotage by Northern Irish operators were set by the EU in its contingency regulation on basic road transport connectivity—I think we are clear on that. However, much of the content of the regulation was put in place in Article 50 format, which means that the UK was not in the room at the time this was agreed. We worked hard with our Irish colleagues to raise the importance of access, including cabotage, on the island of Ireland. The date for regular services—the one at the end of September—was set to allow sufficient time for the protocol to the Interbus agreement on regular services to enter into force. The date for the cabotage services was set at the end of September—noble Lords will recall that, at that point, exit day was going to be in March—to enable alternatives to be put in place for cabotage. Now that the date of exit has been pushed back to October, obviously we will work hard with the Commission and member states to make sure that the dates are extended if they need to be.

We need to extend the Interbus agreement to regular services. The EU is one of the four parties that needs to sign the agreement to extend the coverage, and the Commission is the secretariat to the Interbus agreement. In our conversations with the Commission, and specifically with DG MOVE, it has indicated to us that it will be extended. We will continue to work carefully with the Commission and member states to encourage them to sign; I feel that the process that is likely to happen is that the EU will sign and then others will follow. We therefore have confidence that the Interbus agreement will be signed and, if it is not, we will seek to negotiate an extension with the EU or to put in place bilateral agreements with specific countries as needed.

On cabotage, which is the transport of passengers between two places in the same country by a transport operator from another country, the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked a question about what limited cabotage was. In this case it is limited because it is only an operation for the six counties in the Republic of Ireland which border Northern Ireland. That is the limitation of this cabotage. The no-deal legislation that we already have in place would allow EU operators to continue such cabotage operations. Under the EU regulation, cabotage is allowed for regular and special regular services within the Irish border counties, as I have noted. I can therefore assure noble Lords that the Government recognise the importance of cabotage, particularly on the island of Ireland, and that we will work closely and fairly rapidly with the Republic of Ireland and the EU to make sure that cabotage can continue.

There was a question about what would happen if neither of those agreements was in place. That is hypothetical—I do not expect that they would not be—but it leads to something slightly more interesting. If we did not accede to the Interbus agreement under the protocol in our own right for regular services, the EU could offer regular services to the UK, but the UK could not, so there would be a mismatch.

Similarly, the EU could offer cabotage, but the Northern Irish or the UK could not. The question is: what would happen if we could not accede to the Interbus agreement or did not achieve cabotage? At this moment, we have something that might be seen as a carrot or as a stick. In the interests of our tourism industry and for other good economic and social reasons, EU operators can access the UK. However, UK Ministers have the power to amend EU operators’ access in future. I am sure we have no intention to do that, but I point out that we have reached agreement on operating in each other’s markets—and I am sure we will in future—because it is not in the interests of anybody for that not to continue.

The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, asked whether a new operator could start a service. He is correct: a EU operator could but a UK operator could not. However, there is only one operator anyway: Translink. I am not aware that a second operator would want to come into the market, particularly in the timescale that we are talking about. If there is concern, we should be very interested to hear it; we have not heard it yet, so I leave it at that.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. I apologise to him for not having read his report. However, it will be on my weekend reading list. It is a very important topic, and I thank him for bringing the report to my attention and for his contribution today about the broader issues that we face.

It is not in our interests that transportation services between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland fail, and we as a Government will strive extremely hard to ensure that they continue. I hope that I have managed to address the points raised. If there are any remaining, I shall certainly write; otherwise, I beg to move.

Before the Minister sits down, I wish to clarify the situation. The papers from the Printed Paper Office made clear that no impact assessment has been prepared. I express my concern about that and should be grateful if she would explain why that is the case.

With apologies to the noble Baroness, I forgot that question. She is indeed right: no impact assessment was published in this case because any impact was deemed to be de minimis, as is normally the custom.

Motion agreed.

Sitting suspended.