Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
My Lords, I support the excellent speech of my noble friend Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick. I remind the House that I spoke at some length and in detail in Committee last Tuesday, so I will speak only briefly in support of Amendment 6 and do so with increased urgency.
Since last week’s debate on essential damage limitation amendments to the EU withdrawal Bill—I remind the Chamber that they have the support of the entire business community and, as the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, pointed out last week, not just cross-party but all-party support in Northern Ireland—the Chancellor of the Exchequer has confirmed what many of us had long believed: that the Government are hell-bent on an ideologically hard Brexit that could do untold damage to the small and medium-sized enterprises that make up the overwhelming bulk of businesses in Northern Ireland.
When he told the Financial Times last week that there will be no regulatory alignment with the EU after Brexit and insisted that firms must “adjust” to new regulations, the Chancellor blithely said that businesses have had since 2016 to prepare. However, businesses in Northern Ireland were not presented with the Northern Ireland/Ireland protocol until last November, just a couple of months ago. How on earth are small and medium-sized businesses, which are the cornerstone of Northern Ireland’s private sector economy, supposed to adjust in only 11 months to a unique and complex set of relationships with the internal UK and EU markets —and just when the Northern Ireland economy slowed last year because of a contraction in the private sector?
When the Secretary of State said in terms in the other place that the Assembly and the Executive should take greater responsibility for Northern Ireland’s economic and financial future, I doubt that many here, or indeed in Northern Ireland, would say he was wrong, but the Government cannot have it both ways. They cannot demand that and at the same time inflict serious damage on many private sector businesses through erecting obstacles to trade across the Irish Sea and through their hard Brexit policies.
As was stressed by speaker after speaker from all sides of the Chamber last week, these amendments are essential to protect the very businesses that the Government say they want at the core of Northern Ireland’s economic future. They are intended simply to put into law what the Government profess to support: that there should be no impediments to trade in both directions across the Irish Sea.
The Minister wrote to noble Lords offering what I am sure he hoped would be reassurance on the issues raised here, but we are not remotely reassured. To be frank—I say this as an admirer of the Minister—the letters were full of warm words and elegant waffle. The core message was, “Don’t worry. Trust us and it will all be all right on the night.” But business leaders and politicians in Northern Ireland do not want mere reassurance. They want action and they want it without delay, through either accepting Amendment 6 or the Government coming up with their own mechanism in law that will have precisely the same effect.
I have huge admiration for the Minister. I know that he is in a difficult position because No. 10 is flatly refusing to listen and accept amendments, but that is not acceptable. Businesses in Northern Ireland should not be sacrificed on the altar of government dogma and be forced to incur obstacles and charges when trading both ways across the Irish Sea.