Inter-ministerial Group for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:00 pm on 2nd March 2020.

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Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 12:00 pm, 2nd March 2020

Members, I have received notice from the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs that he wishes to make a statement. Bear with us just for a moment.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am sorry. I nipped out for a glass of water. I did not realise that I was going to be called first.

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the meeting of the inter-ministerial group for environment, food and rural affairs that took place on 17 February 2020. The group provides central coordination and promotion of greater collaboration in areas of shared interest between portfolio Ministers who lead on agriculture, fisheries, the environment, forestry and rural affairs in the UK Administrations. The meeting considers policy, delivery, and technical and legislative matters on which the Administrations have determined to engage multilaterally. There are well-established and good working relationships with UK Departments, and my Department continues to ensure that NI issues are recognised and fully understood at UK level to help inform UK-EU negotiations. I therefore welcome the opportunity to update you on the discussions of the meeting that I chaired here in Belfast.

The participating Ministers were: from the UK Government, George Eustice MP, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; and from the Scottish Government, Fergus Ewing MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism, and Roseanna Cunningham MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform. Lesley Griffiths AM, Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, was unfortunately unable to participate because of the floods, so the Welsh Government were represented by Mr Tim Render, the Welsh Government's director of environment and rural affairs.

In preparation for the EU and rest-of-the-world negotiations, DEFRA officials presented a paper that reflected the broad context for trade negotiations in 2020, along with an overarching summary of UK Government trade priorities in EFRA areas, highlighting known devolved Administration priorities. Ministers from each of the Administrations highlighted their priority sectors and issues, noting the risks of not reaching a trade agreement with the EU.

I indicated to the meeting that a deal that consisted of zero tariffs and zero quotas would be highly desirable and highlighted Northern Ireland’s unique position in relation to regulatory alignment with the EU. I emphasised the huge and fundamental problems for Northern Ireland agri-food businesses that would be caused by imposing tariffs from GB to NI.

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Mr Eustice, recognised the unique Northern Ireland issues in relation to the protocol, east-west trade, tariffs, sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks and market integrity and agreed that those issues would require a bilateral meeting for further discussion.

I also indicated that it was important to agree the maintenance of a high level of standards in Great Britain to minimise unfair competition from third-country imports that are produced to a lower standard and cost and to build a reputation for the UK as a safe and reputable source of food supply to global markets. In particular, I asked how the UK would protect the integrity of the food industry. I was informed by Mr Eustice that the UK would adopt an intelligence and risk-based approach to import control.

I, along with the Ministers from the other devolved Administrations, emphasised the importance of meaningful engagement in the negotiation of new trade agreements. DEFRA agreed to share documents as early as possible and to encourage other Whitehall Departments to do likewise.

The meeting then considered the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol and agreed a cross-Administration technical work plan to progress that constructively. I raised concerns regarding the significant tariffs that could be incurred by the fishing industry. I also sought clarification on what "unfettered access" to GB would mean for Northern Ireland.

To ensure domestic preparedness for December 2020, the group also agreed to produce a shared set of planning assumptions to prepare for broad scenarios at the end of the transition period and discussed border preparations and business engagement. I emphasised that devolved Administrations need absolute clarity on roles and responsibilities and that confirmation of that should be provided at the next meeting on 23 March 2020.

In closing the meeting, we noted the progress of the DEFRA primary legislation programme and acknowledged the highly ambitious programme of secondary legislation that will be required to ensure a fully functioning statute book by the end of the transition period. Following the meeting, I requested that several bilateral meetings take place in Belfast in the very near future with Mr Eustice, Mr Ewing and Ms Griffiths to discuss in more detail some of the issues of mutual interest in relation to EU exit, such as the Northern Ireland protocol, tariffs, SPS issues, GB-NI trade, the integrity of the GB market and risk-based surveillance, along with policy in relation to agri-food, environment and fisheries and the operation of the UK internal market.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his statement. One of the issues that was raised in Committee and on the Floor last week is the importance of migrant labour to the industry here. I note from the DEFRA minutes of the previous meeting, on 13 January, that the Scottish and Welsh Ministers had raised the issue of migrant labour. Given the importance of labour from other countries to the agriculture and food-and-drink industries, will the Minister outline what representations he has made to the British Government on the points-based immigration system that was recently announced by the British Home Office?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I thank the Member for his question. Labour is of key importance to agriculture. We have done some background work, and, as things stand, only around 9% of those who are engaged in the agri-food sector would qualify under the proposed scheme. That indicates that the people who are here would be fine, but there would be a substantial challenge if those people were to leave and we try to bring new people in. Consequently, we have raised this issue with the Executive, and we have also raised it with the relevant Minister, the Business Minister, who was over here. The Executive are going to take this and write to Her Majesty's Government to highlight the concerns that we in Northern Ireland have. It is a particular issue for my Department, and for the Department of Health in providing social care, but much of our agri-food industry is reliant on labour that is sourced from outside the United Kingdom. Consequently, for the continuation of many of our businesses, we need to have the opportunity to source the appropriate labour. We will continue to lobby and press upon that, because I do not see what is proposed as adequately meeting our needs in the agri-food industry.

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. Does the Minister have a sense of how the other devolved Administrations will approach future trade agreements?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The other Administrations and ourselves will all be lobbying the UK Government to get a deal that is best suited to us. The Scottish and Welsh, for example, will be quite concerned about the lamb trade; they are high producers of lamb and export quite a lot of it. Ideally, we will all get a zero-tariff, zero-quota deal, but that is going to be difficult to achieve. My fear going forward is that the level playing field will be the significant issue and the Northern Ireland protocol will be a less significant issue for the UK Government. and, therefore, whatever arrangements come to us will be more about the level playing field and what suits the UK Government on that front and less about the Northern Ireland protocol. That could have a really serious impact for us here in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you, Minister, for that statement. This is important, given the size of our agri-food industry and its impact on our economy. Can the Minister give his assessment of the British Government's commitment to upholding food standards, following the Secretary of State's comments last week that he would give no assurances about maintaining alignment with safety standards following Brexit?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I am of the opinion that the United Kingdom has better food standards and will want to have better food standards than many other parts of the European Union. For example, the horsemeat scandal a number of years ago kicked off not in the United Kingdom but in other European countries. I believe that we will have high standards on the environment, animal health, animal welfare and food. The question that has to be asked, and the question that Europe has to recognise, is: do they want equivalence and find equivalence acceptable, or do they want Britain to rigidly adhere to standards set by the European Union?

Going forward, I believe that British standards on food will be high, but they may not be exactly the same as European standards. Consequently, does that open the door for a series of tariffs to be applied that will not be applied to Canada by the European Union? We need a bit of common sense to apply here and not to have some sort of punishment of the UK because Europe does not want it to be seen that the UK has too good a deal as this may be attractive for other countries to exit the European Union.

Photo of Maurice Bradley Maurice Bradley DUP 12:15 pm, 2nd March 2020

I thank the Minister for his statement. Does he agree that the Northern Ireland protocol places Northern Ireland at a disadvantage in the UK internal market?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

There are around 380,000 HGV movements between Northern Ireland and GB, and GB and NI. Consequently, any new export health checks and movements that are then applied, from GB to NI in particular, will have a detrimental impact. Roughly 50% of our trade goes to Britain and, indeed, comes from Britain. That is very significant because Great Britain is our most important trading partner, so any barriers placed between us and Great Britain will have a greater impact than any barriers elsewhere. The trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is absolutely critical and essential, which is why the proposed protocol is hugely damaging. That is why I welcome the UK Government looking for further changes to the protocol. We were told that it cannot be changed. Well, it needs to be changed because, if it is not changed, there will be a consequence for every business in Northern Ireland, and there will be a consequence for every consumer in Northern Ireland. That will make life harder for our consumers, with higher prices being imposed as a result of the protocol, not as a result of us leaving the European Union.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his statement. In some of his responses so far, he used the words "worrying", "consequences", "detrimental impact" and "serious concerns"; far away from the sunny uplands of Brexit. In his last statement, he said that the protocol is damaging. I contend that it is Brexit that is damaging. It is Brexit that is causing serious concern to our farmers and our agriculture industry here.

Boris Johnson, in his recent speech in Greenwich, said:

"There is no need for a free trade agreement to involve accepting EU rules on competition policy, subsidies, social protection, the environment, or anything similar any more than the EU should be obliged to accept UK rules."

Does the Minister agree that that contradicts paragraph 12 of his statement on the circumstances that Mr Eustice outlined on the protocol?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The decision on Brexit has been made. We have now left the European Union, so that argument is done and dusted. There is no point in going over that further. It was well enough argued for three years. It is now about our future trading relationships with the European Union. It is in our interests to get the best trading relationships with the European Union. It is in our best interests to get the best trading relationships with our key trading partner — Great Britain.

Leave all the politics to one side. You do not have to like Great Britain. You do not have to like the United Kingdom. You may have a preference to be in a united Ireland. Set all that to one side. Who do we do our business with? Most of our business is done with Great Britain. Anything, therefore, that damages that trade will cause problems for the people who live in Northern Ireland. Consequently, we need to minimise any damage. It is hugely unfortunate that the damage that is being done to Northern Ireland businesses and consumers is being enforced on us by the European Union, which is demanding the following. Consequently, we need to rail back on that. If the European Union is good to its word that Northern Ireland is really important, that peace in Northern Ireland is really important and the people of Northern Ireland are really important, we need it to rail back on creating barriers between Northern Ireland and its number one market for goods.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

I welcome the Minister's commitment to look forward and to set aside the old debates of the past when it comes to Brexit and the constitutional argument. I appeal to Members, particularly those opposite, to embrace that forward-looking perspective. It would appear to many of us that the protocol is being used as some kind of instrument to inflict a punishment beating on those who supported Brexit. Northern Ireland cannot afford to endure that kind of punishment as a result of the decision that was taken.

Will the Minister reassure me that he will confront the Tánaiste, the Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Coveney, who is putting in jeopardy the trade talks that are starting today through his insistence on putting infrastructure down the Irish Sea that will create a burden on our trade with GB? Will he give us his assessment of the damage that Simon Coveney is inflicting on us?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I thank the Member for the question. In the infrastructure that is being sought by Simon Coveney, we are looking at tens of thousands of checks on goods coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, which will create a huge pressure on business. Let me explain. Just-in-time food supplies include fresh strawberries and fresh food of any kind. If those have to be delayed at a port, be it in Scotland or Northern Ireland —. I should say that neither the Northern Ireland Minister nor, indeed, the Scottish Minister have expressed that they are willing to accept any checks at any ports. Scotland was as firm as I was on that: we would not put infrastructure in our ports to facilitate that. If Mr Coveney had his way, there would be tens of thousands of checks, damaging those just-in-time goods coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. That would be hugely detrimental to the shops, convenience stores and supermarkets that provide food that has been produced in Great Britain and comes to Northern Ireland. Again, that will have a huge impact on our consumers.

Mr Coveney will also impose on us, as a consequence of his reading of the protocol, huge damage on our fishing industry in that the European Union's current position is that all fish that are caught in British waters and landed in Northern Ireland would be subject to tariffs. The Union might say, however, "We might be kind and allow you to catch fish that are under quota and tariff the rest". That is totally unacceptable.

Simon Coveney wants to damage our fishermen. Simon Coveney wants to damage our consumers and our businesses. Simon Coveney could not get a majority in the election just past. He came third. Boris Johnson got an 80-seat majority in the House of Commons. I do not think that Simon Coveney has much clout when it comes to the talks. The clout lies with the UK Government, which will go into the talks to fight and to fight hard to ensure that Northern Ireland is not damaged as a consequence of this protocol.

Some Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Sinéad Ennis Sinéad Ennis Sinn Féin

The Minister is speaking about the fishing industry and the tariffs that may be imposed. Will he elaborate on those tariffs and the impact that they could have on our fishing industry, which is already under severe pressure? Will he give us a bit more information about the tariffs that he is proposing?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I know that the Member will have a particular interest in the issue, given that two of our main fishing ports happen to be in south Down. The fishing industry has been emasculated for the last 40 years as a result of the European Union. Thankfully, I was able to raise a proposal that created the opportunity for fishermen to fish for haddock last week, which they had not been allowed to do as a consequence of the European Union for many years. Nonetheless, they have been emasculated and have been prevented from fishing in their own waters, while fish that they should have been entitled to fish were being caught by boats from other European countries.

We can have a very good relationship with the Republic of Ireland when it comes to fishing. There are plenty of fish in the Irish Sea for Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland fishermen. However, we cannot have a situation in which the European Union comes in and says, "That fish was caught in British waters. We will apply a tariff to it." That would apply to Irish boats as well. It is wholly unacceptable. Fish caught in the Irish Sea and landed in Kilkeel, Ardglass, Portavogie or Belfast must be tariff free, and we must be enabled to land it tariff free. European Union officials told our officials in DAERA that a tariff will apply. I have impressed upon George Eustice that it is totally unacceptable and we cannot contemplate it.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Minister for coming to the House to give his statement. He referred to food standards. Before I comment on that, I welcome his comments on the fact that, through a democratic process, we have now left the shackles of the European Union, which decimated, as he said, our fisheries and the many other businesses that had draconian rules and regulations imposed on them.

The Member for Lagan Valley mentioned food standards and protecting the importation of foods into Northern Ireland. Can the Minister ensure that the high standards that we have in Northern Ireland will not be jeopardised by the importation of any foods that fall short of those standards?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Northern Ireland has food of a very high standard. The chicken and meat that we produce and the fish that we catch is all of an excellent standard. We have much higher standards than many other parts of the world from where cheap imports are available. People in our country, and the people who receive our exports, deserve to know that they are receiving the best quality products; that our animal health is excellent; that we have good environmental conditions; and that the food itself is of top quality. Therefore, it is often the case that people pay a premium for it.

We need to ensure that, in free trade negotiations, that continues to be the case. Origin of food and other labelling is very important. Free trade negotiations may end up with us importing food of a different standard from another country. If people buy it, that is their choice. However, it needs to be up there in lights that it is food that has not been produced to the same high standard as ours. If people want to buy it for a lower price, that is entirely up to them, but they will be buying something that does not meet the same quality standards we currently have.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

As the question-and-answer session flows back and forth, it is clear that Members on the Benches opposite do not want us to talk about Brexit, but we are dealing with the consequences of Brexit and the consequences of those who supported it promising us sunny uplands.

This follows on from Mr Storey's question: is it not the case that the Irish protocol protects us from the very scenario that Mr Storey talks about? I assume that he was talking about the Moy Park workers in his and my constituency who, if our market is opened to the chlorinated chicken previously referred to, face losing their job. Will the Minister confirm that the Irish protocol protects our environment, industries and consumers from low-quality, cheap imports?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Member makes a fair point about the chicken that would come here if a free trade deal were done with the United States of America. Chicken there is more subject to salmonella. Consequently, it is chlorinated. I do not see millions of people coming back from America having been badly affected as a consequence of eating it.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair)

Nonetheless, we produce our chicken to a higher standard. It does not need to be chlorinated in the first instance. That is why labelling of food origin is absolutely critical, and it is something that I have sought for years. Loads of chicken currently comes into the European Union from south-east Asian countries that produce chicken to a lower standard than ours. Much of it ends up in the catering industry, and it is not well labelled for the people who buy it. Therefore, it already happens. It is not something that will be new; already it is happening. We need to make our argument forcibly. I do not care whether the chicken comes from America, Thailand or elsewhere: we need to identify where it comes from and the standards that it has been raised to so that consumers can choose whether they want to buy locally produced material that is produced to the highest standards or something of a lower standard for which they will pay a lower price. It is a decision that consumers will make, not us.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP 12:30 pm, 2nd March 2020

I thank the Minister for his statement and for the work that he is doing on matters pertaining to Brexit on behalf of the Assembly and the Executive, in particular his vocal opposition, alongside his devolved colleagues, to barriers and infrastructure at our ports. It is fair to say that we must hold Boris Johnson firm to his commitment of there being unfettered free trade east-west, given the fact that the Assembly voted unanimously against the Brexit Bill when it came before the House.

If the protocol is implemented in full, as the EU would suggest, at what cost would that be to the Northern Ireland agri-food sector?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

We have a circumstance in which Northern Ireland is a leader in food production and food processing. Consequently, food that is produced by primary producers in Great Britain is brought to Northern Ireland for further processing, adding value to that food. Most of it ends up back in Great Britain's supermarkets. We have a situation in which literally thousands of jobs are involved in adding value to food, the primary producer of which is a producer in Great Britain. For example, if the EU were to add a tariff to beef, which currently is around 40%, importers of that product would have to pay the tariff and would not be able to reclaim it until 100% of the beef had left the particular factory. Whenever a beef carcass comes in that large form, it is divided into many other forms. The steaks and the stewed beef and all of that may all go back into the market, but elements of minced beef etc may not have. Until 100% of the carcass goes back into the GB market, the tariff cannot be reclaimed. Consequently, a production system that works to very fine margins would, all of a sudden, have massive tariffs to pay and have to wait many months — maybe more than 12 months in some instances — before they could reclaim the tariff. That would do huge detriment to those businesses. We need to get to a circumstance in which we do not have those tariffs applied in the first instance.

The application of tariffs within a country has not happened anywhere else in the world. It is just unacceptable. We need to press home over and over again the unacceptability of tariffs within a country and tariffs between key trading partners, in this case Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Photo of Harry Harvey Harry Harvey DUP

Given the importance of the GB market to our agri-food business, can the Minister detail what discussions he has had on the term "unfettered access"?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

"Unfettered access" is great terminology, but I want to know exactly what the British Government mean by it. "Unfettered access" appears to mean any goods going from Northern Ireland to Great Britain — there is no issue there — but I am not absolutely clear that it is the same for goods coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. I have pressed repeatedly that it has to be the same. Unfettered access cannot be one-way; it has to be a two-way flow, because the consequences of not having that unfettered access, some of which I have laid out, would be damaging to our consumers and our businesses, and we cannot accept that. We cannot have a circumstance where something that has been imposed on us costs our consumers, many of whom live in areas of deprivation and for many of whom food is one of their biggest spends. As a result of what Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and the European Union have sought to impose on us — creating separation and division between Great Britain and Northern Ireland that is damaging to consumers — people in west Belfast, Fermanagh/South Tyrone, South Down, the Member's constituency of Strangford and my constituency of Lagan Valley, many of whom need every penny that they have, will have to spend more.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Mr O'Dowd referred to the Benches opposite: now, perhaps, I can. The Minister will agree, I am sure, that unity of approach is important going forward. Given that Sinn Féin opposed entry into the Common Market, opposed the Single European Act, opposed the Maastricht Treaty, opposed the Lisbon Treaty, opposed the Nice Treaty and were on the anti side in every European constitutional referendum in the Republic of Ireland, does the Minister agree that it is time that they returned to their original Eurosceptic principles?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I would not want the Member to suggest that Sinn Féin is a flip-flop party when it comes to the European Union. That would not be very pleasant of the Member, but, of course, he did not say those words, so we will refrain from that. Nonetheless, over the years, Sinn Féin has reflected that the European Union has not always been about the local worker, the local consumer or local solutions. It is a large, amorphous body that seeks to bring together people from south-east Europe, western Europe and northern Europe, and, often, the circumstances that prevail in all of those places at one time are hugely different. Applying a single solution to places that are hugely different does not always work. That is a major problem for the European Union. The European Union has not always worked for Ireland, be it Ireland North or Ireland South. Folks in Ireland South are beginning to wake up to a reality that they will be forking out, probably, over £2 billion to the European Union, having been a net receiver for many years, and that the tables are being turned on them. It will be interesting to see how they will move forward.

The one thing that Ireland South needs to be concerned about is its trade with Great Britain, because Great Britain takes huge amounts, particularly of its food product, from the Republic of Ireland. Irrespective of all of the growth that is taking place in the Republic of Ireland, the food industry is still crucial to its economy. I want to see a sensible arrangement between the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain, between Northern Ireland and Great Britain and between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The protocol does not deliver, and, therefore, we will argue with the United Kingdom Government that there needs to be changes — substantial changes. That will be in the best interests of consumers here, and I hope that we will do something that will be in the best interests of the people of the Republic of Ireland. I do not believe that the outgoing Government in the Republic of Ireland served the best interests of their community in their negotiations. We could have had and should have had a circumstance in which the Republic of Ireland had very favourable trading conditions with Great Britain and Northern Ireland had very favourable trading conditions as well, but that opportunity was thrown away by the outgoing Government.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I welcome the Minister's firm declaration that he will not accept any infrastructure at our ports and look forward to him holding to that. In consequence, he was right to call out Simon Coveney in respect of what he has been saying. In that vein, does he not also need to call out three of the parties that he shares the Executive with? The Alliance Party, Sinn Féin and the SDLP have all been adamant that the protocol must be fully enforced and implemented, so do they too not need to be called out for seeking to damage the economy of Northern Ireland?

In that context, can he explain a little more the paragraph of his statement where he said that there will be:

"a cross-Administration technical work plan to progress" the protocol? What does that mean:

"a ... technical work plan to progress" the protocol? Is that taking us in a direction that he does not want to go? How can he ensure that it will not do so?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Of course, people have a democratic right to express a political position. The three parties that the Member named are pro-Remain parties, and it is their absolute right to be pro-Remain parties. I am in a pro-Leave party. In due course, when all this is done and dusted, we will all know who was right and who was wrong and whether we have a successful economy. I think that we can have a much more successful economy; others may think differently. Time will tell. Even within some of the parties, we have had a difference of opinion. In the Assembly, Sinn Féin voted against it, whereas, in the European Union assembly, Sinn Féin voted for it. We had that little dichotomy in Sinn Féin's voting positions when it came to the deal that was put forward.

On the Member's question, the protocol is a reality as things stand. We want to see the necessary changes applied to it. That will be part of the discussion that takes place between the member states of the United Kingdom. We will look for changes to the protocol and will be part of the course of work that the Member refers to.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

Is it likely, if trade deals are agreed by the UK for the import of agri-food products from countries with lower quality standards, that those deals will include a requirement for Northern Ireland to be part of them?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

They will, yes, because, in the current circumstance, we are part of the single market, but we are also part of the UK customs arrangements, so we are in a slightly different position from everybody else. Some elements of that give us an advantage. Having the ability to sell with zero tariffs to both the EU and the UK gives us an advantage, even in terms of businesses that wish to settle in Northern Ireland. We also have disadvantages, because there is the potential for tariffs between us and our main trading partner. We need to try to take advantage of the advantages and reduce the disadvantages. That is a course of work that we will do.

If the UK agrees to acquire food from various countries as part of a free trade arrangement, Northern Ireland will be part of that. After all, we produce about five times as much food as we eat and the majority of that ends up in Great Britain, so it is absolutely critical that, irrespective of whether that food is coming to Northern Ireland or Great Britain, labelling of the food's origin is done in a very good way. The United States of America is probably one of the best countries at labelling foods. That will be less of an issue when it comes to having that discussion, because it is good at labelling food. It is absolutely critical that consumers know what they are getting, know what they are paying for and are satisfied to be acquiring that product.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 12:45 pm, 2nd March 2020

I thank the Minister for the statement and the information that it provides. However, some of the outflow from the statement and the toing and froing here compels me to say — I hope that he will forgive me for not resisting the temptation — that never has there been less temptation or opportunity for an "I told you so" moment. The Minister and others will be aware that some of us did not want the uncertainty. Some of us did not envisage the prospect of a cliff edge but — the Minister referenced it — the protocol is an international agreement, and there is some detail for all of us to get across between now and the implementation of the protocol.

Rather than protracted pro- or anti-EU conversations, we should now move in that direction. Paragraph 17 of the statement mentions that a cross-Administration technical work plan is tasked to deliver the protocol. Is there any detail or timetable around that delivery, given that the clock is ticking, and we are moving closer to December?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I thank the Member for his question. Ultimately, I can agree with some aspects of what he says. Uncertainty is not good. We are looking towards the end of June to wrap up negotiations to close off that uncertainty. However, the fact that we did not proceed with the people's instruction for over three years created more uncertainty and damage to business than what the next three months will create. Let us get this done. Let us honour the will of the people, spoken by referendum and in the more recent Westminster election, and do what the people instructed to be done, which is to leave the European Union in a way that does least damage to business and creates the greatest opportunity for business and the community.

If you want to see failure as a result of leaving the European Union, that is not a good position. You might not agree with the decision or the fact that we are leaving, but we should all be looking for success, because success is to the benefit of all the people whom we represent. Failure will damage all the people whom we represent. Let us work together on getting success and not on looking for failure to prove a political point.

Some Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Jemma Dolan Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his statement. I recognise the importance of unfettered access to the British market, given that 75% of our agri-food products go there. Does he agree that the failure to include minimum food standards in the Agriculture Bill and plans to phase out farm support payments mean that the British Government are opening the door to cheap food imports, which will suppress the market and price our local farmers and agri-food products out of the British market?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

On the question of phasing out farm support payments, I can only go by the Conservative Party manifesto, which indicated that a Conservative Government would sustain them for the lifetime of the current Parliament. That is all that a manifesto can commit to. I am not aware of any phasing out of support for agriculture. I see huge benefits in governments supporting agriculture, especially for the environment. Abandonment of land has proven to be very detrimental to biodiversity, the environment and all of that. I do not believe that the UK Government are going down that route. I would be opposed to that, and I think that the House would be opposed to it. We will seek to ensure that that is the case.

As it stands, we will be distributing the single farm payments this year ahead of what we did under the European Union. We are capable of delivering everything that we need to by October this year as opposed to waiting until December, which was imposed on us through the European Union. I would say that much of the Agriculture Bill is Englandcentric, and England will phase out over the seven years some of what they are doing and will alter it. One thing that England is doing and is proposing to do is to reduce the larger payments and redistribute them. That may be something that we will want to do as well. We will have a discussion with the Committee about whether some of the larger payments coming for some single farm payments is appropriate or whether we invest in young people who want to come into farming and reduce the larger payments as a result.

We may want to do some of the same things as England; we may want to do some things that are completely different. I will want to do what is best for the people I represent, irrespective of what people do elsewhere.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

It was good to hear the Minister say that if the EU was good to its word, it would act in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland. Does he agree, then, that if the Conservative Government were good to their word, they would uphold the international treaty that they negotiated and signed off rather than threaten to break it?

Can I also ask the Minister whether he has sought assurances from his ministerial group given that we saw reports at the weekend that Brexiteers are now recommending to the Government that our food sector is not critical to the country's economy and that agriculture and fisheries certainly are not?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

On the protocol, I would be very surprised if the Green Party wanted higher food prices and have businesses detrimentally impacted as a consequence of that protocol, because, as things stand, they will be, and it is very clear that they will be. It is also clear that every household in Northern Ireland will be worse off as a result of the protocol, and all I hear from the Green Party is more protocol —.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

We would abide by the law that was made.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I think that we are —.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Excuse me, Minister. I advise Members that there should be no commentary from a seated position, please.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I do not mind, Mr Deputy Speaker. I do not need any protection from the Green Party or anybody else from sedentary positions or elsewhere. A bit of heckling does not really annoy me, but I thank you for your care and interest.

We need to get to the best position. A further negotiation is to take place, and I will be imploring the UK Government to make the necessary changes to the protocol so that our consumers are not hurt. I trust that the Green Party will stand with the UK Government in getting the best deal for the people of Northern Ireland and will not accept a bad deal.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

That concludes questions on the statement. Before we hear the next statement, I advise Members that I have received notice from the Minister for Health that, owing to changes resulting from his meeting with his UK colleagues, he is unable to make a statement on coronavirus until 3.30 pm, immediately after Question Time. If questions on the statement from the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, which we are about to hear, concludes before Question Time at 2.00 pm, business will continue with Consideration Stage of the Budget Bill and the debate on the Executive's legislative programme.

However, as the Finance Minister will not be available to move his business until 1.30 pm, we may have to suspend the sitting until that time. That will depend on how we move with the next statement.