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Northern Ireland Protocol

Volume 810: debated on Thursday 11 March 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made towards resolving issues resulting from the operation of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.

My Lords, we want to continue work in the joint committee to address outstanding concerns, to provide space for those discussions without the threat of significant disruption. We have taken several temporary, operational measures to provide more time for businesses to adapt to the new requirements, consistent with our pragmatic and proportionate implementation of the protocol.

What has been the reaction of the business community in Northern Ireland to the strenuous and welcome efforts that the Government are making to diminish the problems that they face as a result of the protocol? Do the Government have a plan—a road map even—to replace the protocol with a set of arrangements capable of commanding the confidence of a majority of our fellow countrymen and women in Northern Ireland, whose faith in the union has been shaken by the Government’s departure from the commitment, on which Ministers set such store, to restore full sovereignty in every part of our country?

My Lords, we have been in close contact with the business community across Northern Ireland as we have announced these measures, and there have been several expressions of support. That is because we are focused, as everybody should be, on avoiding unacceptable disruption to day-to-day lives and ensuring an effective flow of trade from east to west. On my noble friend’s other point, the protocol is explicit that it rests on democratic consent across Northern Ireland; all sides need to work to sustain it. That is why we are committed to giving effect to the protocol in the pragmatic and proportionate way that was intended, taking account of the Belfast agreement in all its dimensions: north-south and east-west. That is why we want to work with the EU on a durable and pragmatic arrangement for trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the long term.

Does the Minister agree that, in the EU, we are thought to be in breach of our legal obligations, no matter how much the Government deny that that is the case? What do the Government propose to do to repair the damage to this country’s reputation?

My Lords, we do not agree that we are in breach of our legal obligations. The steps that we took are lawful and consistent with the progressive and good-faith implementation of the protocol. They are temporary, operational steps where additional delivery time is needed, consistent with the common practice internationally of temporarily delayed implementation for operational and delivery reasons.

My Lords, since sanitary and phytosanitary checks are a major problem in trade across the Irish Sea, and since the Government have now made it clear that they do not intend to lower such standards in negotiations with the United States, do the Government have any current plans to diverge from EU SPS regulations in the next four to five years? If there are no plans for significant divergence, could Her Majesty’s Government not declare that we will continue to adhere to EU standards until the next major review, as we are, in effect, doing on data regulation? Or is the principle of sovereignty more important here than the practice of food imports and exports?

My Lords, we indicated in last year’s negotiations that we were interested in an equivalence mechanism covering agri-foods, and the EU was not. We continue to be interested in such discussions if the EU is open to them. We will not agree to arrangements based on dynamic alignment, as this could compromise our future SPS rules and our trade agreements.

My Lords, in the course of the vaccine rollout, Northern Ireland has benefited hugely from its place as an integral part of the United Kingdom. Will my noble friend confirm that, from 31 December this year, all medicines, including vaccines and any necessary Covid boosters, entering Northern Ireland will fall under the regulation of the European Union and will need to be batch-tested in the EEA? Does she agree that, if the Government allow this to happen, it will be a risk and a detriment to all the people of Northern Ireland and will call into question the very concept of a national health service?

My Lords, the arrangements we have in place this year are to provide time for us to work with the industry. We are doing this intensively, to ensure that there is no disruption to medicine supplies in Northern Ireland from 2022 and beyond. In any case, UK authorities will remain the responsible regulators and so Northern Ireland will continue to be able to benefit from the vaccine rollout in the same way as the rest of the UK.

My Lords, Northern Ireland now has one of the most unique trading positions in the world. We know that the protocol is not perfect, yet at the CBI—of which I am president—our members tell us that they want to make it work. It is still not plain sailing, including issues around goods at risk, rules of origin, SPS checks and controls. Following the recent events over Article 16, does the Minister agree that we need to see calm and confidence restored through extensions to existing grace periods being promptly agreed between the EU and the UK working together with business? Does she also agree that we need to reduce complexity, which is creating barriers to trade and investment?

The noble Lord is right in everything he says. We need to continue to support—as we have extensively supported—all businesses in Northern Ireland, particularly those moving goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We have provided them with over £200 million of support through our trader support service, which has processed over 200,000 declarations. Noble Lords might like to know that 98% of those declarations have been handled within 15 minutes and calls to the centre are answered within six seconds. This is the way we are supporting those businesses in Northern Ireland and the trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

My Lords, whatever views are held on the Northern Ireland protocol, which was created by this Government—and there are problems—does the Minister not agree the only permanent way to resolve these issues is through proper discussion and negotiation between the Government, the European Union, Ireland and the political parties in Northern Ireland? That is how we have achieved progress over the last 25 years.

My Lords, the noble Lord is right, and we want to continue discussions with the EU through the Joint Committee to address the outstanding concerns and establish arrangements that can provide durable, pragmatic and proportionate spaces for the east-west trade in particular. The steps we took were simply to provide the space for those discussions without undue disruption.

My Lords, it is hard to see how the Government’s current unilateral approach is going to lead to positive results. One area where working productively with our European partners would make a real, positive difference to UK food producers is agreeing an EU-UK veterinary agreement. Can the Minister say what progress has been made on negotiating that agreement?

We are continuing to discuss many things, including the veterinary agreement. I will write to the noble Baroness with a fuller response.

The Government and the European Union say the protocol is designed to support the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. As one of those who negotiated the agreement, I can confirm the protocol is the very antithesis of it and is deeply damaging to the union. Will my noble friend confirm that Her Majesty’s Government will be prepared to meet with some of us to discuss the many viable alternatives to this damaging treaty, which is a sledgehammer to crack a nut and deals with less than one-tenth of 1% of European trade flows?

My Lords, I am afraid I do not agree. The protocol is a unique solution to the complex challenges we were confronted with. We are committed to implementing it, but in a pragmatic and proportionate way, as I have said. I will take back the noble Lord’s offer to the department and see what we can arrange.

My Lords, is it not a fact that when the EU suspended Article 16, it immediately recognised its profound and, frankly, stupid mistake? Should we not be doing everything possible to calm and improve relations with our former partners in the EU, and not take measures that could jeopardise the chances of the European Parliament ratifying an agreement which brought a degree of stability, and much relief, at the beginning of this year?

Indeed, my Lords. We need to proceed carefully as part of our progressive and good faith implementation of the protocol. Our focus is on minimising the impact on everyday lives in Northern Ireland, and we are committed to working with the EU to do that, addressing outstanding concerns and restoring confidence on the ground. The steps we took were simply temporary operational steps to avoid unacceptable disruption as those discussions proceeded.

Sitting suspended.