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Checks on Goods: Northern Ireland and Great Britain

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:39 am on 24th October 2019.

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Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union 10:39 am, 24th October 2019

I know that the House and the hon. Gentleman take these issues very seriously. He raises some very legitimate points, which I will seek to address.

First and foremost was the hon. Gentleman’s concern about any hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. I am happy to give him assurances on that; it is a key part of what the Government have agreed. If he looks at the preamble to the Northern Ireland protocol, he will see clear commitments from the EU and the UK to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. It states that

“nothing in this Protocol prevents the United Kingdom from ensuring unfettered market access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to the rest of the United Kingdom”.

The hon. Gentleman also raised a legitimate concern about the statement from the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The Government take it incredibly seriously, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland liaises closely with the Chief Constable and other senior officers. This is one reason why it is important to get the Executive back up and running, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman agrees. Part of the reason why the Government extended article 50, for which they were criticised at the time, was precisely because the previous Prime Minister took those concerns very seriously, and we have continued to work with the PSNI to address them. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman that one of the central concerns is the potential impact of no deal on the border, which is another reason it is important that the House comes together and agrees a deal, because that is the best way of safeguarding the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and addressing those concerns.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the comments of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister was distinguishing between the paperwork required, which will be done digitally and is a single form, and the introduction of physical checks. In the coming months, we will work within the United Kingdom and with the European Union to discuss how to eliminate the limited administrative processes that there are. The hon. Gentleman will know that article 6 of the protocol requires further work through the Joint Committee to minimise any impact. That is an ongoing commitment.

The hon. Gentleman made a valid point about certainty for business. It is something we hear about in our engagement with businesses in Northern Ireland. It is important to reassure businesses that this is an administrative process—an electronic form—and something as part of bookings that will be done with the haulier as an aspect of the shipment of goods. It will involve fairly straightforward data about who is exporting, who is importing and the nature of the goods. That said, I am happy to have further discussions with him, because he does reflect concerns among businesses, particularly the small and medium-sized enterprises sector in Northern Ireland, about these arrangements.

The hon. Gentleman also asked when we would come back to the House with further updates. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is keen to continue to update the House, following his discussions on this issue and, more widely, about the restoration of the Executive. I will speak to my right hon. Friend about how we keep the House updated.

The issue is that these are administrative processes pertaining in particular to international obligations on things such as Kimberley diamonds and endangered species, and to things that hauliers will be able to preppulate in their IT systems. However, it is the case—the hon. Gentleman is right—that concerns have been expressed in Northern Ireland. Indeed, concerns have been expressed, which I very much respect, by our confidence and supply partners. Again, I very much offer to work with colleagues across the House on how we address the real concerns—the very real concerns—that I know they have to minimise any disruption that they are concerned about.