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Brexit: Financial Assistance for Businesses - Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:07 pm on 26th February 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Non-affiliated 3:07 pm, 26th February 2020

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what financial assistance they have provided to businesses in the United Kingdom to deal with the ongoing costs of staff training and administration as a result of the new customs rules brought in due to the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union.

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My Lords, the Government are committed to supporting businesses in preparing for new customs processes. Since November 2018, HMRC has provided grants to help support traders, hauliers and the customs intermediary sector. This has seen some £34 million set aside to support employee recruitment, customs training and improvements to IT. Earlier this month, the Government announced the extension of the grant programme until 31 January 2021. Approximately £7.5 million of funding is still available.

Photo of Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Non-affiliated

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. Given the statement from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland this week that there will not be a regulatory border in the Irish Sea, and that EU Ministers warned the UK Government yesterday that the chance of reaching a trade deal will be damaged unless preparations begin for checks on goods coming into Northern Ireland ports from Great Britain, could he clear up the confusion in an unequivocal manner regarding the regulatory border issue? I understand that the London Port Health Authority has not received any such resources as those that he referred to, and I do not think that ports in Great Britain serving the Northern Ireland ports have either, so what additional resources have been made available to deal with customs preparations in terms of staff training and administration in order to comply with the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol, as Northern Ireland will still operate under EU rules for agriculture and manufacturing products at the end of the transition period?

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

The noble Baroness asked rather a lot of questions there; I will try to answer one or two of them. Northern Ireland will continue to be part of the UK customs territories, and practical information will be required for goods moving from the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland. This will be provided electronically, and the Government will work with the EU to minimise the impact to traders. Through the grant system that I mentioned in my Answer, we have seen 3,000 customs agents trained over the last 18 months, and that process will continue.

Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP

My Lords, the Minister has effectively conceded that there will be a regulatory border in the Irish Sea, but there is confusion over that because the Prime Minister is saying that there will not be. Either there is or there is not. Will the Minister confirm that any additional costs attributed to administering that will in fact be met by Her Majesty’s Government and that businesses will not be disadvantaged in any way?

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My Lords, the negotiation is a dynamic process; we are at the beginning of what will be a very fractious negotiation over the next nine months. I tell those noble Lords with a gentle stomach that what we are seeing today are the opening remarks of the EU: it is going to get a lot hotter over the next nine months, and we will know more clearly probably by the middle of December.

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

My Lords, I welcome the Minister to his new responsibilities. I remind him that government Finance Ministers do not last much more than a year in the role, so he will not have to put up with too much. I want to make it quite clear that he is reflecting uncertainty and doubt, because that can only be the position that we are all in prior to the negotiations. He must know that the negotiations might even fail to such an extent that no deal at all is struck. Are the Government not in fact just putting hope over practicality when it comes to these issues? Have government answers with regard to Northern Ireland not been quite inadequate on every occasion?

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I thank the noble Lord for his kind and warm words but pessimistic outlook for my tenure in this post; I now have a challenge to be standing here in 13 months’ time. We are in a negotiation. I cannot speak for what will or will not happen over the next few months. We have given certainty to businesses. We have said that we will be trading with the rest of the world in the same way as with the EU from 1 January next year. The level of tariffs and frictionality will be revealed over the course of the negotiations.

Photo of Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown DUP

My Lords, I welcome the statement made by the Secretary of State concerning no border down the Irish Sea and the assurance of the Prime Minister. Will the Minister assure the House that unfettered and tariff-free access will be maintained for produce between Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My Lords, as the Prime Minister’s spokesman said a couple of days ago, Britain will comply with the obligations set out in the Northern Ireland protocol but does not see that entailing new checks on goods.

Photo of Lord Bruce of Bennachie Lord Bruce of Bennachie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

My Lords, the Prime Minister has given the impression that he wants to get round the protocol, yet the government website tells businesses to prepare for checks at the border and for the costs of employing people to advise them on how to deal with customs. Indeed, the Institute for Government says there could be a hundredfold increase in the number of checks. Is it not the fact that “taking back control” means a massive increase in red tape, costs and potential delays? Do the businesses of this country not have the right to expect the Government to support them?

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I am not sure if the noble Lord is talking about Northern Ireland or the United Kingdom in general. We have intensively engaged with the 3,000 UK/EU-only high-value traders over the last 18 months—that is, £250,000 or more. They report a high level of readiness; 71% reported themselves ready in October, and that number is going up every month. Yes, there will be frictionality. When we went into the general election, our simple message was “Get Brexit done. Restore sovereignty to this country.” I know there are many noble Lords who are not comfortable with that but it is our direction of travel.

Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench

My Lords, will the Minister recognise that he has indulged in a little bit of selective quotation? He has quite correctly referred to the statement that Northern Ireland remains within the UK customs arrangements, but he has not quoted the statement which is equally in the agreement and says that the customs rules of the European Union will apply to Northern Ireland after the end of the transitional period, as well as during it. Could he just tell us where those rules will be applied, physically and geographically?

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My Lords, the protocol protects the all-Ireland economy. It also makes clear that Northern Ireland is and remains part of the UK’s customs territory, and it allows the UK to ensure unfettered market access for goods moving from Northern Ireland and Great Britain. In October, the Prime Minister told the House of Commons that there would be no checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland but that there would be some light-touch measures. That was reiterated by my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, when he too said there would be light-touch administration.