Contribution to debate on European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill, House of Lords, 14th January 2020
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My Lords, at the request of my noble friend Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, who has to attend a funeral tomorrow, I wish to move Amendment 13 and speak to Amendments 14, 16, 17 and 20 appearing also in the names of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and with the blessing, I know, of the DUP, Sinn Féin and the Alliance Party.
We all welcome the restoration of devolved Stormont government and wish the Assembly and Executive well in taking Northern Ireland forward to what we all hope will be a better and more stable future. I have always maintained that, where there is deadlock in the political process, as we have seen over the last three years so tragically, it can be resolved only when the British and Irish Governments work together in a focused and positive way. There are former Secretaries of State in this House who I think will not disagree with that. I particularly commend the way in which the current Secretary of State, Julian Smith, approached the outstanding issues, working closely with the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, ably supported by the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, and the Minister in the Commons. The Secretary of State has brought energy and commitment to the negotiations that, sadly, his predecessors lacked, and he was doing so even before the political arithmetic changed with the election last month.
It is in the context of the restoration of the institutions in Northern Ireland and, more crucially, their prospects for long-term stability that I urge the Government to accept these amendments. After all, they achieve what the Government themselves profess to support: namely, no impediments to trade across the Irish Sea. The purpose of these amendments is to protect the Northern Ireland economy from the clear and inevitable damage that leaving the European Union in the hard Brexit way seemingly envisaged by the Government will otherwise cause. They are not delaying or wrecking amendments—nor are they the last frantic efforts of deluded remainers or remoaners to thwart the democratic process. They are essential damage-limitation measures, supported by all the political parties in Northern Ireland. Let us pause on that: all the political parties. How often do we see that? And joined by businesses and civic groups, too.
Amendments 13, 14, 16, 17 and 20 hang together as a package. Amendment 13 replaces “may” with “must” in Clause 22, Part 1C, and new Clause 8C in Clause 21 in order to stiffen the drafting of the regulations that will be made under these provisions of the Bill. Otherwise, the problem is that the protocol either places Northern Ireland in a good place or between two bad things, where it will have its largest internal sales market putting barriers up to it and it will not have genuinely unfettered access to the EU market. That will put businesses in Northern Ireland at serious risk of competitive disadvantage on all sides.
Amendment 14 ensures that, in accessing the market within Great Britain, businesses in Northern Ireland must continue to be able to sell their qualifying goods to Great Britain without tariffs, origin requirements, regulatory import controls, dual authorisations or discrimination in the market. Also, Northern Ireland businesses will enjoy these rights to free access regardless of whether they trade directly with Great Britain or via an Irish port or airport.
Amendment 16 would ensure that any relevant regulations for new requirements on goods traded to and from Northern Ireland to Great Britain cannot come into force without the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly—and, furthermore, that there must be no additional charges or administrative costs for the businesses involved in this trade. The reason for Amendment 16 is that, in their own impact analysis, the UK Government note that exit summary declaration forms will be needed for goods moving from Northern Ireland into Great Britain for the purposes of security and safety, listing the type and weight of goods in order to keep track of what kind of imports or exports are crossing economic borders. The Government estimate the costs as ranging from £15 to £56 per declaration. This too will add costs and friction to the movement of goods. Businesses will need support to adjust to these new requirements. They will also need proper training to adapt to them, and of course any additional costs will inevitably be passed on to consumers, unless the Government ensure there are no such additional costs, which is precisely what this amendment does, and what the Bill does not do.
Amendment 20 requires the Government to develop mitigations to protect Northern Ireland businesses and consumers within the UK internal market. By mitigations we mean demonstrable steps to safeguard their position. But we are not being overprescriptive—I urge the Minister to note this point—as to how this is done. We are simply asking for effective mitigating steps to be delivered by the Government in the way they choose. What objection to that could there possibly be?
It was always going to be the case that the United Kingdom, in moving away from regulatory alignment with the European Union, would put Northern Ireland under strain. The provisions of the revised protocol mean that the full force of this strain will not occur between the United Kingdom and Ireland at the Irish land border, but within the United Kingdom, because consequential checks and controls will be placed on the movement of goods between the rest of the UK and Northern Ireland. The implementation of the protocol has the potential to see Northern Ireland, over time, face increasing barriers to trade with, and be at a competitive disadvantage to, both the internal UK market and the European Union market.
The likelihood of such a situation arising has increased with the UK Government’s dropping of commitments to maintaining regulatory alignment with the European Union in those areas where Northern Ireland is to remain aligned. If the deadline for concluding and ratifying a future UK-EU free trade agreement is 11 months from the date of withdrawal, it is likely to be a very low-ambition free trade agreement, with a range of sensitive products excluded—for example, agri-food products, so crucial to Northern Ireland’s economy. This would lead to significant disruption of the internal UK market and likely lead to increased economic divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The fundamental point of risk for Northern Ireland arising from the withdrawal agreement is that having differentiated arrangements for Northern Ireland remaining aligned to the EU for the movement of goods allows the rest of the United Kingdom to pursue a hard Brexit, with increasing regulatory divergence from the EU—seemingly the Government’s intention—with inevitable consequences for intra-UK movement between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Hence, again, the necessity for these amendments.
The risk is compounded by the uneasy position Northern Ireland now finds itself in over access for goods moving to and from the Great Britain market. Northern Ireland will be in a place between Britain and the EU and, as such, its businesses and consumers will be dealing with the effects of Brexit in a unique and possibly quite complicated way. There will be checks and controls, the extent and nature of which have yet to be exactly determined. But what we do know is that most businesses in Northern Ireland are small and medium-sized enterprises, SMEs. What additional bureaucracy will be imposed on them? How much will it cost them? We and, more importantly, businesses in Northern Ireland simply do not know.
It is likely that all commercial goods coming from GB into Northern Ireland will be subject to customs declarations and there could be tariffs on those goods which are deemed to be at risk of entering the EU single market across the Irish border from Northern Ireland. We and, more importantly, businesses in Northern Ireland do not know what particular goods will be at risk. There may be a process to pay rebates. How long will it take rebates to be paid? We and, more importantly, businesses in Northern Ireland do not know. While it is right that there should be democratic controls through Stormont built in to any new and developing post-Brexit arrangement, to tell SMEs that, perhaps every four years, all might change or all might not change by a vote of the Assembly, is setting forward business planning into a context in which the churn and turbulence of the normal commercial cycle is a mere trifle. It will create huge uncertainty for business investment and planning. As if all this was not difficult enough, the transition period, we are told, will end on 31 December 2020—no ifs, no buts—even though it is starting many months later than originally envisaged. But we are where we are.
This degree of ambiguity for businesses which operate on very small margins is simply not right, especially for a region of the UK whose economic base is far from robust. These amendments are essential to mitigate the adverse impact on those businesses to the greatest extent possible. Crucially, they have the backing, as I said, of every commercial and business interest in Northern Ireland. When the right honourable Member for East Antrim was speaking in the other place in support of similar amendments last week—in uncharacteristically temperate and measured terms—he was speaking not just for the DUP. Indeed, I understand that he even gave way to an intervention from the SDLP, the honourable Member for Belfast South. Whose memory goes back far enough to remember the last time that happened?
However, the Government have so far rejected out of hand any attempt to amend the Bill. The pleas of business, commerce and consumers in Northern Ireland, which know what the consequences will be and will have to live with them, were summarily dismissed in the other place last week. “You will just have to trust the Prime Minister”, they were told. Noble Lords from the DUP will have their own views on that proposition: a Prime Minister who told the DUP that he would never agree to a border down the Irish Sea and then did.
If the Government are not to repeat the mistakes of the last 10 years in Northern Ireland, they must not only hear but listen, and not just when crises threaten to engulf the political process. Recently on individual issues, to their great credit, they have listened: on payments to the victims of terrorism and on historical institutional abuse, for example. That is commendable, and I pay particular tribute to the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, on those two key issues of social justice.
I appeal to Ministers to listen again to the critical questions addressed in these amendments. The Government need to listen and treat Northern Ireland, as well as the rest of the UK, with understanding and respect for its place in a UK of equals. Otherwise, the problem with landslides, in politics as in life, is that people get buried underneath them. If what is buried are legitimate hopes and aspirations, whether unionist or nationalist, then that can and will have severely adverse economic and political consequences.
As things stand, one of the best confidence-building measures for the New Decade, New Approach agreement in Northern Ireland, signed the other day, would be for the Government to show that they have listened to business leaders and political representatives right across Northern Ireland, understood their real and valid concerns and will act on them by accepting these very modest but essential amendments.
There is nothing in any of these amendments which should cause the Government any concern—if, that is, Ministers really mean what they say: that any extra administrative processes associated with trade in goods or services across the Irish Sea will be smooth, barrier-free and cost-free. I understand that there are no technical questions of drafting to concern the Government—except maybe the insertion of “must” for “may”—so I trust that the Minister will indicate he can accept these amendments. Otherwise, our intention is to put them to a vote next week. I beg to move.