Northern Ireland Protocol: Implementation Proposals

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

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Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 12:45 pm, 18th November 2020

Delivering on the protocol is a crucial part of operations for the end of the transition period. Providing certainty is urgent and we will continue to prioritise this. As we implement the protocol, it is important to keep in mind that it was designed as a way of implementing the needs of our exit from the EU in a way that works for Northern Ireland and, in particular, as the hon. Lady says, maintaining the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions—the gains of the peace process and the delicate balance across communities that explicitly depends on the consent of the people of Northern Ireland for its continued existence.

For the protocol to work, it must respect the needs of all Northern Ireland’s people, respect the fact that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the customs territory of the UK, and be implemented in a way that protects Northern Ireland’s economy. Our approach does that, focusing on implementing the protocol in a way that is flexible and proportionate, and protecting the interests of both the whole of the United Kingdom and the EU. As I have already referred to, the Government have already taken practical steps to do this, working in partnership with the devolved Administration.

The hon. Lady referred to the delivery of IT systems. I can confirm that the delivery of IT systems necessary for the end of the transition period is on track. The recent National Audit report confirms that since May, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has made progress, putting in place the core elements of the IT services required. As a responsible Government, however, we continue to make extensive preparations for a range of fall-back scenarios. We have been working with key delivery partners to support preparations for IT systems delivery, and we will continue to support their preparations for the end of the transition period.

We are reaching agreement with the EU on individual areas of approach—for instance, the phased approach to medicines that I referred to, and agreement on the process for identifying Northern Ireland traders for VAT purposes and enabling them to reclaim VAT through existing IT databases when trading in goods with the EU. However, the hon. Lady is right to reflect that there remain important outstanding issues to be resolved in discussion with the EU. For example, we are seeking, through the Joint Committee, specific solutions to supermarkets and on the classification of which goods are at genuine and substantial risk of entering the EU market. Those are still subject to discussion and need to be agreed with the EU. There are real-world consequences for businesses and consumers if they are not, which we believe would be contrary to the intentions of the protocol. We have agreed with the EU to intensify the process of engagement, to resolve all outstanding issues. These discussions are ongoing and we continue to act in good faith and in line with the approach we have adopted throughout.

The Government are committed to ensuring that businesses and communities are ready for the end of the transition period, and our intensive programme of engagement with industry has continued at pace. The business engagement forum has now met 20 times since May, and this month the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster formed a UK-wide business readiness task- force. The hon. Lady talked about the importance of supermarkets and food producers, and I can confirm to her that one of the most recent meetings was between the Secretary of State and supermarkets in the industry.

We have also made considerable progress in the provision of guidance, publishing over 25 pieces of sectoral guidance in recent weeks for moving goods between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. We will continue to work with businesses in this manner and ensure that they are provided with the guidance and support they need to be ready.