Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland: Impact on Trade - Question

– in the House of Lords at 11:50 am on 21 October 2021.

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Photo of Lord Hain Lord Hain Labour 11:50, 21 October 2021

To ask the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office (Lord Frost) what assessment Her Majesty’s Government have made of the impact of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland on trade within the island of Ireland since 1 January.

Photo of Lord Frost Lord Frost Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

My Lords, as noble Lords would expect, the Government continue to observe very closely the situation as regards trade on the island of Ireland and more broadly, for example, trade in goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. It is clear that trade in both directions between Ireland and Northern Ireland has increased significantly since the start of the year and that this constitutes trade diversion created by the pressures of the protocol.

Photo of Lord Hain Lord Hain Labour

I thank the Minister for his reply. On the protocol, he told the Centre for Policy Studies at the Conservative Party conference on 5 October that he was “keeping the other side on the hop, cultivating uncertainty with regard to how we are going to react”. Why?

Photo of Lord Frost Lord Frost Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

My Lords, I did indeed say that, because it is my job to get the best outcome for this country in the negotiations that I am charged with conducting. That is what we did over the previous 18 months and that is what I intend to do now. I do not think it would be particularly good tactics to reveal to the other side exactly what we are going to do or how we are going to go about it.

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Conservative

My Lords, in addition to disrupting and diverting trade, the Northern Ireland protocol contains a systemic democratic deficit, in that laws are made with direct effect for Northern Ireland by the European Union with no opportunity for democratic say by those affected. This is unique in Europe. Does my noble friend agree that the removal of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland is a necessary but not sufficient step for correcting this anomaly and restoring this basic human right?

Photo of Lord Frost Lord Frost Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

My Lords, I very much agree with the thrust of the question asked by my noble friend. We made very clear in the Command Paper that we published in July that the European Court of Justice and the system of law of which it is at the apex are a big part of the political difficulty that has arisen in Northern Ireland, and we need to find more balanced ways of resolving disputes in future.

Photo of Lord Liddle Lord Liddle Labour

My Lords, in the Minister’s recent speech, which he made in Lisbon, not in this House, he said that

“the Protocol represents a moment of EU overreach when the UK’s negotiating hand was tied”.

But are the facts not somewhat different? Is it not the case that the Johnson Government, on the Minister’s recommendation, accepted an arrangement that Theresa May said no British Prime Minister would ever accept; that the Johnson Government, presumably on the Minister’s recommendation, decided to prioritise a hard Brexit over the sustainability of the Good Friday agreement and peace and security in Northern Ireland; and that the Johnson Government, perhaps on the Minister’s recommendation, signed a treaty in the full knowledge that they had no intention of implementing its full provisions? Is it not about time that the Minister accepted some personal responsibility for the mess we are in in Ireland?

Photo of Lord Frost Lord Frost Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

So, my Lords, I reject the implication of the question that there is any contradiction between a so-called hard Brexit, which is the only real Brexit and the only form of Brexit that allows this country the freedom it needs, and peace and security in Northern Ireland. Those two objectives are perfectly and absolutely compatible. We agreed a protocol that we hoped would do the job; it needed sensitive handling; it was highly uncertain in some of its mechanisms; and unfortunately it has not had the sensitive handling it needed. Therefore, we need to come back to the question. That is a pity, but unfortunately it is the reality.

Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency’s most recent publication, issued on 4 August, highlighted that in 2019 trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland increased by 9.9%, whereas trade with GB increased by 6.6%—so the Minister’s claim that there is trade diversion as a result of the protocol is not the case. There is now a trend, with growth in the Republic. Therefore, is it not part of the UK Government’s responsibility to promote exports from Northern Ireland to Ireland and to make sure that the Northern Ireland economy benefits from certain parts of the protocol? What are the elements of the protocol that the Minister is most proud of?

Photo of Lord Frost Lord Frost Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

My Lords, I am proud of securing a deal that delivered democracy and took this country out of the European Union in 2019, which the people of this country voted for. On trade, the figures from the Irish Central Statistics Office for the first eight months of the year show that trade from Ireland to Northern Ireland has gone up 35% and from Northern Ireland to Ireland has gone up 50%. Those are significant figures and clearly show that there is something unusual going on—which I think is trade diversion.

Photo of Baroness Chapman of Darlington Baroness Chapman of Darlington Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Opposition Whip (Lords)

I have a couple of very simple questions for the Minister about this. I tried to ask them last week, after he flew back from Lisbon, but he did not seem to want to answer them then. I shall try again today. They are very simple.

First, the Minister has sent a draft legal text of the protocol, which he says he has written, to Brussels. He does not want to show his cards on other issues but, seeing that he has already shown the text to Brussels, why is he not showing it to parliamentarians in the UK? Secondly, it is very important that he engages meaningfully and fully with elected politicians in Northern Ireland on this issue. Did he consult any Ministers in the Northern Ireland Assembly before he sent his draft text of the Northern Ireland protocol to Brussels?

Photo of Lord Frost Lord Frost Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

My Lords, I think the question is based on a slight misconception that the legal text that we sent in represents some new stage or evolution in our position. It does not. It reflects the position that was set out in the Command Paper on 21 July and puts it into legal form. It is a negotiating document for the purposes of negotiations. It does not change the UK Government’s position in any way. Of course we discuss with elected politicians in Northern Ireland all the time what our position is, and we did that while preparing the Command Paper.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

My Lords, I am interested in trade and especially in exports, because they are vital to UK growth and success. We heard from the Minister about trade within the island of Ireland, but how does he expect the pattern of UK trade within the EU 27, both in goods and services, to change in the years ahead?

Photo of Lord Frost Lord Frost Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

My Lords, my noble friend identifies an important point, which is that trade in both goods and services is subject to a lot of noise at the moment—the ongoing Covid pandemic, the effects of leaving the customs union and the single market, stock building and so on—and it is difficult to isolate trends. Nevertheless, our goods exports are nearly back to the levels of 2019. Services exports and imports are down somewhat, but of course the huge impact on the movement of persons, tourism and so on has very significantly affected those figures. So it will be a long time before we reach a steady state, but I have huge confidence in the ability of our exporters and traders to manage that situation.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, can the Minister clarify whether he understood when negotiating the protocol that it was incompatible with British sovereignty, or whether he has discovered that since? He will recall that AV Dicey’s definition of UK sovereignty as indivisible, which I know he now follows, was shaped by his active and bitter opposition to Irish home rule. In those terms, the Good Friday agreement is also an infringement of indivisible UK sovereignty. Does the Minister think that should also be renegotiated?

Photo of Lord Frost Lord Frost Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

My Lords, the difficulty we have with the protocol is not so much the sovereignty issue, because the territorial integrity of the UK and the integrity of the internal market of the UK are very clearly protected in the protocol, but the difficulty it has generated in movements of goods and trade within the United Kingdom. If the protocol was to work, it would have required very sensitive handling. Unfortunately, it has not had that sensitive handling, and therefore we have a political problem.

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour

My Lords, the new EU ambassador to the United Kingdom presented his credentials to Her Majesty the Queen earlier this week. Afterwards there was a reception at which many Members of the House were present. The Minister was not present, nor was any representative of the Government, which—as a senior diplomat pointed out to me—would have been utterly inconceivable at an equivalent reception for a new ambassador from the United States or any of our other principal allies. I know that the Minister has now decided to set himself up as an anti-diplomat rather than a diplomat and unlearn all the arts and craft of his trade that he had accumulated over the previous 20 or 30 years, but does he not think that the interests of the United Kingdom would be well served by him once again becoming a diplomat, rather than gratuitously insulting our European partners?

Photo of Lord Frost Lord Frost Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

My Lords, I very much wished to go to that reception. Unfortunately, as colleagues know, I was not well on Tuesday and could not attend, but my office was there and represented me. I wished to avoid any apparent discourtesy, and the ambassador has acknowledged that. It is very important that we maintain the normal diplomatic arrangements between our countries and territories, and it is absolutely my intention that we should do that.

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed and we move to the second Question.