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Amendment 6

Part of European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill - Report (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 20th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP 6:15 pm, 20th January 2020

My Lords, last week in Committee I supported the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, and others. It is only due to me being late getting to the office that my name is not on this amendment, but I support it nevertheless.

The Minister did his best in his letter. The only thing missing from it was a poetical quote; otherwise, he pretty well exhausted every lever at his disposal to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. I congratulate him on attempting to do it.

I have always felt, and have said to colleagues, that the key to what we are discussing today will evolve as we go through the rest of this year. The necessary parts of the negotiations will ensue, and we will see what happens. The Minister was kind enough to quote my widget example in his letter. It was merely to illustrate the enormous complexity and difficulties, and it does not immediately occur to me how we solve them. We spoke to the business community. Reference has been made to the letter that was sent to the Minister on 17 January. Not only is such a letter unprecedented, but I think it is worth mentioning who has signed it. It states:

“The amendments that have been laid down”— those are the amendments we discussed in Committee—

“have the support of all the main political parties … and the broadest representation of the Northern Ireland business community. This level of common purpose and collaboration is unprecedented.”

It is.

“The intention of these amendments is not to seek subsidy or hand-out but, rather, to ensure that Northern Ireland businesses are supported and protected to continue to be able to trade unfettered, and with no additional costs”— that is an important factor, because that goes directly to competitiveness—

“as full and valued members of the UK’s internal market.”

That was signed by the FSB, the CBI, the Dairy Council, the Freight Transport Association, Hospitality Ulster, the Institute of Directors, Manufacturing NI, the Mineral Products Association Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association, the Northern Ireland Meat Exporters Association, the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, Retail NI and the Ulster Farmers’ Union. To get all those bodies to sign anything with all the political parties is quite an achievement. The Minister must be very proud of what he has achieved in provoking that. But we are not simply politicking here; we are trying to speak on behalf of an entire community.

References have been made to the new Executive and how they should be engaged. We warmly welcome the fact that they are in place and, one hopes, will be able to speak on behalf of the community and get our message across. Many of us have been extremely worried over the past few years, because during these negotiations the people of Northern Ireland have effectively had no one to represent them. That has been a huge tragedy, and a lot of the mistakes that have been made have, in part, been linked to that. Despite repeated requests, there was little or no significant impact from Northern Ireland’s voice, because it was not at the table, where it was needed.

I hope that when the Minister replies he will understand that and understand the competitiveness issues involved. He has to acknowledge that, as we sit here today, there are not on the table the practical solutions that will allow unfettered access. Our anxiety is that those solutions may not be there and that in a year’s time “unfettered” will become “fettered”—that there will be differences, competitiveness issues and costs. I sincerely hope that the Minister is able to square the circle when he concludes this debate. I support the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie.