United Kingdom Internal Market Bill - Committee (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 9th November 2020.

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Photo of Lord Hain Lord Hain Labour 5:45 pm, 9th November 2020

My Lords, I agree with everything that my noble friend Lady Ritchie said. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, also spoke for me and, I suspect, virtually the whole House, as did other speakers who followed him.

I shall speak briefly to Amendment 162 and 163, because we know the Brexit realities will hit Northern Ireland first. The EU has been very clear that the protocol must be implemented in full come 1 January. The Trader Support Service, although welcome, will not become live until Monday 21 December, just before Christmas. The following Thursday is New Year’s Eve, after which Northern Ireland will be effectively operating in a different customs and regulatory zone from the rest of the UK. This means that the vital role of the Trader Support Service, the subject of Amendment 163, standing in my name and that of the noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie, Lady Suttie and Lady Altmann, in directing businesses towards the necessary forms and procedures for moving goods from Great Britain into Northern Ireland, will not be operational until the very last minute. When the Trader Support Service is functioning, it will offer a vital service to keep Northern Ireland businesses integrally linked to the rest of the UK internal market. It is for this reason that Amendment 163 will establish the Trader Support Service more firmly in law as a continuing rather than time-limited commitment.

There is nothing of substance in the Bill that helps reduce frictions to trade that will come for goods crossing from Great Britain into Northern Ireland after 1 January, and Amendment 162 seeks to correct that. Fears about the consequences of retailers avoiding Northern Ireland or facing increasing costs in moving goods from Great Britain into Northern Ireland are real and pressing. In a letter from the Food and Drink Federation to Ministers George Eustice and Michael Gove published on 22 October, the risks are spelled out in stark terms. They say that many GB-based producers are planning to stop supplying the Northern Ireland market after 1 January 2021. Sainsbury’s made an announcement to that effect last week, but the federation added that this does not need to be the case. Solutions are possible and, indeed, many have been put forward by the business community in Northern Ireland itself, but these needs still to be agreed with the EU in the joint committee with the UK.

The Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol means that Northern Ireland is in a unique position vis-à-vis Britain and there is a strong likelihood that the more trade agreements the UK signs with partners around the world, the greater the differences will be between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK internal market. Indeed, even though the UK Government are committed to seeing Northern Ireland as part of future free trade agreements, there are no firm guarantees that this will happen, or that the other country will agree to it.

The principle of non-discrimination in Amendment 162, also in the name of my noble friends Lady Ritchie and Lord Empey, seeks to ensure that no potential barriers will be added to the movement of goods from Northern Ireland to Great Britain over time. Because Northern Ireland goods will be produced in accordance with EU rules under the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol, and on the basis of dynamic alignment, there is a risk—if not a likelihood—that divergence between Northern Ireland and Great Britain will grow over time. First, goods in Northern Ireland could be produced to higher standards as the EU increases standards in regulations covered by the protocol and thus the new standards automatically apply to Northern Ireland. Secondly, goods in Great Britain could be produced to a lower standard. Indeed, the Government have indicated that that might be the objective. Therefore, as Great Britain and Northern Ireland standards diverge, there will be increasing barriers to trade and increasing competitive disadvantage for Northern Ireland within the UK internal market.

This amendment would ensure that Northern Ireland goods will not be discriminated against in the UK internal market. Can the Minister therefore explain why on earth the Government would be opposed to that principle?