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My Lords, I support the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, and those of my noble friends, to which I have added my name. The Minister knows that in discussions my colleagues and my party supported Brexit. We did so believing and agreeing that Northern Ireland would leave the EU on equal terms with the rest of the United Kingdom. However, what is proposed certainly does not do that.
Over the years, those running businesses in Northern Ireland have faced many challenges. Indeed, for 30 years they faced the bomb, and they did so with great courage. We ought to salute them in coming through those years of terror and tragedy. However, we had hoped that those challenges had been left behind and that the door would be open for prosperity. There was great hope for the future for the generations to come. However, we now find that businesses face further challenges.
I am reminded of the words in the document that was presented to the parties in Northern Ireland. In fact, I can still see the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Foreign Minister from the Irish Republic standing at Stormont presenting the document and practically saying, “Take it or leave it”. That document contains the clear statement that,
“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.”
However, what is proposed does nothing of the sort.
I appreciate that the Minister did his best in the letter that he sent to us but there is no cast-iron guarantee that fulfils what is promised in that document, New Decade, New Approach. I listened very carefully to the debate that exercised many noble Lords a short while ago and noticed that the Northern Ireland protocol and the problems it has caused were emphasised over and over again. However, the reality is that that is because of the sorry state that the Government got themselves into when they negotiated the protocol, and now Northern Ireland is left as a pawn in the game.
Last week, the EU’s chief Commissioner confirmed the checks and controls between Britain and Northern Ireland under the agreement that will govern the UK’s exit from the EU. As the noble Lord, Lord Hain, has already mentioned, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said in his statement that there will not be regulatory alignment with the EU after Brexit and that firms will simply have to adjust. That throwaway statement is not worthy, bearing in mind the question of quite how businesses in Northern Ireland are simply to adjust. The small and medium-sized enterprises are left confused and deeply worried about the future.
Can the Minister categorically guarantee that there will not be a raft of checks and controls placed on the movement of goods to and from Northern Ireland and Great Britain? Does he acknowledge that, if any of these were a reality, there would be a barrier to trade and Northern Ireland businesses would be at a competitive disadvantage in both the internal UK market and the EU? Additional bureaucracy will only add to the financial burden placed upon those small and medium-sized businesses that are least able to afford it. As the noble Lord, Lord Hain, said, they have been the backbone of the Northern Ireland economy.
This Government need to listen to the ordinary business men and women on the ground, no matter how great the majority in the other place. Failure to do so will inflict great damage upon the economic future and prosperity of Northern Ireland. Our amendment asks that
“the Minister or public body must ensure that the cost of implementing, enforcing or complying with these” regulations
“does not fall on Northern Ireland public bodies, businesses or consumers.”
Can he give us that promise: that the cost of implementing any of the regulations within this legislation will not fall upon the businesses in Northern Ireland?