Noble Lords will understand the importance of protecting citizens and businesses through the effective and efficient operation of the Northern Ireland protocol. This instrument will form part of the UK’s delivery of the protocol. It also serves to tidy up the statute book by removing provisions relating to access to the EU’s internal market information system database that are redundant or inoperable as a result of the UK’s departure from the EU. I hope noble Lords agree that it is important that our statute book provides a clear and up-to-date picture of UK law for the benefit of UK public authorities, businesses and citizens.
The internal market information system, which I will refer to as the IMI, is a secure online tool used to facilitate the EU single market. It was created to address problems of ineffective, unsecure and inefficient communication between EU member states and between EU member states and the European Commission. The IMI is hosted and maintained by the European Commission.
At the end of the implementation period, the EU blocked the UK’s access to the European Union’s networks, information systems and databases. Under the Northern Ireland protocol, however, the EU can grant the UK access to the systems it considers necessary to enable the UK to comply with its obligations under the protocol.
The European Commission, in its decision of
EU regulation 1024/2012 on administrative co-operation through the IMI sets out the legal framework for the use of the IMI. This regulation remains in force in the UK as retained EU law under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 and applies in areas where access to the IMI is retained.
This instrument does not make any policy changes, impose any new obligations or create any new powers. It removes redundant provisions that are inoperable, where UK access has already been removed by the European Commission on the grounds that it is no longer required. In particular, it removes references concerning legislative areas in respect of which the UK does not have access to the IMI, including the services directive, the recognition of professional qualifications, patients’ rights relating to cross-border healthcare, posted workers, public documents and non-road mobile machinery.
It also clarifies that the regulation applies in respect of Northern Ireland only in order to facilitate communications and the exchange of information for three general purposes, as I will explain. The first is to facilitate mutual recognition of goods lawfully marketed in another member state. EU regulation 2019/515 sets out a framework for ensuring that goods lawfully marketed in one EEA state can be sold in any other EEA state, as long as they are safe and respect the public interest.
The regulation provides that economic operators who consider that their rights under this regulation have been breached by a public authority of another EEA state can use the single market problem-solving network, SOLVIT, to try to find solutions without the need to resort to action in court. SOLVIT is hosted on the IMI. If a decision was made by a UK public authority to deny entry to the Northern Ireland marketplace goods sold in an EEA state, and the EEA economic operator considered this was incompatible with this regulation, he could lodge a case through SOLVIT. The IMI SOLVIT co-ordinator for the UK, based in my department, would then review the case and engage with the responsible authority in the UK to agree a response to the case to be submitted through the IMI.
The second purpose relates to the return of cultural objects unlawfully removed from the territory of a member state. EU directive 2014/60/EC sets out the procedures for the return to an EU state of objects that are national treasures possessing artistic, historic or archaeological value which have been unlawfully removed from that EU state to another EU state.
An EU state can enter a case on the IMI to send a notification of the EU state to which it is believed that the object has been taken. All reasonable steps would then be taken on receipt of the case to locate the object, to protect it until such time as it can be retrieved, or otherwise, if it cannot be located or has been found to have been legally imported. All action taken would then be recorded on the IMI. The UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is responsible for cases that arrive through the IMI on the return of cultural objects.
The third and final purpose relates to control of the acquisition and possession of weapons. The relevant EU directive sets out the minimum standards for civilian firearm acquisition and possession in EEA states for the purpose of controlling the movement of weapons between EEA states. The IMI is used by EEA states to notify other EEA states where it has granted authorisation to a business or an individual to acquire a firearm from, or transfer a firearm to, another EEA state. The UK Department for International Trade is responsible for all such communications through the IMI on the control of firearms.
In conclusion, this instrument makes a series of essentially technical amendments to reflect the current position regarding the UK’s access to the IMI. It removes provisions that are no longer operable following the end of the implementation period and retains only those provisions necessary in respect of Northern Ireland to ensure that the UK can comply with certain obligations placed under the Northern Ireland protocol. In doing so, this instrument ensures that UK public authorities can continue to access the IMI where necessary to allow them securely, effectively and efficiently to deliver those obligations. On that basis, I commend these draft regulations to the House.
My Lords, I am sorry that the very interesting and, to me, quite new explanation for the IMI, and its rather interesting resonances for cultural goods and other material that needs to be notified from country to country, has not attracted a wide number of speakers. However, I will do my very best to enliven the House for a few seconds while we get to the point at which we make a decision about these important regulations.
My first question is very simple, and I was surprised that the Minister did not mention this in his introduction. Why the delay? This instrument was originally laid on
It is very unusual for this House to have the leisure of so much time to consider regulations in any detail. Those of us who have struggled under many years of Conservative government legislation will know that we are often under pressure to read and respond to material at short notice. The idea that one has nearly 24 months to respond is one I could get used to very quickly.
Secondly, why is this being done at all? The main purpose here is to eliminate from the UK statute book things that are no longer relevant or which resonate with material relating to those who work or operate in parts of the United Kingdom other than Northern Ireland, so that the statute book is not cluttered up with that. However, as I understand it, but perhaps I am out of date, there is to be an EU Bill shortly which will do exactly the same thing. Perhaps I am reading something incorrect into these regulations, and if so, perhaps the Minister will correct me when he responds. However, this seems to be ahead of the plans of the former Secretary of State and his department. Of course, given that change, perhaps that Bill is no longer happening, but as I understand it the intention was to go through all the legislation retained after we left the EU to make sure that the statute book was uncluttered by it, yet here we have a statutory instrument doing that very job. Why is that?
Thirdly—I mention this because it raises issues relating to some of the affected material—we have not had an impact assessment and no consultation has taken place, as I understand it, on this statutory instrument. That is unusual, but not in relation to material carried forward from the exit from the EU. However, it would be helpful to those of us who have to consider these matters if we knew who precisely was affected. When he responds, can the Minister name any company or organisation that would be more profitable or even affected by the passing of this legislation? I look forward to his response.
My Lords, I join the noble Lord in expressing my regret that this major piece of legislation has not attracted more speakers. Nevertheless, it is quality that counts, not quantity, and I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. As I previously set out, this instrument makes a series of technical amendments to reflect the current position regarding the UK’s access to the IMI. By updating the statute book, this instrument provides clarity for public authorities, businesses and citizens about how and when data previously shared between UK, EU member states and the European Commission is now treated following the UK’s departure from the EU. As I said in my opening speech, it introduces no new obligations, costs or powers and will not change the service provided by public authorities to UK businesses and citizens under the Northern Ireland protocol.
In response to the noble Lord’s question about what businesses would be affected, the answer is none. This instrument removes references to legislation which previously facilitated IMI access. Access was necessary to enable the UK to comply with its obligations under single market legislation while we were a member state. Now that we have left the EU, this instrument updates the statute book to reflect the areas where access has already been terminated by the European Commission on the grounds that UK access is no longer required. In other words, access is no longer necessary to support compliance under the Northern Ireland protocol. Therefore, this instrument removes references containing legislative areas in respect of which the UK does not have access to the IMI, including the services directive, recognition of professional qualifications, patients’ rights relating to cross-border healthcare, posted workers, public documents and non-road mobile machinery.
Public authorities will nevertheless continue to have access to the IMI modules relating to disputes concerning mutual recognition of goods, the return of cultural goods and firearms transfers, as I outlined earlier. This will support continued communication, administrative co-operation and data-sharing between regulators in those areas. As required by the specific legislation, it continues to apply in Northern Ireland. The instrument facilitates such co-operation where required without the need to establish new secure channels of information and communication with individual EU member states and the European Commission.
In response to the noble Lord’s question about why this instrument is so late, the answer is that the UK was given a right of access to the IMI under the withdrawal agreement for a period of nine months in order to finalise any outstanding applications for professional qualification recognition under the European professional card route from general system nurses, pharmacists and physiotherapists. The UK agreed to the EU’s decision to extend the UK’s right of access to the IMI beyond the deadline, as applications were still outstanding beyond that period. The making of this instrument therefore had to be delayed so as not to remove the UK’s ability lawfully to access the IMI for this purpose. The need for temporary access has now been resolved, and we are in a position to progress the instrument. I hope that resolves the noble Lord’s query.
As I have set out, this instrument ensures that UK public authorities can continue to access the IMI where necessary to allow them securely, effectively and efficiently to deliver their obligations under the protocol, while ensuring that the UK statute book accurately reflects the changes in access to the IMI following the UK’s departure from the EU.
I hope I have resolved the noble Lord’s query, and I commend these regulations to the House.