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Amendment 6

Part of European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill - Report (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 20th January 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Non-affiliated 5:45 pm, 20th January 2020

My Lords, Amendment 6 is in my name and in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames.

There is a sense of déjà vu about this debate, because last week in my absence—which I apologise for, but it was due to a family funeral—this debate took place in Committee stage. This amendment is a consolidated amendment, or a consolidated clause, made up of about three of those amendments. The amendment requires regulations made under Section 8C(1) of the European Union withdrawal Act, to facilitate access for Northern Ireland firms to the GB market, as well as requiring consent from the Northern Ireland Assembly for the introduction of any new checks on goods traded from Northern Ireland to GB.

Many of us from Northern Ireland—and not from Northern Ireland but noble Lords none the less—have met the business interests in Northern Ireland, and their main, abiding concern is to ensure that there is unfettered access for businesses from Northern Ireland to GB. Why would that be the case? They do not want tariffs; they do not want import controls; they do not want dual authorisations or discrimination in the market. There is a necessity, therefore, to provide for mitigations.

Why is this necessary? This is necessary to protect Northern Ireland business, which trades in large part with colleagues—for want of a better word—in Great Britain. If any restrictions are placed on that, it will cause untold damage to those businesses at a time when the Northern Ireland Executive and the Government are trying to ensure the reform of the Northern Ireland economy to increase job creation and to ensure that, in the fullness of time, there may be a lowering of corporation tax—all to underpin our local economy, which is vitally important. I find it unbelievable that the Government do not want to bring forward that legislation or these amendments, or do not consider it appropriate, particularly at a time when the Northern Ireland Executive have been restored.

It is interesting that today the Northern Ireland Assembly declined to agree to the legislative consent Motion which deals with certain aspects of the withdrawal Bill relating to Northern Ireland. I saw statements from the various political parties. There is striking new unanimity on this issue of unfettered access, as was displayed last week in this House—across all parties and none—and across all parties in Northern Ireland, and above all in the business community. They wrote to noble Lords on Friday afternoon saying that the amendments before us this evening, in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and the other amendments in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, have the support of all the main political parties and of the broadest representation of the Northern Ireland business community. This level of common purpose and collaboration is unprecedented. The intention is to ensure that Northern Ireland businesses are supported and protected to continue trading unfettered and with no additional costs as full and valued members of the UK internal market.

I was not at the debate last week, but I listened on BBC Parliament. Some might think that was a rather sad thing to do, but this issue is of such vital importance to business and the wider community in Northern Ireland that direct participation is necessary. The noble Lord, Lord Hain, very ably put forward the explanation for those technical amendments, and, as a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, he is well equipped to understand not only the political machinations but also the political difficulties that can ensue if things do not work out.

The document that was agreed by the five parties and the British and Northern Irish Governments says:

“To address the issues raised by the parties, we will legislate to guarantee unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the UK internal market, and ensure that this legislation is in force for 1 January 2021. The government will engage in detail with a restored Executive on measures to protect and strengthen the UK internal market.”

Noble Lords will forgive me if I am a little sceptical about that.

First, I want to know how much and what work has been done with businesses, because I have talked to them. I also want assurance from the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Duncan of Springbank, that immediate discussions and meetings will take place with those businesses, the Northern Ireland Executive, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the leaders of the political parties in Northern Ireland to ensure that this is given effect. If it is not, and if the Government do not see fit to do so at this stage, what is the timeframe for those references to legislation? Also, will this be done through primary legislation, statutory regulation or—that old chestnut we faced for years in Northern Ireland—an Order in Council, which you cannot amend?

We need to know about all these issues because one thing is sure: we have a very delicate political framework in Northern Ireland; we have businesses that are crying out for help—not a hand-out—and that help means that they need unfettered access to the GB market for all their goods and services. In discussions earlier, I mentioned to the Minister the issue of fish caught in the British section of the Irish Sea, by fishermen from the County Down ports, but landed in Whitehaven and then either processed there or taken back to the County Down ports. The fish producer organisations are of the firm belief that they will have to pay tariffs, so there are east-west and west-east considerations there.

At the end of the day, it would have been better if the Government had legislated on unfettered access at this time. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, I feel that, in the main, the reasons for not doing so are largely political—obviously, Downing Street does not allow it, but maybe the noble Lord the Minister would like to do it. I would like to see a change of heart on the Government’s part to support our fledgling, new Northern Ireland Executive and underpin businesses and the local economy in Northern Ireland. I beg to move.