EU Withdrawal Agreement

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:54 pm on 9th December 2020.

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Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 12:54 pm, 9th December 2020

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for the warm welcome that she gave to this agreement, and I also thank her for the kind words she offered Sir John Major: the process of concluding the Good Friday agreement, as she quite rightly reminds us, was a signal achievement of Tony Blair’s Government but was also achieved as a result of hard work across this House. And of course there has been since the Good Friday agreement was concluded 22 years of progress in Northern Ireland, and it is important that we seek to underpin and secure that.

The hon. Lady asked about border infrastructure. Let me emphasise that this border infrastructure is there to ensure that sanitary and phytosanitary checks can be made. As she and the House know, it is already the case that the island of Ireland is a single epidemiological zone, and therefore when live animals move from Great Britain to Northern Ireland there are physical checks. There will be border facilities in order to ensure that these limited and proportionate SPS checks can be carried out at the port of Foyle, Warrenpoint, Belfast and Larne, and we have reassured the Commission, and indeed others, about the speed and effectiveness with which the necessary limited infrastructure will be in place.

The hon. Lady also asked about the trader support service, which is there to help Northern Ireland businesses. I am pleased that we spend over £200 million in order to support Northern Ireland businesses, and I think it is the case that more than 10,000 businesses are now signed up to the trader support service in order to ensure that they will incur no costs as a result of the protocol.

The hon. Lady also asked about the future of the trusted trader scheme, which, as she rightly pointed out, guarantees that goods being sold in Northern Ireland and businesses operating in Northern Ireland will face no tariffs. It is the case that we will have an opportunity to review how that scheme operates, but it will only need to be reviewed if there is a demonstrable diversion or illegal activity, and in those circumstances there is an obligation on both parties to seek alternative arrangements. I should stress again that no additional customs checks will face goods going from Northern Ireland to Great Britain.

The hon. Lady asked about customs agent capacity overall. It is the case that £84 million has been made available in order to increase capacity, and the latest survey by HMRC shows that there has been a fourfold increase in capacity. Of course, one of the reasons why we are phasing in import controls over six months next year is to ensure that the sector can increase even further, but that fourfold increase in capacity gives us the confidence we need that all the staff will be there.

The hon. Lady mentioned Richard Burnett of the Road Haulage Association. He, along with Dave Wells of Logistics UK and other figures in the haulage and logistics industry, has played an invaluable role in making sure that the Government do everything necessary to prepare, but I would never shirk from saying that more needs to be done.

The hon. Lady asked about the level playing field and workers’ rights. We have a proud tradition of upholding workers’ rights and ensuring that we have social and environmental protections in this country that are higher than in many other European countries. That will not change—that is a source of pride—but one thing we cannot accept in the course of the level playing field negotiations is the demand from some in the EU that if the EU adopts new laws, we would automatically have to follow those laws or face penalties. We are not afraid to say that our standards are high and we will uphold them, but we are also not afraid to say that the people of this country voted to take back control, and that is what this Government will do.