Environmental Protection and Governance

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 3rd November 2020.

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Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 2:00 pm, 3rd November 2020

5. Mr Blair asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs what consideration is being given to cross-border cooperation on environmental protection and governance as new arrangements are established following the end of the transition period. (AQO 997/17-22)

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

At the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) environment sectoral meeting on 21 October, I made a commitment to work with my counterpart, Minister Ryan, within the NSMC structures to address environmental issues to our mutual benefit. We agreed that our Departments would continue to cooperate to deliver tangible environmental improvements in Northern Ireland and Ireland, both now and after the end of the transition period.

Cross border cooperation will continue, following the end of the transition period, on a wide range of environmental issues, including water quality, international river basin management, bathing water status, blue flag beaches, marine strategy, waste crime, air quality and EU funding.

Subject to the approval of the Assembly, the environment Bill will establish the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) in Northern Ireland to perform the environmental oversight role currently undertaken by the European Commission. The OEP will be permitted to share information, where appropriate or necessary, with certain bodies outside the UK that have functions in connection with the protection of the natural environment. This will enable it to share information with, for example, the European Commission on transboundary issues. Any arrangements will take account of current North/South governance.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I thank the Minister for the information provided on North/South cooperation. Can I ask about east-west cooperation? What action is being undertaken by the Department to ensure that Northern Ireland is included fully in UK Government consideration of post-transition period planning? I ask that because it became clear recently, as the Minister is aware, that Northern Ireland has not been included in impact assessments carried out for emissions trading schemes for the future.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

We are having a debate later on emissions trading schemes. I have concerns about significant issues in relation to the current emissions trading scheme. We will have two emissions trading schemes, one UK, the other EU. So, because we are still in the single electricity market, the generators, which account for 82% of carbon trading, will probably be in the European scheme, whilst other industries will be in the UK scheme.

The issue that I have is that, in 2018, Northern Ireland paid £65 million of carbon tax into the scheme. We have been paying those sorts of sums for many years but have not been able to draw down funding from that source because only three schemes in a country can benefit. The UK had three larger schemes, which were the beneficiaries of it. We pay all this carbon tax, but we get no support from that scheme to reduce our carbon emissions. The scheme is flawed in that sense. However, I will request that Northern Ireland be deemed a country, once the UK leaves the European Union, because we are still contributing to the scheme. It may work to our advantage if we can have three significant schemes to bid for at that point.

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his answers thus far. Given that we live on an island that has its own environmental landscape and unique characteristics, none of which is affected by the boundary on the island, does the Minister agree that all-island cooperation and coordination on environmental issues is vital?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I do not get too hung up on politics when it comes to these types of things. Whether as Health Minister, or previously as Environment Minister, I have always worked well with colleagues from south of the border on interests that align mutually to both parties. Other people sometimes want to play politics with the North/South stuff; I just get on with it.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am glad to hear that the Minister is getting on with it, and, hopefully, we can all get on with a deal and implementation of the protocol.

In relation to that, dairy producers here say that, if the UK crashes out of the transition period without a deal, we will not be able to process at least 35% — possibly more — of the milk produced in Northern Ireland. What is the Minister doing to prevent that cataclysmic set of circumstances for our dairy farmers?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 2:15 pm, 3rd November 2020

I have been asked by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister to produce papers that they will take significant account of in their negotiations, and we are doing that around a potential means of dealing with the problems that have arisen from the protocol. It is incredibly important that we achieve that and that the European Union recognises that Northern Ireland could be damaged as a consequence of the protocol. There is a trading scheme that we could have for the dairy sector. Worryingly, the red meat sector imports around £250 million of beef each year for further processing. That supports around 1,000 jobs here, particularly in mid-Ulster. Because of the protocol, that business has the potential to be lost.

I have been working closely with the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA), for example, and other organisations in devising a means to overcome those issues, but we need the European Union to work with the people of Northern Ireland to ensure that Northern Ireland plc, jobs and consumers are not damaged. Nonsense such as every supermarket having to put export health certificates on each item in a lorry will lead to thousands of pounds or, in some instances, tens of thousands being added to a lorryload of goods that will end up in the like of Iceland, Asda, Sainsbury's or Tesco. The consequence of that is that we will likely lose some of those businesses from Northern Ireland, and there will be the consequent job losses and a potential loss of goods that people want to buy from the shelves. A lot of businesses in GB are talking about pulling out of the Northern Ireland market because of the protocol. As it stands, the protocol is extremely damaging, but it can be remedied if the European Union cooperates with us to do so.