I beg to move
That this Assembly supports a comprehensive and bespoke agreement between the European Union and the British Government to align sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) standards, with the aim of reducing checks and paperwork on goods being imported from Britain; recognises that this is the only realistic and practical way of reducing checks within the framework of existing international agreements; acknowledges that there is widespread support from businesses here for such an agreement; and calls on the European Union and the British Government to negotiate a bespoke agreement to align sanitary and phytosanitary standards.
The Business Committee agreed to allow up to one and a half hours for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. As an amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List, the Business Committee has agreed that 15 minutes will be added to the total time for the debate. Please open the debate on the motion.
The motion calls for Members to support a comprehensive and bespoke agreement on sanitary and phytosanitary standards to be negotiated between the European Union and the British Government, with the aim of reducing checks and paperwork on goods that are being imported from Britain. Such an agreement has support from business representatives as a practical and realistic way in which to reduce the friction that has resulted from post-Brexit trading arrangements. Agreement on a minimum level of standards would reduce drastically the checks that are necessary on agri-food products at ports.
Of course, that is not a new point of debate. There was much discussion, throughout the entire Brexit negotiation process, on SPS and whether a veterinary agreement or alignment of regulations could, should or would be reached. Essentially, what transpired in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement was a bare-bones, minimalist approach, which has resulted in the checks that are now being applied not only between Britain and the North but between Britain and other EU states. It is a minimalist agreement that has resulted in the British food and drinks industry losing £2 billion in trade with the EU in the first six months of this year. That is the damage that is being inflicted by Brexit.
The lack of an agreement — one which could minimise significantly the checks on east-west trade — was a choice that was made by the British Government with their eyes wide open. Despite what some of their Ministers now assert, the protocol was also a choice that was made by the British Government with their eyes wide open. It was negotiated, agreed and put in place to, among other things, prevent a hard border on this island; a border that would see those same checks that are required at ports being performed on land. That is the entirely impractical and impossible to enforce alternative to the protocol.
Let us be abundantly clear: those checks are the result of a threadbare agreement on SPS and veterinary regulations between the British Government and the EU and are not due to the protocol. In fact, the protocol protects all-island supply chains that are vital to the agriculture and agri-food processing sectors. Absolutely no one in those sectors would want to see those checks imposed on land. They want a practical solution that reduces the need for checks. An SPS agreement would deliver that.
SPS agreements are already in place with other countries, and models exist. New Zealand has an equivalence approach to regulations, but some checks are still required. Switzerland has an agreement where, essentially, EU regulations are applied, but checks are minimised. However, business organisations tell us that a bespoke agreement, rather than any of the approaches that other countries have, is what is required to take account of our unique circumstances and the level of trade that there is between Britain and the North.
The British Government have made much of the need to have control over their regulations, while also asserting that they do not intend to drop standards to give them the ability to make trade agreements with other countries. The country with which it is most important to make a trade agreement is the United States, but President Biden has made it clear that that will not come any time soon, and any SPS agreement that is designed to protect the North will not be a barrier to a trade agreement between Britain and the US.
Some discussion has focused on a time-limited arrangement on SPS while other options are considered. Given that any trade agreement, including with the US, is likely to be several years away, that arrangement is there to be explored. Genuine engagement to resolve the issues is vital. Finding a reasonable and practical solution requires pragmatic and flexible approaches. The much-threatened triggering of article 16 will not help that process in any way, shape or form. In fact, it will simply trigger the process that is already happening through the Joint Committee and will require that efforts continue until a solution is found. It will also require specificity in any remedies and will ask why they have been proposed.
Anyone peddling the notion that article 16 gets rid of the protocol or stops it applying is misleading the public, and, possibly, themselves. Unfortunately, at the Tory Party conference this week, the British Government will continue to dial up the rhetoric. We have already heard some of that from Brandon Lewis and David Frost, with unrealistic fantasy assertions, as if they had no part in agreeing what is currently in place. It would better befit them to pay attention to what is going on in the Chamber today, to pay attention to those of us who are actually listening to those whom we represent and setting out realistic and practical ways forward, and to listen to those who have found opportunities and benefits in the protocol and support it.
It would better befit the DUP to do likewise. Getting rid of the protocol, as that party claims it wants to do, would be a disaster for many food businesses, our agri-food businesses in particular. Triggering article 16 would not solve anything. It would only add to the uncertainty and lack of stability and would damage businesses. The reality is that we all know the protocol is going nowhere. The only way forward is through continued constructive and pragmatic engagement in order to find practical solutions that provide certainty and clarity for businesses and everyone else.
It is time to dial down the rhetoric and for the DUP to put an end to the threats to our institutions that are only about its own opinion polling and deflection from a failed Brexit strategy that supported the most right-wing elements of the Tory party in order to deliver the hard Brexit and poor trade and cooperation agreement that has resulted in the current frictions in trade and necessitated the protocol in the first place.
I urge Members to support the motion. I gave consideration to the amendment, as you would expect, and I welcome the UUP's engagement, but my understanding is that the concept of "at risk" does not apply to SPS but rather to customs and tariffs, so I am unclear on the intent of the amendment; therefore, we cannot support it. I hope the UUP will support the motion, which is, of course, in line with its own protocol alternatives paper.
I beg to move the following amendment:
Leave out all after "sanitary and phytosanitary standards" and insert: "for goods at risk, with the aim of reducing checks and paperwork on goods being imported from Great Britain; recognises that this is a realistic and practical way of reducing checks within the framework of existing international agreements; acknowledges that there is widespread support from businesses here for such an agreement; and calls on the European Union and British Government to negotiate a bespoke agreement to align sanitary and phytosanitary standards for goods at risk.”
I urge the Assembly to accept our amendment and to send a strong message to Brussels, London, Manchester and other European capitals that Northern Ireland should not continue to be used as a bargaining chip. As we heard elsewhere today, time is rapidly running out. Some 10 months after the imposition of the protocol on the people of Northern Ireland, it is well beyond the point that action should be taken. As stated today in another place, the protocol is:
"not working and needs to change".
At the heart of the matter is a very simple premise. If Northern Ireland and the Belfast Agreement are truly the reason for the protocol, all the provisions of the 1998 agreement, North/South, and, particularly, east-west, must be met. The east-west dimension is not a "nice to have", an adjunct or an afterthought. For those of us who have been steadfast in our support of the Belfast Agreement and the institutions, it is the critical element that holds our support, and, above all, it is the core of the consent mechanism.
As Lord Trimble, architect of the peace agreement we now have, said today, there are times when Governments have to repudiate agreements that have been made — when they do not work. This is one of them. The fact that the protocol is not working should not be in any doubt to anyone.
The pernicious "best of both worlds" mantra that is used time and again does no one in Northern Ireland any good. The protocol is not sustainable and is not durable.
Our party has, time and time again, put forward practical solutions for how we deal with maintaining open borders across these islands. That, until recently, our proposals have been ignored and denigrated by the EU in general, and by Dublin in particular, has given us no pleasure. That many of our ideas have now worked their way into the UK Government's Command Paper and mirror thinking such as that of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) should, again, come as no surprise to those who want to see Northern Ireland work. Our proposals are based on the size of the Northern Ireland economy in relation to the total size of EU and UK GDP. We achieve less than 0·02% of that combined GDP, which should show any unbiased or objective observer that the risk of goods, particularly agricultural goods, of any sort contaminating the single market was and is minute.
Furthermore, unlike food products coming from third countries such as in the Middle East and North Africa or Thailand or Kenya, these food products are coming from our own nation, a nation that has standards at the same level or, indeed, has better standards, especially in areas such as animal welfare and environmental standards, than much of the rest of the European Union. That is why we, as a party, urge that the principle of risk, rather than political ideology, be the foundation stone of whatever revised agreement comes after the protocol is confined to the very large dustbin of failed treaties. We propose that, based on risk, a bespoke SPS treaty between the UK and the European Union be created. A bespoke arrangement could eliminate much of the friction currently being experienced and include a labelling programme for goods coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, if the European Union is really so scared of cross-contamination. Quite simply, this would mean labelling products that are bound only for Northern Ireland and not for the EU single market as being, "For UK sale only".
We would create a specific criminal offence to knowingly export goods designed for the UK internal market into the EU single market. This would get us beyond the absurdity of the likes of Sainsbury's, which has no stores in the Irish Republic, having to apply rules and regulations as if Northern Ireland were a foreign country. It is not; it is part of the United Kingdom. To ease EU concerns, we would also like to see an indemnity for a breach of the single market, where the UK could undertake to indemnify the EU if it were found that Northern Ireland had been used to export non-compliant goods via the land border on the island of Ireland into the EU single market. These are sensible and limited measures that we should all be calling for. Are we really saying that cross-border shoppers from Sligo, Letterkenny and Dublin buying their groceries in Newry and Belfast threatens the very existence and integrity of the European Union? Of course not.
Not just at the moment.
Will Frontex, the EU frontier force, be stopping every Republic of Ireland-registered car at the border to check that their sausages and M&S fish pies are EU-compliant?
The Member is focusing on goods in supermarkets, which, obviously, is a particular issue regarding supply, but will he accept that if, as his amendment indicates, all SPS standards were based on what his party calls in the amendment a "goods at risk" test, that would also include dairy herds in Fermanagh and upland sheep herds in the Mournes and Sperrins? Out of interest, would they too be aligned to GB rules with there being an at-risk test?
I thank the Member for his intervention. The question of "goods at risk" applies to all goods. This the issue: where is the risk now? Where is the risk to Northern Ireland sheep in Scotland? Where is the risk to pedigree cattle in Scotland going for market? Where is the risk of having multiple tags on ears or whatever it happens to be? Where is that risk? I see that the Agriculture Minister is here, and, no doubt, he will talk about this later. Where is the risk? Quite simply, there is not any.
Let me continue with my remarks. I was about to ask, "How absurd is that?". I say it again: how absurd, indeed, is the idea that there is any risk? It is as absurd as having to have Northern Ireland treated as a foreign country within our own nation by an external organisation that has demonstrated that it is more interested in restricting our access to medicines, controlling our state aid rules and making orders about machinery standards, all the while pontificating that it is, somehow, beneficial and supportive of the Belfast Agreement, when it clearly is not.
As an Assembly, will you join us, support the amendment and call for a properly thought-out, risk-based SPS — one that is not designed to penalise Northern Ireland consumers, but which seeks to prevent further trade diversion — an agreement that is grounded in the practicalities of our existing markets and logistic systems, and which allows for no or, at best, minimal barriers, North/South as well as east-west? We have a choice today; let us make it.
In many ways, much could be made of Sinn Féin's motion and the amendment before the House and their recognition of the problems that the protocol presents to everyday life in Northern Ireland. They certainly represent a major change on behalf of parties in the House who have moved from a position of wishing for the rigorous implementation of the protocol to wanting comprehensive change. That is a welcome change of heart. It proves what the DUP has been saying consistently from the start: the protocol is not the solution but the problem.
The issue of phytosanitary checks is important. I have taken many calls from farmers, buyers, machinery salespeople and people in the construction sector who have been hugely inconvenienced, in both time and money, as a result of those most unnecessary checks in the United Kingdom. I have made many representations to DAERA officials on the issue. We must remember that we remain within what has been termed "a grace period". It is therefore vital that, in the near future, such checks are not stepped up or intensified, but rather, as we have been solidly making the case, binned completely. Efforts must be concentrated on processes and solutions that respect the constitutional and economic position of Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom.
It is also worth stating that the issues referred to in the motion are only one part of the problem. There are many other checks and regulations that do considerable harm to the passage of trade. We must remember that Northern Ireland is subject to more checks than the EU's largest port, Rotterdam. That is by no means a reasonable or practical arrangement, especially when we continue to be within grace periods. Even in this grace period, there are still some 2,500 common health entry documents being completed per week. Experts predict that that will rise to 25,000 per week, which will be simply unworkable. Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs officials have made representations to the Agriculture Committee on a number of occasions in which they have stated clearly that there is not the capacity to process that magnitude of paperwork. It is therefore, by any reasonable assessment, unrealistic and unworkable.
Regardless of any of the arguments, there are undeniable facts as to the importance of the mainland GB market to Northern Ireland. Figures from 2018 show the value of that trade to be £13·4 billion in goods and services. That is a vital trade corridor and one which, everyone will agree, must be protected. The fact that consumers have reported to me that suppliers have ceased that trading partnership simply due to the paperwork is most concerning and, in pure economic terms, a backward and negative step. Of course, many suppliers have navigated the considerable paperchase, but the result of that has been drastically hiked prices to reflect the significant increase in administrative work. That has meant consumers paying more, which is another negative impact and further proves that the protocol must go, given its impact.
In recent days, there have been rumblings in the media of the potential for change. We await any outworkings. However, it is vital that any and all efforts remain focused on restoring unfettered access within the United Kingdom with measures that respect the economic and constitutional status of Northern Ireland.
I and my party support today's motion. We have consistently been in favour of a sanitary and phytosanitary agreement between the EU and the UK as an essential and urgent means of smoothing out the issues related to the movement of goods, specifically agri-food products, across the Irish Sea. We have said that from early on, as have other parties in the House. I only wish that others, including the Ministers opposite, had been more vocal about supporting such an agreement earlier.
In the many millions, possibly billions, of words that have been written on Brexit, specifically on the Irish issues related to it, very few people, even the most hard-line Brexiteers, some of whom we have with us in the Chamber today, have ever realistically argued that a hard border for SPS standards could be put in on the island of Ireland. By "hard border", I mean a situation in which one jurisdiction on the island of Ireland diverges sharply in its sanitary and phytosanitary rules: for example, as part of the UK, which is seeking a trade deal with the US. It has rarely been stated that we could have divergence on the island of Ireland that would be manageable or logistically possible, yet that is the upshot of some of what has been said today.
That is also the upshot, as far as I understand it, of some of what is in the UUP amendment. Like the Member who moved the motion, I engaged in detail with the UUP amendment. I am keen to hear more from the UUP on the issue and welcome the fact that it is engaging on it, but I am unclear as to what the amendment does. The concept of goods at risk relates to customs movements rather than SPS checks, so we cannot support the amendment for that reason.
As I said, no one has ever —.
Does the Member not realise that we are in danger of the EU and the UK continuing to butt heads and that there needs to be a bespoke arrangement that recognises the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, the Belfast Agreement and the stability of our politics, or else we are destined to have trade difficulties and political difficulties?
I do not disagree with anything that the Member has just said, but that is not what is in the tabled amendment. For the purposes of plant and animal health, the island of Ireland has been a single epidemiological unit since there have been rules and controls on plant and animal health. There have never been two divergent sets of rules on the island of Ireland. For years, long before I was in this place, when I was flying home from London, one of the first things that I would hear when I landed at Belfast City Airport or Aldergrove was, "If you have got any plant or animal products, make sure that you report them". That was long before Brexit or the protocol was a twinkle in anyone's eye, so the principle that we have a single epidemiological unit on this island has long been there.
I will not rehearse ancient history, but I am sure that many Members, including those opposite, remember the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak of 2001 or the BSE crisis of the 1990s, both of which illustrated not just the need for SPS alignment on the island but the sectoral demand for solutions that reflect the uniquely intertwined nature of the island's agri-food sectors. I could, of course, quote the late Dr Paisley's famous remark about there being British people but Irish cattle here, but I will not, although I think that I just have.
I will not give way, I am afraid, because I want to make progress and have given way once to a Member from his party.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the debate on the so-called Irish Sea border is the fact that we have tended to focus on the wrong things. As I said, no one has ever convincingly argued that it would be logistically possible to have an SPS border on the island, never mind the political or economic consequences of having one. I could, for example, quote multiple UK policy statements on the subject that go right back to August 2017 and the first detailed position paper from the UK Government on SPS and the Irish border, which stated:
"The extent and complexity of third country SPS and related checks would clearly not be appropriate or consistent with the UK and the EU's shared objectives to avoid a hard border for the movement of goods".
I can even quote from a document from October 2019, back when Boris Johnson was the flavour of the month with Members opposite, although he now seems to be the flavour of today, at least, with them. In a letter to the then EU Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, Boris Johnson outlined proposals for revising the backstop, which led to the protocol about which Members opposite are now so furious. His proposal says:
"Third, it provides for the potential creation of an all-island regulatory zone on the island of Ireland, covering all goods including agrifood. For as long as it exists, this zone would eliminate all regulatory checks for trade in goods between Northern Ireland and Ireland"
— by which he means the Republic of Ireland —
"by ensuring that goods regulations in Northern Ireland are the same as those in the rest of the EU."
There, we come to the point. I am afraid that it is not possible. If we accept that we need the same SPS rules on the island of Ireland to preserve our agri-food industry and the single epidemiological unit, we simply cannot pretend that the EU single market does not exist. We need a bespoke deal. Why not pull the existing Swiss deal off the shelf? If people do not like that, fine; let us negotiate a bespoke one.
The simplest and most straightforward way to remove 80% of the checks on the Irish Sea, which we should all want to do, is through an agreement on SPS. That is the most logical thing that should happen. Let us get around the table and agree it. Members opposite should stop engaging in histrionics over removing the protocol. Let us sit down, get the UK and the EU to negotiate that SPS agreement, and we might, instead of bringing down Stormont and threatening political instability, remove some of those checks in time for Christmas. Would that not be a good idea?
As a society that is, at least sometimes, still divided — I hardly need to remind the House of that — Northern Ireland works best through sharing and interdependence. It works best when people interact and when businesses have supply chains and sales both North/South and east-west. However, Brexit, particularly a hard Brexit, was always going to bring boundaries and create friction in trading arrangements.
Once the UK Government and Parliament determined that the UK would operate outside the single market and the customs union, sadly, the dividing line on the map between the UK and the European Union's economic zone was inevitable. The protocol, therefore, is the response to the choices made around Brexit and the prior rejection of earlier and better or, at least, less harsh alternatives. On a purely pragmatic basis, managing checks on the Irish Sea, which has several crossing points, is easier than on land, where there are over 250 crossing points, but any de facto border was always, to some degree at least, going to cut across some people's sense of identity and create friction in the movement of goods.
Brexit has profoundly altered the trading relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union. The Food and Drink Federation reported that British food and drink exports to the EU fell by £2 billion in the first three months of 2021, with dairy products alone plummeting by 90%. Thanks to the protocol, Northern Ireland has been able to trade freely with the European Union, and so it is not as impacted as the rest of the UK by the new trading environment. As such, in 2021, imports from Northern Ireland to Ireland have, it seems, increased by 77·6%, which equates to a value of £663 million. The protocol is not without its —.
I thank the Member very much for raising the trading issues. When we look at the statistics on the diversion of trade that came from Wales to the Republic of Ireland and on the diversion of trade that now comes to Northern Ireland, we have to be very cautious about quoting those figures in the Assembly. We need to have more detail and a greater understanding of what is happening. The idea of the diversion of trade, again, reads to the question of triggering article 16.
I will come on to article 16 and to the actions taken and proposals made by my party in the previous months and years.
The protocol is not without its challenges. Sanitary and phytosanitary checks constitute the main challenge for the Northern Ireland protocol. Therefore, negotiating a bespoke UK-EU veterinary agreement must be a priority. Such an agreement would ease the pressures arising from the Northern Ireland protocol. Many independent countries, including Switzerland and New Zealand, for example, have bilateral veterinary agreements with the European Union and face lower, non-tariff barriers than the UK faces, despite the UK's high standards. The UK can negotiate a veterinary agreement with the EU as a supplementary agreement to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. Negotiating a comprehensive UK-EU veterinary agreement would offer help to all the UK food exporters who are manifestly struggling to engage with European markets. For Northern Ireland, progress in that area would address SPS issues as well.
As I referred to moments ago in my response to the Member, the Alliance party has consistently called for a UK-EU veterinary agreement and has escalated that issue up the political agenda of both Westminster and the Assembly. Calls to invoke article 16 of the protocol or to suspend parts of its implementation will ultimately lead to a dead end and will not scrap the protocol. However, if that happens and that article 16 option is further pursued, there will be a further period of protracted negotiations and uncertainty.
It is worth repeating that the protocol is merely a symptom of the problem, not the cause. Solutions are available if we think creatively and work together. With that in mind, my Alliance colleagues and I will support the motion.
I obviously support the motion, which is effectively about Brexit. Brexit is a product of an ideology that is having real-life implications for us and the people whom we represent. Presumably, ideology is what got us all into politics, but your ideology must complement delivery for constituents. If it does not, you need to question what you are doing.
The EU was and is not perfect, but EU membership was good for the North. It was good for our communities, local infrastructure, businesses and farmers. We all knew that Brexit would be bad for local businesses. We knew it in 2016, we knew it during the long nights of missed deadlines and drawn-out negotiations, and we know it now. However, we are where we are and the most sensible thing for us all to do is to set ideology aside and look for a resolution. We need to be responsible, dial down the rhetoric and support those whom we represent.
Today, we have more attempts by David Frost to appease unionists with talk of threats to trigger article 16. The British Government are talking about Brexit in the context of trade deals and doing business with the rest of the world, when we all know that, for the Tories and the other policy architects behind it, Brexit was about ego. It harks back to the good old days of empire when Britannia ruled the waves. Racism, xenophobia, scaremongering and hatred were at its very heart. Families who made their homes in the North, who worked here and contributed to our local communities, left en masse because of the rhetoric that surrounded the referendum.
Britain left the EU and all the benefits that it had brought in order to try to re-establish itself as a superpower. I do not have a problem with that; wail away. The issue is that it brought the North out with it. We did not vote for Brexit. Community groups contact me every week about the Community Renewal Fund, and our £1 billion PEACE PLUS funding has been jeopardised by the DUP's refusal to attend meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council. It is not a mess of our making, but it affects us. We have to make the best of a bad situation, be innovative and creative and look for solutions for the people whom we all represent.
Aligning SPS checks makes sense for businesses in the North and in Britain. Our agri-food sector in the North makes up a massive proportion of our economy and employs 100,000 people. We know how badly our processing plants are struggling because of a lack of workforce, again as a result of Brexit and the fact that so many of our migrant worker population left our shores in its wake.
Unionism is unhappy that, in some instances, North/South trade has replaced east-west trade. When I speak to constituents, local businesses and producers, I find that trade is trade, and we can always do with more of it. That is why we in Sinn Féin tabled the motion. We want to see practical, workable resolutions to the issues that have beset our farm businesses since the onset of Brexit.
I have spoken before about the fact that I am from a farming background. Beef, lamb and dairy produce account for roughly half of the food that is produced in the North, and I am acutely aware of the specifics of one of those sectors in particular. In January, I received a number of calls from blackface sheep farmers across the North. They had bought yoe lambs in Scotland before Christmas, only to find that they could not take them home when they had reached the appropriate age in January because they were not scrapie-monitored. That is a costly and stressful exercise for local farmers. It takes seven years to get the scrapie monitoring qualification, which imposes another cost on Scottish farmers who are trying to sell their lambs to the North. That is one example of how different standards between our two islands can have a real impact on our producers in counties Derry, Tyrone and Down.
We have seen increased trade North and South, which is so beneficial and, in many instances, makes sense from an environmental and efficiency viewpoint.
The Member says that North/South trade is beneficial. Some trade can be good, and I have no difficulty with that. Will the Member accept, however, that much of that trade is more expensive, that it costs customers more, that customers can no longer get products that they are used to getting and that they are dissatisfied?
Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Member for his intervention. I remind him that that is the result of Brexit. I will also say that the milk that I get from down the road is, in most instances, better than the milk that has air miles added to it. I have not had that complaint from constituents.
I was going on to say that aligned SPS checks might allow even more trade, which we should all welcome.
Today's motion shows the first signs of Sinn Féin's acceptance that the Northern Ireland protocol, a solution that it requested be fully implemented, is not working. As far as that is concerned, I welcome the fact that other parties in the Chamber seem to be waking up to the devastating realities of the protocol for their constituents and particularly for their business communities.
Unfortunately, the problem goes far deeper and is far greater than the motion suggests. We have seen issues with livestock movement, medicines, pets, travel, supermarket produce, horticulture products and Amazon packages. We have seen damage to the Belfast Agreement and political tension in our communities. All parties and Governments involved must now accept that the problem does not need a sticking plaster but a proper solution — and fast.
The motion acknowledges that paperwork and checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from GB need to be reduced. On goods that will not enter the EU single market, checks and paperwork do not need to be reduced: they need to be removed. We need a bespoke agreement between our Government and the European Union, as the motion highlights, that will remove the Irish Sea border, remove the damage being done to our economy and future trading prospects and remove the prospect of an unaccountable foreign power having any say in the running of our nation. No other nation on earth would countenance such a situation, and neither should we.
We must look for solutions. One potential solution is the development of a system to ensure that UK products do not access the EU single market through Northern Ireland. There should be no difficulty in our committing to protecting the EU single market if the EU, in turn, permits the proper functioning of the UK single market. Both single markets should be protected. One does not need to be over the other, as is currently the case.
Solutions need to be found fast. In recent months, we have seen at first hand GB businesses stop trading with NI because there is too much hassle and additional cost. The protocol reduces choice for the NI consumer, which, in turn, increases prices and reduces NI's business competitiveness. The simple way to resolve the matter is for nationalist and republican Ministers to recognise that the Irish Sea border is contrary to the Belfast Agreement. It costs us and those who elect us to this place, unionist and nationalist, £850 million a year. I urge Sinn Féin, SDLP and Alliance Ministers to join us in calling not for rigorous implementation but for London and Brussels to remove the Irish Sea border.
It is good to have the opportunity to speak on the issue, and it is good to see Sinn Féin moving its position. When we debated the issue last year, there was a great call for the rigorous implementation of the protocol. Now, we have the recognition that rigorous implementation would be a complete and utter disaster for the people of Northern Ireland.
We have not had a rigorous implementation of it thus far. We have had all of the grace periods. Were they to end, there would be a shortage of food on our shelves, costs would go up for the lowest-paid people in Northern Ireland, and there would be devastating harm to all the people of Northern Ireland. It is good to see that recognition.
It is strange to see the SDLP and the Alliance Party still clinging to the rickety vessel of the protocol even though it is clearly a sinking ship. We need to have some realisation from Mr O'Toole, Mr Blair and others that this is not good for Northern Ireland.
The Member said that the amendment from the Ulster Unionists is looking for a hard border on the island of Ireland, as are others. I do not know anybody who is looking for a hard border on the island of Ireland. I do not see any need for a hard border on the island of Ireland. If we are talking about the protection of the European Union single market, that can be easily done without the protocol, which needs to be dismantled quickly. I call on David Frost to not talk any more about introducing article 16 but to get it introduced and then negotiate from there with the European Union to completely and utterly dismantle the protocol and the damage that it is doing to the Northern Ireland people.
We bring in some £13·4 billion of goods every year from the European Union, and we bring in £7·9 billion from everywhere else, so there is basically a 2:1 split in the import of goods. How is it good for the people of Northern Ireland to have checks on two thirds of the goods that are coming in? Clearly, it is not, and people need to reflect on that. That cannot be good. We have 419,000 HGVs coming into Northern Ireland every year. This year, thus far, we have had 25,000 common health entry documents (CHEDs) in six months, and those now involve 2,500 checks per week. That cannot be good for business in Northern Ireland. People need to reflect on that, because what is not good for business is not good for consumers. If you are serious about representing people who are in need and people who are on the breadline, you will stand with everybody else in seeking the removal of the protocol. Be honest with the European Union. Be honest that you got it wrong, that the European Union got it wrong and that we need to remove it.
Some people ask, "What do we do instead?". Well, what is placing the single market at risk? What are the goods that will cause danger to the single market? It is certainly not the food that ends up in our supermarkets and our corner shops in Northern Ireland. It is certainly not the 100,000 trees that were supposed to come into Northern Ireland but have been cancelled. They were to help us make our contribution towards reducing our carbon footprint. It is certainly not 97% of the sheep that are no longer able to enter Northern Ireland as a result of the protocol. Perhaps Ms Sheerin could have told the farmers who were in contact with her, "This is purely down to the Northern Ireland protocol, which we supported".
The protocol is a political manipulation that was brought in to punish the United Kingdom for leaving the European Union, and we need to recognise that. It was driven by Simon Coveney, Leo Varadkar and people like that, and it was done by them to damage people who live on the island of Ireland — the people who live in Northern Ireland — whom they claim to support.
Realistically, we need to ensure that we roll this back. We need to roll this back for the sheep farmers in the Sperrins, because 97% of the sheep that came in during the previous year could not come in last year because of the Northern Ireland protocol. It is no wonder that farmers in County Tyrone are contacting me and saying, "Will you please try to do something for us, because the people whom we voted in to do something for us are not doing it?". Perhaps Ms Sheerin needs to reflect on that.
I have given way once already, Ms Sheerin. I was kind to you.
How do we fix this thing? There is absolutely no issue in checking goods going into the European Union — none whatever with goods that come through Northern Ireland to Great Britain. We will facilitate that. That does not need to happen on the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. That can happen at our ports, but it is on goods that will enter the European Union, not goods that are staying in Northern Ireland, because there is no risk whatever to the single market from those goods.
I apologise, Mr Speaker; I thought that I had an extra minute.
As the debate winds on, you would nearly think that we would want to be in a place where you had free movement of goods, people, capital and services. Do you remember those? They used to be there before the Brexit that people voted for. Let us not dupe ourselves into thinking that people do not live with the consequences of their votes.
Even today, I heard yer man Frost over in England. He is coming off with nonsense about — what did he say? — the:
"long bad dream of our EU membership".
He should explain that to the people in England who cannot find goods on the shelves in the supermarkets, who cannot get petrol, who cannot get drivers, who cannot get butchers and who cannot get workers. The list is endless.
He, by his hand, and others signed up to and worked for the Brexit they are now delivering. They replaced what was there with Brexit and created their own living nightmare.
I thank the Member for giving way. Would he agree that one of the things that Brexit brought in, which we did not hear about from the Member who spoke previously, the Agriculture Minister, was the effect on Northern Ireland farmers of the potential loss of common agricultural policy rural payments and, secondly, the loss of EU labour, particularly in our agri-food industry, not least in his own constituency?
Just to get back to the debate, I welcome the opportunity to debate the need to resolve the ongoing dispute over the level of sanitary and phytosanitary checks and the paperwork that are required for goods being imported from Britain. Those goods include products of animal origin, plants, plant products, food and feed of non-animal products and high-risk food of non-animal origin. We should be clear, however, that the new checks and paperwork that are required for those goods are a direct result of that Brexit. The majority of people in Northern Ireland did not vote for that Brexit, and the majority of people in the North recognise the fact that the protocol is the direct outcome of that Brexit.
The EU, and this is reality, has a duty and responsibility to protect the single market on behalf of its member states. The EU and the British Government also have a duty and responsibility to protect the Good Friday Agreement, as do we. The Brexit protocol is an integral part of the withdrawal agreement that was negotiated between the British Government and the EU. It attempts to meet those duties and responsibilities. In the unlikely event of Boris Johnson reaching for the nuclear option of triggering article 16, those duties and responsibilities will remain. They will still require agreement between the EU and the British Government on how to manage the situation.
The debate gives the Assembly an opportunity to demonstrate that the majority of elected representatives here do not support the position as articulated by the DUP, which, prompted by Mr Allister, is threatening the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement if the protocol is not abandoned. I suspect that that positioning has as much to do with its anxieties over its electoral prospects as it does a desire to resolve any outstanding issues on SPS checks.
That having been said, since the Brexit protocol was agreed, there have been ongoing disputes and delays over its implementation and the level of SPS checks and paperwork that are required. However, the SPS checks and paperwork are there to protect that EU single market not just in the present but in the future. The cheerleaders for Brexit in the DUP may not like it, but the reality is that the prospect of a divergence in standards between what is allowed in the UK market and what is allowed in the EU single market requires checks to be made on those goods.
There is a mechanism for working through the difficulties. There is a Joint Committee.
I am sorry. I am running behind time, and I have a bit more to say.
That is why agreement between the EU and the British Government to align sanitary and phytosanitary standards for goods is a realistic and practical way to resolve concerns about the levels of checks and paperwork involved in importing goods from Britain.
The British Government's recent Command Paper from July leaves open the possibility of an appropriately designed SPS agreement, setting out where UK and EU SPS legislation provided for the same high standards. It allows for providing a means to identify areas of significant difference, where the level of risk-based controls might need to be higher. So, it is possible that agreement could be found between the British Government and the EU to align those standards. However, the British Government's unilateral declaration of an indefinite extension to the grace periods is certainly not a long-term solution. It can only allow time for further discussions, which, I hope, will take place. The EU is currently engaged in those discussions with the British Government, and that is the background against which we are having this debate.
The SDLP wants to see an agreement reached. We want to see positivity. Where there are difficulties and problems between the two sides, we want to see those ironed out. We want to move on in order to create what is needed for our entire community, which is stability and a positive way forward. The Assembly has an opportunity to indicate its preferred solution today. Sin an méid, a Cheann Comhairle.
The Northern Ireland protocol is not working. It is significantly disrupting trade east-west. A rethink is needed. It is costing our businesses and, increasingly, it will cost our constituents in their pockets as they buy the essential items in their daily lives. We all have to remember that we have had only a small taster of the bureaucracy, disruption and cost that is likely to occur.
I am aware, for instance, that many hauliers have stopped using the port of Dublin because it is implementing the fuller level of protocol testing and paperwork and are coming in via Cairnryan instead. There is another level that is yet to be experienced by Northern Ireland customers. There are wider aspects that are yet to come. The regulations around the parcels industry will not work and will not be tolerated. The sooner everyone recognises that, the sooner we can get down to practical talking to get solutions before there is a huge impact on our economy and our politics.
I draw Members' attention to the Ulster Unionist amendment, which asks for:
"a bespoke agreement to align sanitary and phytosanitary standards for goods at risk."
At the moment, the level of bureaucracy and paperwork is ridiculous. I know of a small motor factor in Larne, who used to ring up his supplier in GB to ask them to post over an item. He cannot do that any more because items have to come as part of a pallet load in a minimum order of £1,000. By the way, the distribution costs have doubled as well. That is the outworking of the protocol. When our constituents go to buy items for their cars, they will all be paying for it. That is the reality of what is being delivered. What are the risks? Are container loads of car parts going across the border? Were that the case, I would fully understand why such levels of scrutiny might be required of customers who are abusing the system. Why can we not have an at-risk system, where goods that are clearly being traded locally do not get caught up in bureaucracy?
The Belfast Agreement has been used and abused. Clearly, the Irish Government, the EU and others have focused solely on North/South issues and ignored the east-west aspect, which is disrupting politics and will increasingly do so. As others have said, UK standards are frequently higher than those in the EU, particularly around animal welfare. I am curious as to why Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Alliance Party want the full implementation of the protocol, and why they chose that very dangerous language rather than looking for practical solutions that will address all the concerns. That is not what is being looked for. Too often, we have heard that they want the full implementation of the protocol. The protocol could be adapted and changed to cover at-risk products if there were a willingness to do so. I only wish that that were the case.
First, I have heard the phrase "rigorous implementation" about 10,000 times from unionist politicians but it was mentioned once, in one letter. The protocol should be implemented in a way that works; that is what the UK and the EU should agree. When it comes to practical solutions, does he not agree with me and acknowledge that his proposal, which seems to be to reopen an entire international treaty between one departing member of what was a 28-member regulatory bloc and is now a 27-member regulatory bloc, is not entirely practical? That would involve going to the Finnish Government, the Danish Government, the Maltese Government, the French Government, the Polish Government, the Cypriot Government and every other Government in the EU and saying, "Lads, are you happy that we reopen this treaty?" That is not a practical solution. Does he recognise that?
There is a mechanism to change and do away with the ridiculous parts of the protocol, but that is not the route that has been taken to date. You can stick to the full implementation of the protocol and end up having nothing, because there is a danger that you will simply cost your constituents, cost the economy and cost the body politic in Northern Ireland, while ignoring the particular special circumstances in Northern Ireland. I do not hear any regard being taken of that. The at-risk issue is not being taken into consideration.
If containerloads of TVs were being sneaked through the Republic and into Europe to create unfair competition, I could understand. We would need to stop that and control it; not a problem. Why, however, do we have to stop Marks and Spencer bringing their Christmas fare into their local supermarkets? That is what the protocol is doing. I would like someone from the Alliance Party, in particular, to answer that. That party may suffer that particular aspect more than others when many of its voters recognise the difficulties of getting some of their Christmas fare. Increasingly, some of its members are becoming more European and nationalist, rather than recognising what their constituents need.
I want to talk about medicines in particular. On 1 January 2022, 300 medicines will potentially be discontinued. What are we to do? We need a practical solution. It is not economic for businesses to supply cheap medicines made in the UK to Northern Ireland. Will we just pay for more expensive medicines from elsewhere, reduce the limited money for our health service and force people to change their medicines? They may already be taking medicines —.
I support the motion. We were told that the Prime Minister would "Get Brexit Done", but the reality is that it has just started. We are seeing the impact of leaving the world's largest trading bloc. Brexit did not have to be like this and, indeed, the proponents of Brexit were content to promote a single market approach. Instead, we have the hardest of Brexits and a rushed Trade and Cooperation Agreement, with a massive increase in red tape and friction for businesses across the UK. A recent YouGov poll found that only 18% of the public think that Brexit is going well. Indeed, it is difficult to define many silver linings. There are shortages of certain products on supermarket shelves, and the loss of freedom of movement is, as we have seen, causing real issues with skills shortages in numerous sectors across the UK.
I thank the Member very much for giving way. In his remarks, will he address the fact that his deputy leader called for the full implementation of the protocol? Has his party's stance now changed?
I thank the Member for his intervention. As one of the other Members said, he is a bit like a broken record in relation to that. I will come on to the implementation of the protocol.
Some food industries in the UK have been upended overnight due to delays and friction in exporting fresh food to the EU. In particular, the fish and shellfish sectors across Great Britain faced a massive drop in exports this year. On the movement of animal and food products, a UK-EU sanitary and phytosanitary agreement is a clear way forward. That would not only smooth the flow of goods across the Irish Sea but benefit consumers and businesses in other parts of the UK, and especially those fresh food producers that previously had a major market in the EU.
We must also be conscious of the reasons for SPS checks and rules and of why we cannot simply cast them aside as irrelevant. The safety of our food and the security of our agriculture sector depend on that. It is not difficult to see why the EU is not keen to allow free and uncontrolled access into the single market. We need agreed rules to protect and ensure the quality of food products and to ensure animal and plant health. The story of citrus black spot fungus may not seem interesting to people here today, but it was reported on by RTÉ's Tony Connelly. The fact that, from 1 January 2022, there will be the import of citrus products into the UK from countries where this fungus exists is a case in point.
Alliance did not support the protocol. It was clear that Remain was a much better solution or, failing that, the backstop, but the DUP famously sank that idea.
I thank the Member for his intervention. He will be aware that the EU has proposed a solution to that, and that is what we need to focus on.
We must be constructive and work towards agreed solutions to make the protocol as light-touch as possible. An SPS agreement is a clear way forward. Alliance's MP at Westminster, Dr Stephen Farry, has been pressing since practically the start of the year for such agreements to be progressed to ease frictions. I welcome the news that others are starting to come around to the concept of an SPS or veterinary agreement between the UK and the EU. We need to be clear with the UK Government and speak with one voice on the matter, so today's motion is constructive. Representatives at Westminster also need to make the case, as Stephen has been doing for months, however.
The cliff edges need to go. We need a long-term solution to issues with the protocol. Repeating standstill agreements cannot go on for ever. We need to have long-term rules for businesses and consumers established. The UK and the EU need to work together as partners to build trust and a way forward that benefits us all. We need agreements, whether they be of a New Zealand or Swiss style, rather than political posturing to address issues with the protocol. Realistically, however, we also need to remember that what works for New Zealand, which is a country that is many thousands of miles away, may not work for us. We share a frontier with the single market. We need real, practical solutions that work with it. Alliance will continue to be constructive here and at Westminster to address those issues and to reduce the friction that Brexit has caused.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The UK Government had years to prepare for the mess that they made, but we all suffer their bluff and bluster as they continue to uphold their mess without our consent. They have repeatedly shown contempt for consent as a principle, so that should not surprise anybody.
For the duration of the Brexit process, we have been bombarded with legislation, statutory instruments and legislative consent motions (LCMs), all rushed through with little, if any, scrutiny time or ability for us to understand fully the impacts of what we were being asked to put through. We have had little or no power in the process. We had no inclusion in the formal negotiations, certainly not at a political level, because we should also be reminded that we had no Executive. We had no Ministers at the table during those years.
Brexit and its fallout happened to Northern Ireland without our consent. It has been an EU and a UK Government process. The most that we can do is raise our concerns in the hope that somebody will listen. The current negotiated bespoke solution to differing SPS standards across the UK and the EU is the protocol. We know that the EU and the UK view it differently. For effectiveness and workability, its burden remains. It was never going to be problem-free, but that is unsurprising, given that there was never an agreement about what Brexit was.
The Green Party wants to see the protocol further developed to allow Northern Ireland to be best placed to take as much advantage for us as possible. We have seen benefits of the protocol for Northern Ireland already. I will repeat the word "petrol": the recent fuel crisis in GB that did not affect us is just one example.
Work needs to be done now to create the necessary infrastructure to implement customs and SPS checks under the protocol. The AERA Minister need not obstruct that work any further. More than anything, however, our businesses and retailers need clarity, and they are crying out for a workable way forward, not more political intransigence and mess.
The protocol is a bespoke agreement between the EU and the UK that aims to navigate the differing SPS standards, and, undoubtedly, further agreement is needed. It is a sad reflection on our power in this situation that the most that we can do is pass a motion, call out the decision-makers and ask the UK Government and the EU to listen to us. It is a sad reflection on the UK Government and Prime Minister Boris Johnson that they advise British businesses, cheesemakers in particular, to set up their businesses in Europe, rather than allowing and advising them to come to Northern Ireland to access European markets. Even the Prime Minister will not sell the benefits of our position in Northern Ireland, and that is disgraceful indeed. We urgently need to work towards solutions to the mess that is Brexit for us in Northern Ireland.
The Green Party supports the motion but not the amendment. Speaking to those at the grassroots, we found that they feel that the amendment brings further confusion rather than clarity.
I begin with an apology. I missed the start of the debate. I had a prior engagement elsewhere in the Building with some American students whom I was trying to persuade that our consociational system of government is near perfect and seldom leads to disputes or disagreement in the Chamber. I apologise for missing the opening speeches. However, I have had enough of a flavour of the debate to understand that positions on Brexit and associated issues have not changed much over the last number of years.
I understand that those issues run deep. Some time ago, perhaps a little mischievously, I suggested that, instead of a border down the Irish Sea, we could have one down the Celtic Sea and that checks could be made between Rosslare and the north-western seaports of continental Europe. The reaction on social media was deep and fierce. People were absolutely enraged at the thought that I was suggesting that there could be a check on goods within the single European market, and yet the same people tolerate checks within the internal United Kingdom market. There is a little hypocrisy in that.
It is 2021, five years after the referendum, so I encourage those who remind us that Northern Ireland voted to remain that it was a single, UK-wide referendum. We all took our positions in 2016, and it would not have mattered if the Remain vote in Northern Ireland had hit the sort of percentage that we recorded in 1998 in favour of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. If the UK, generally and overall, had voted to leave, we would still be in the position of having left the EU.
I noted that Mr Harvey talked about the protocol doing damage to the Belfast Agreement of 1998. I simply remind him that his party spent some eight years negotiating it away in what was to become the St Andrews Agreement in 2006 and the St Andrews Act. The DUP has certainly come a long way if it now uses the Belfast Agreement to justify its position and argues that the agreement's fundamentals are so good.
Our amendment is about goods at risk of going from here into the European Union. That, it seems to me, makes enormous sense. We cannot impose on the UK Government restrictions on new trade deals that they may wish to do with countries beyond the European Union.
They may want to do food deals with South America, for example. That has great implications, potentially very negative, for our agri-food business, but Mr Johnson may choose to do that. We are suggesting that we be a bit more focused. We talk about goods at risk. We are suggesting — it has now been accepted by some — that we can make legislative measures, such as saying that, if you deliberately send goods from GB through Northern Ireland into the European Union when you said that they were for consumption in Northern Ireland, you are committing a criminal offence and can be taken to court.
We propose that the UK Government will indemnify the European Union for any damage that may be caused from goods that are entering illegally, even though it is only 0·02% —
I want to clarify a point, because we have not had it yet, on goods at risk. If I understand it correctly, that would apply to goods coming in from GB. If there were a UK-US trade deal that allowed hormone-fed cattle to graze happily on the fields of Scotland and England, under your proposal, would those cattle be allowed to graze happily on the fields of Fermanagh and Tyrone? They would not be allowed to do so on the fields of Cavan and Monaghan under SPS alignment.
This has been a very interesting debate with a lot of opinions across the Chamber. It kicked off with my colleague Caoimhe Archibald, who highlighted the need for practical solutions to reduce checks. She said that the Trade and Cooperation Agreement was a minimalist, threadbare approach and stressed the importance of the protocol to protect the all-Ireland supply chain. She spoke about SPS models throughout the world and how we need a genuine bespoke agreement here to resolve the outstanding issues. She said that triggering article 16 would provoke a discussion phase.
Mr Aiken said that time is running out, that the protocol is not working and that it needs to change. He said that that is important because it is affecting east-west trade.
Mr Irwin said that the protocol is the problem and not the solution. He referenced the scale of checks, called for them to be binned and mentioned the importance of the British market.
Mr O'Toole referenced the importance of the EU-UK SPS agreement. He said that he has never heard any successful argument for SPS land border checks on the island of Ireland. He referred to the fact that, for decades, the island of Ireland has been a single epidemiological unit for animal plant and health, and he said that the Swiss deal could be taken off the shelf.
Mr Blair said that we have a supply chain North/South and east-west, that the protocol is a response to Brexit and that it is easier to have checks at the sea than across a land border of 250 miles. He said that a bespoke EU-UK SPS agreement must be a priority, that article 16 would not stop the protocol and that he supported the motion.
Emma Sheerin talked about EU membership being good for the North and that Brexit was bad. She said that we need a resolution to make the best of a bad situation. She talked about Brexit being driven by an ideology that was bad for here and that had the rhetoric of the old days of the British Empire. She said that an SPS agreement would make sense. She highlighted some of the issues that we face around blackface sheep. She said that alignment would create even more trade, and that would be good.
Minister Poots spoke again about the need to dismantle the protocol by triggering article 16. He referred to the number of CHEDS coming in and the implications of checks on those for businesses. He said that businesses had not had any particular issues with checks at the ports for goods that were going into the single market but that was not the case for goods staying here.
Mr McGlone talked about the free movement of goods, capital, people and services. He also talked about the implications of Brexit in Britain. He referred to the fact that the majority of people here voted to remain, that the protocol was a product of Brexit and that we have a duty to protect the Good Friday Agreement. He said that, if article 16 were triggered, issues would still remain and that we instead need stability and a positive way forward.
Mr Beggs said that the protocol is not working and that we have only had a taste of its effects here. He said that there are challenges for small businesses, and he gave the example of a car business trying to access parts. He also said that his preference is for an at-risk system.
Mr Muir said that we have had the hardest Brexit here. He said that, in a recent survey, 18% of the public said that they thought it was going well. He highlighted the importance of an SPS veterinary agreement and said that that was the best way forward. He said that, in the referendum, Alliance supported the bid to remain. He also said that long-term rules for businesses need to be established and that the EU and the UK need to work together.
Ms Bailey talked about the Brexit disaster that was imposed on us without our consent and referenced the contempt that has been shown to us by the British Government in that regard. She referred to the huge number of statutory regulations and LCMs that have been rushed through. Indeed, the Committee was at the front of that over a number of months in order to get a functioning rule book ready for transition day. She also referred to the protocol benefits. She said that businesses need clarity and that the protocol, itself, is a bespoke agreement.
Mr Nesbitt, who wound on the amendment, said that positions had not changed much. He outlined his proposition for a Celtic sea border and his preference for an arrangement to deal with goods that are at risk.
That was a bit of a run-through of some of the main issues raised. From my perspective, as Sinn Féin's agriculture and rural affairs spokesperson, we want seamless trade east-west, because 50% of our agri-food product goes across the water to Britain, so we need two-way trade. We also need North/South trade, because our processing lines are North/South. Some £1·3 billion in trade is done North/South. The figures are very startling. We import about half a million pigs from the South into the North, and we export about half a million sheep. Upwards of a billion litres of milk are exported into the South every year as well. We have seen the scrapie monitoring crisis and the pedigree issues, and those need to be resolved.
I thank the Member for giving way. The Member on the Bench opposite would not let me back in after he asked what my constituents said to me when we talked about the scrapie monitoring issue. I did not have to tell any of my constituents what had caused the issue, because they were all able to identify Brexit as the problem. Furthermore, while it was a huge inconvenience last year for people who had bought sheep in Scotland to not be able to take them home, this year, trade has never been so good, and there is great demand for yoe lambs that are reared here.
I want to deal with the issue of leaving the EU, which was touched on as well. In my role as spokesperson on agriculture and rural affairs, I deal with a lot of people in farming and rural communities. Certainly, Brexit has put all of us on the back foot. For example, the South of Ireland has negotiated a €10·7 billion chunk of the common agricultural policy to spend over the next seven years, whilst here in the North we do not know what will happen with funding beyond the lifetime of the current British Parliament. Also, we are looking at PEACE PLUS as a possible replacement for the rural development programme. However, that will be at risk if the DUP decides to pull down these institutions. The Finance Minister said the other day that, if that is the case, there is a possibility that it may not be signed off at the NSMC.
As for how all this came about, it absolutely is a product of Brexit. It is also a product of Britain setting the scene for divergence from EU regulations and rules. We saw that when the British Government steadfastly refused to include minimum standards in the Agriculture Act. That was the first sign of it: they refused to include in the Agriculture Act minimum standards for imports. They then put their face against a veterinary agreement. The British Government are setting the scene to diverge from EU regulations and to enter into trade agreements across the rest of the world. We saw that in the case of Australia, where the regulations differ from those of the EU. That is where the protocol is an important protection against those imports coming into the North. The challenge is that the British market, which is so important to us, could be filled with products from other countries that the British Government have entered into arrangements with.
We have seen that the divergence in regulations can have a negative impact. Whilst we have left the EU and have the protocol to facilitate trade, we have different immigration rules on the island of Ireland. The British Home Office rules apply in the North, and that is causing mayhem in the agri-food and processing industry. We now have a situation in which 25,000 pigs are backed up on farms across the North because we have a shortage of butchers and processors in the meat plants. That is causing a crisis in the pork industry. We are heading into the harvest, but seasonal workers will not be able to come here this year because of the British immigration rules that apply in the North.
Minister Poots wrote to the Home Office about immigration. The Committee received the reply from the Home Office. It is contemptuous and shameful that the Home Office will not look at any relaxation of the visa rules, expedition of the tier 2 visas or including butchers and meat processors on the shortage occupation list.
I thank everybody for their contributions today. It was a good and wide-ranging debate. I agree with Mr Nesbitt that positions have not changed greatly, but it was very helpful to discuss the motion today.
Dr Aiken, Mr Allen, Mrs Barton, Mr Beggs, Mr Butler, Mr Chambers, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Stewart, Mr Swann
Tellers for the Ayes: Dr Aiken, Mr Nesbitt
Mr Allister, Dr Archibald, Ms Armstrong, Ms Bailey, Mr Blair, Mr Boylan, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Ms S Bradley, Ms Bradshaw, Ms Brogan, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, Mrs Cameron, Mr Catney, Mr Clarke, Mr Delargy, Mr Dickson, Ms Dillon, Mrs Dodds, Ms Dolan, Mr Dunne, Mr Durkan, Mr Easton, Ms Ennis, Ms Ferguson, Ms Flynn, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Gildernew, Mr Givan, Ms Hargey, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Ms Hunter, Mr Irwin, Mr Kearney, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mrs Long, Mr Lyons, Mr Lyttle, Mr McAleer, Mr McCann, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Miss McIlveen, Mr McNulty, Ms Mallon, Mr Middleton, Mr Muir, Ms Á Murphy, Mr C Murphy, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr O'Toole, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin, Mr Stalford, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Miss Woods
Tellers for the Noes: Dr Archibald, Mr McAleer
Question accordingly negatived.
Main Question put. The Assembly divided:
Ayes 48; Noes 29
Dr Archibald, Ms Armstrong, Ms Bailey, Mr Blair, Mr Boylan, Ms S Bradley, Ms Bradshaw, Ms Brogan, Mr Carroll, Mr Catney, Mr Delargy, Mr Dickson, Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Mr Durkan, Ms Ennis, Ms Ferguson, Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Ms Hargey, Ms Hunter, Mr Kearney, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mrs Long, Mr Lyttle, Mr McAleer, Mr McCann, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty, Ms Mallon, Mr Muir, Ms Á Murphy, Mr C Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr O'Toole, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin, Miss Woods
Tellers for the Ayes: Dr Archibald, Ms Sheerin
Mr Allister, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, Mrs Cameron, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Lyons, Miss McIlveen, Mr Middleton, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Stalford, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Harvey, Mr Wells
The following Members voted in both Lobbies and are therefore not counted in the result: Dr Aiken, Mr Allen, Mrs Barton, Mr Beggs, Mr Butler, Mr Chambers, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Stewart, Mr Swann
Main Question accordingly agreed to. Resolved:
That this Assembly supports a comprehensive and bespoke agreement between the European Union and the British Government to align sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) standards, with the aim of reducing checks and paperwork on goods being imported from Britain; recognises that this is the only realistic and practical way of reducing checks within the framework of existing international agreements; acknowledges that there is widespread support from businesses here for such an agreement; and calls on the European Union and the British Government to negotiate a bespoke agreement to align sanitary and phytosanitary standards.