Northern Ireland Protocol: Implementation Proposals

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:45 pm on 18th November 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 12:45 pm, 18th November 2020

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. There are 43 days until the end of the transition period, and it is hard to express the frustration, anxiety and fears that have been relayed to me and to the Minister by countless businesses and communities in Northern Ireland, as the clock has started to tick. Northern Ireland needed every second of this transition year to get ready for the biggest changes to its trading relationship that it has ever known, but vital time has been squandered, first with the denial that any checks would take place at all and then with the extraordinary spectacle of the Government threatening to tear up their own oven-ready deal and breach international treaties that they had signed into law—an approach that the Minister has just confirmed they are sticking to when the Bill returns to the House from the other place.

The result of that recklessness and incompetence is that thousands of businesses still do not know the bare basics of how they will trade with Great Britain in just six weeks’ time. As the president of the Ulster Farmers Union said this morning, we are in a transition, but we do not know what we are transitioning to. The whole purpose of the protocol was to protect the Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions, and the relationship east-west is as important as the relationship north-south. The Government’s reckless approach to negotiations and their incompetent failure to prepare risk significant disruption, a maximalist interpretation of the protocol and completely unnecessary checks. Ministers should take their heads out of the sand and give businesses the answers for which they have been begging throughout this transition year.

First, on the customs declaration service, which will handle over 1 million declarations in January alone, experts say that they need 18 months to get traders ready for the new system, so why has the industry not had the final version? Given that those experts now say that it is simply too late for the system to work, what are the contingency plans to avoid widespread disruption on 1 January? Will there be flexibility to allow businesses to adapt to new systems? What is plan B?

On the trader support service, which the Minister mentioned and which is supposed to guide businesses through the complex new customs arrangements, can he confirm that the Government are not seriously considering leaving it until 21 December for that system to go live? Why have businesses had no information whatsoever on the tariff rebate system, as confirmed by the chief executive of Manufacturing NI this morning? Where is the border operator model promised by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster over summer? Without it, traders are completely in the dark on what data they will need to provide in order to move goods.

Finally, on food imports, which the Minister referenced, a compromise is now desperately needed—and the EU has a huge responsibility of its own to deliver this—in order to reduce checks that some supermarkets and food producers say could lead them to pull out of Northern Ireland altogether. It is absurd that food destined for Northern Ireland supermarkets should be considered a risk to the EU single market, so is either a temporary waiver requirement or a permanent trusted trader scheme about to be confirmed? Again, why have the Government refused to engage directly with Northern Ireland retailers?

Northern Ireland desperately—