Checks at Sea Ports

Question for Urgent Oral Answer — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 7th February 2022.

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Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 3:30 pm, 7th February 2022

John Blair has given notice of a question for urgent oral answer to the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. I remind Members that, if they wish to ask a supplementary question, they should rise continually in their place. The Member who tabled the question will be called automatically to ask a supplementary question.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Mr Blair asked the Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to outline whether he will reverse his decision to cease sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks at ports.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

My Executive paper on the continued implementation of sanitary and phytosanitary checks at Northern Ireland points of entry under the Northern Ireland protocol was not considered by the Executive at their meeting on 27 January 2021. I, therefore, do not have an agreed Executive decision on the matter at this time.

As you are aware, on Friday 4 February, the High Court suspended the implementation of my decision until a further order from the court or until the conclusion of the judicial review proceedings. I await a response from the court.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I thank the Minister for his answer. He has repeated on numerous occasions his opposition to the detail and outworkings of the hard Brexit that he campaigned for. Given the legal obligation on the UK Government to implement the checks, the ongoing negotiations between the UK Government and the EU and the role of the Joint Committee compared with the minimal role of DAERA in all of this, is it not the case that the Minister is pursuing a strategy of protest rather than process that will bring undue pressure and added difficulty for the Civil Service and businesses alike?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Member did not seem to mind bringing added burden to business and the public when he and other Members voted for the protocol's rigorous implementation. As a consequence, we now have proposals from the European Union for a massive number of checks.

People have not seen the implications of the Northern Ireland protocol yet, because so little of it is being implemented at this stage. Were it not for grace periods and other reasons, we would be in a circumstance in which business would be crippled as a consequence of the checks. Over 50% of our trade, both import and export, is with Great Britain. The consequence of putting barriers between from where you import 50% of your goods and the individuals who receive those goods will ultimately be to cause great harm to the latter. Who are those individuals? They are the Member's constituents and my constituents, and they have been complaining. Whether it be the Amazon deliveries that are not coming, the hundreds of companies in Great Britain that are now saying that they will not supply Northern Ireland or the supermarket lorries that are being turned away, with hundreds of thousands of pounds' worth of goods perishing as a consequence, all those things are already happening. Were the grace periods to go, and were we to carry out all the checks that the EU expects us to, the problems arising at our ports would be inconceivable.

I ask these questions to Mr Blair and anybody else in the Chamber: do you still want the rigorous implementation of the protocol? Did you not understand what its rigorous implementation meant, or do you now not want its rigorous implementation?

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

On Thursday, we received evidence from the chief executive of the NI Pork and Bacon Forum (NIPBF), who mentioned the importance of the protocol. The very notion of checks stopping would damage us and risk our being delisted. Is the Minister of Agriculture, as someone who reminds us constantly of his care for the agri-food sector and for agriculture, not concerned about the potential recklessness of his decision for the industry?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

There are two issues there. One is the food that comes in from Great Britain to Northern Ireland that stays in Northern Ireland and therefore causes no risk whatsoever to the European Union's single market. Does the Member think that it is a good thing for lorries for the likes of Asda and Sainsbury's, which do not even have shops in the Republic of Ireland, to have to go through checks? Applying official controls regulation (OCR) costs to those goods will drive up the costs for people in Strabane who buy their food in the Asdas of this world. If he thinks that that is a good idea, let us hear it.

The other issue is this: if the Member is referring to the likes of a pork company that imports raw pork from Great Britain to reprocess it, most of which then goes back to Great Britain but some of which goes to other places, we have no problem whatsoever in facilitating checks to do that so that our companies can continue to import and export. We do not, however, need checks on the vast majority of things that come in here at the minute. Exports have to be dealt with differently. We are happy to do that and to engage with the business sector to ensure that it will have as free movement as possible between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, between the European Union and Northern Ireland and between Northern Ireland and the European Union.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

Minister, thank you for explaining to the rigorous implementers on the other side of the House exactly what the cost of the checks would be to our constituents, both in the price of goods and in the lack of choice. I see some of them smiling. Perhaps they will not be smiling when their constituents outline that to them as well.

Does the Minister agree that the checks are merely a symptom of the problem and that the real cause of the problem is the fact that Northern Ireland remains under EU law?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

One of the reasons why I voted for Brexit was that I wanted accountability in decision-making. Irrespective of everything else, I wanted the people making laws for me to be people whom I could influence. That is a right of every citizen. The place where you will have most influence is local government. Councillors are the people who are most available to the public, followed by Members of the Assembly and then by MPs. The Member was in the European Parliament. She knows how much influence three Members of the European Parliament had amongst the many hundreds of Members in that body and how deals were done and stitched up beforehand and all of that. She knows, better than most, about the circumstances that prevail there, and they are particularly undemocratic.

We are now in an even worse situation in that the EU is still making laws for us but we have no Members of the European Parliament and no means of holding anybody to account. There was a saying that Irish people used to say: no taxation without representation. It seems that those who are great people about being Irish no longer hold that line, because they want legislation without representation. There is no democracy involved there.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Another saying is: if it ain't broke, why try and fix it? That is probably not Irish, but it is a definite one.

Prior to his instruction to stop the checks at the ports, did the Minister seek legal advice from the Attorney General and/or the Departmental Solicitor's Office (DSO)? If so, did that advice entirely support his decision to issue the instruction to stop the checks?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I assure the Member that I have been working with both the Attorney General and the DSO. It is very common — it has happened over the years that I have been in Government — for Ministers to seek advice from senior counsel who specialise in a particular area. Given that this is constitutional law, I specifically sought the advice of a constitutional lawyer as well. My advice is there: it will be tested in court, and we will see the outcome, but the grounds for me making the decision are soundly based on sound legal advice.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I declare an interest as a pet owner. I own a young dog, and I am filled with worry, Minister. When you talked to the other members of the Executive, particularly those who wanted the rigorous implementation of the protocol, were they aware of recommendation 6 from the European Commission? That is:

"To ensure that documentary and identity checks of non-commercial pet animals moving into the EU-SPS area via points of entry in Northern Ireland from Great Britain are carried out."

Did any of them think that that was a good idea, or did they think that the full and rigorous implementation of the protocol should be carried out, despite what all Northern Ireland pet owners want to see?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I unilaterally made that decision. Nobody has challenged that in court yet, so I will probably be challenged on that one tonight by some individual who thinks that it is more important to suck up to the European Union than it is to provide services to the people of Northern Ireland.

There is no need for checks for rabies. The last time that that happened in Ireland, or on these islands, was in 1922. There is no need for our animals to have rabies vaccinations or tapeworm treatments, but the European Union seems to think that that is a good idea. It also thinks that it is a good idea that we do not get veterinary medicines that were previously available to us from Great Britain. We hear a lot about how the European Union was so generous with its deal on medicines that it actually allowed people who are suffering from cancer and other illnesses to get generic medicines into Northern Ireland to treat them. That is not generous; it is downright arrogant to deny people medicines. The European Union was supposed to include veterinary medicines in the arrangements that it proposed for human medicines, but it has not done so. As a consequence, the British Veterinary Association has highlighted that 40% of the veterinary medicines that are currently available to them will no longer be available to them.

Agriculture is our biggest industry. It employs around 10% of our population. The European Union is denying it access to up to 40% of the medicines that it currently uses. Think of all the pet owners and how much they love their pets. When they go to their vet, the vet will say, "We can't get you that item any more, because the Europeans don't allow it to come in here. We can't get you that item any more, so we can't treat your pet, or we'll have to treat it with a more expensive product that comes from the European Union". I would really love the people who are calling and bawling for the rigorous implementation of the protocol to represent their constituents' needs, as opposed to their political ideology.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 3:45 pm, 7th February 2022

Answers should be succinct and within the two-minute guidance.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

By taking the action again, the Minister must have thought that the first time was so good that he needed to do it twice. Minister, what good was achieved the first time that you made the move?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Good will come if we succeed, at some point, in getting to a much better place, at which people will not have their bags unpacked as they come into Northern Ireland in their cars. They will not have food taken off them in their family car. If Members care to read the report that is lodged in the Assembly Library, they will find that that is what the European Union wants to do. Maybe Ms Bailey did not realise that when she put her hand to the rigorous implementation, but that is what you want, Ms Bailey; you want people to have to go through that rigorous implementation, which involves people's cars and luggage being searched when they travel from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. That is a wholly unsustainable position. As I stated, given its unsustainability, if it remains, it will not lead to the restoration of the Executive.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

If the serious situation arises in which the courts overrule the Minister's legitimate decision — we have already seen the ill-judged interim intervention — will his position as a Minister and that of any unionist Minister become untenable?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

As I indicated, I do not believe that the Executive, now not functioning, will be re-established until the issue is resolved. I cannot see how an issue of such gravity and seriousness can continue to be pushed down the road, with talk of mañana and promises of tomorrow but tomorrow never coming. We had what happened last week because tomorrow did not come. There is a consequence to that. You need cross-community support to operate the Northern Ireland Executive. You will not achieve cross-community support while the European Union continues to impose burdens that do not have cross-community support on the people of Northern Ireland. Someone in Europe needs to wake up to the reality that they are not doing this to assist the peace process. A bomb has been put in the political element of the peace process not by terrorists but by the European Union, which is insisting on destroying the political processes here by its actions. That is unacceptable.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I also encourage Members to be succinct in their questions. A considerable number of Members have still to ask a question.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

Minister, following on from previous questions about the legal advice on the SPS checks at the ports, will you confirm whether the legal advice was commissioned by your Department or by you as an individual? Further to that, who met the cost?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The legal advice was commissioned by the Departmental Solicitor's Office, as is normal practice. I do not know what the costs are, because I do not have a bill.

Photo of Harry Harvey Harry Harvey DUP

Minister, do you believe that the rigorous implementation of the protocol that many in the House have called for is not in the best interests of all citizens of Northern Ireland?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

It cannot be. It cannot be, because we have had the issues with human medicines, and we now have the issues with veterinary medicines. We have had the problems with ordinary, basic food items coming into the supermarkets. I am aware of one company that lost just short of half a million pounds in the week before Christmas because goods were not accepted into Northern Ireland as a result of the protocol. It will get to the point when companies turn round and say, "Much and all as we really want to continue to service Northern Ireland, it is not worth the hassle". If you want to drive out choice and drive out companies that have served here for many years, just keep going the way things are going.

People need to be alert to the fact that the protocol is hugely damaging, and we have seen only the edges of it yet. The full and rigorous implementation of the protocol would be devastating to Northern Ireland's economy and consumers. It is devastating to the political process here to the point where we now do not have a First Minister.

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

Minister, as you well know, it is the rigorous implementation of the hard Brexit championed by you and your party without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland that has brought us to where we are now.

I want to ask you about process. You have acknowledged that a decision needs to be taken. You said that the reason why you brought the legal advice in the first place was that you wanted there to be an Executive decision on the continuation of checks. Have you had that conversation with your party leader and the former First Minister? Is it not the case that, given that the DUP has now collapsed the Executive's ability to meet and the First Minister has resigned, there can be no decision —?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I think that the Member has asked his question.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I thank the Member for the question. Yes, I brought it before the Executive, and it was blocked from coming onto the Executive table. The matter is for those who blocked it from coming onto the Executive table. I do not think that they intended to change their minds, so I can have all the conversations that I wish to have with either Sir Jeffrey Donaldson or Paul Givan, but, as Sinn Féin was determined to block it coming onto the agenda, it was not coming onto the Executive table, and therefore the Executive had never given authority for those checks in the first place.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

Minister, do you understand and have you quantified the increased costs of administration, delays and transportation as a result of the checks?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I do not want to pre-empt Mr Allister's question, which I will deal with as an oral question, but the cost runs into millions of pound. That is without recruiting anywhere near the number of staff whom we were supposed to have recruited at this stage. I have to say this: the more staff we recruit to carry out needless checks, the more staff we take away from other tasks. Veterinarians are in short supply in Northern Ireland. We need our veterinarians to work in our meat plants to assure the public of the quality of meat they get. We need our veterinarians to deal with avian influenza. The farming community and the public in general need veterinarians to carry out care for their animals and ensure that there is good animal welfare throughout Northern Ireland. Opening containers on lorries and checking whether Sainsbury's, Asda, Tesco, Henderson or whomever it happens to be has all the items in the precise order that is on the paper, in my opinion, is a complete and utter waste of time and money and of a veterinarian's time when they should be getting on with the job of providing care for animals and assurance to the public about the quality of food that they get.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

Minister, what positive contribution have you made to resolve the issues? At the end of the day, what is needed is the resolution of the sanitary and phytosanitary issues that have been raised as a result of the failure of Brexit not only in the United Kingdom but particularly in this part of the United Kingdom. What I want to hear from you is not what you are opposed to, but what you are doing positively to negotiate the changes that are required to improve the protocol that you so vehemently oppose.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I will point out to the Member that I am not part of the negotiations. I wish that I was, but I am not. The negotiations take place between the United Kingdom Government and the European Union, and they are not about Brexit; they are about the protocol. I have engaged consistently, particularly with Her Majesty's Government, to the point where we got the operational Command Paper, which was a significant step forward. Then we got the negotiations reopened with the European Union, and I have engaged with Maroš Šefcovic.

We need to be clear that the negotiations have been running on for many months now. We need to get down to the detail and to get the negotiations concluded, because what we have is unacceptable. If the European Union does not care about the peace process in Northern Ireland, it will continue to dig its heels in, to drag its feet and to oppose change. If people here are foolish enough to encourage it to do that, the consequences will be massive damage to the political process.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I go back to Mr McGuigan's question about the legal advice. Minister, is it not unprecedented that the Departmental Solicitor's Office should go to a previous Attorney General for advice? Is it not the case that it was most likely directed to do so by you?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

When someone steps out of one position, it does not preclude them from providing advice in the future. Is the Member suggesting that some form of discrimination should exist and we have a particular person whom we are not allowed to take advice from?

The individual who gave advice is an experienced constitutional lawyer and has significant standing as a constitutional lawyer. People of his standing are not that common in Northern Ireland. Therefore, using someone of that standing gives me a sound basis for making the decision that I made.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I encourage Members to be succinct in their questions. There are five more Members to speak.

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP

Will the Minister outline the process that he used in coming to issuing the instruction last Wednesday to officials to stop the checks at the ports?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The process was a fairly simple one. In the first instance, I went to the First Minister and deputy First Minister to request permission to go to the Executive with a paper that would seek permission to continue the checks. Sinn Féin denied me the opportunity to go with that paper through the deputy First Minister, and, consequently, we were left in circumstances where the Executive had not ruled on it. Given the court hearings that had taken place over the autumn months and the pre-action protocol letter that had come in, I required legal advice. I received legal advice, and that took me to the position where we needed to stop the checks until the Executive had given clearance for those checks to be carried out.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

The Minister referred to the EU recommendation that people moving here from Great Britain should have their cars and personal luggage searched. Does he agree that the logical end point of that policy is strip-searching?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I am not sure, but the Member may draw that conclusion if he so desires. I will say that none of this is required, none of it is necessary and none of it helps the integrity of the European Union's single market.

I will say this clearly, because the European Union needs to know it: we have no intention of being used as a back door to import materials to the European Union's single market that undermines the integrity of that single market. I am happy to be helpful on that front, but it cannot expect us to impose such punitive checks on all the people of Northern Ireland, in spite of the fact that some of their public representatives would slavishly comply with the Holy Grail of Brussels.

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I appreciate that I may be asking one of the final questions today, but not even at the bottom of my barrel did I find the previous question that was asked of the Minister.

The Minister has put on record the very deep-rooted grievance that he clearly has with the UK Government who negotiated the Brexit protocol. After reflecting on his actions over recent days and weeks, does he recognise that he has now ultimately silenced himself as a player in where we move forward to in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 4:00 pm, 7th February 2022

The Member is right: I have a grievance about that, which I am well entitled to have. The grievance is shared by hundreds of thousands of people across this country, so it is a genuine grievance. I do not believe that we are silenced, and that will be demonstrated over the weeks and months that lie ahead. We are pressing hard to get an acceptable outcome. We may have different ideas about how we go about challenging the protocol, but, given that no unionist party supports the current circumstances, nationalism would do well to reflect on that and recognise the need to work with its neighbours to get an outcome that is good for unionists, nationalists and others, and is good for this country as it continues to thrive and grow its economy. We should all be about that, not about raining down political solutions that cause harm to the political process.

Photo of Thomas Buchanan Thomas Buchanan DUP

Is the Minister at liberty to divulge to the House the contents of the legal opinion, which directed him to consider that as the most appropriate and only course of action that could be taken?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Legal advice is privileged and, therefore, does not have to become public knowledge. However, I am happy to indicate that the legal advice discussed extensively issues around the Belfast Agreement and our role to ensure the implementation of that agreement. I note that some Members of the House who previously stood up as the biggest defenders of the Belfast Agreement appear, on this occasion, to think that another agreement supersedes the Belfast Agreement and, therefore, we should just ignore it.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

Will the Minister give his assessment of the number of UK suppliers that are choosing not to supply this part of the United Kingdom? Does he agree that that is having an adverse impact on every citizen of Northern Ireland?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The relevant Minister stated in Parliament that he was aware of over 200 companies that have indicated they will not supply Northern Ireland. There could be many other smaller businesses. For many people, the problem is that the checks are so laborious. For many importers, the checks are laborious. It is easier to import from the USA and China than it is to import from Scotland, which is less than 20 miles away. We have people who can import trees from Latvia but not from Lancashire, which is entirely illogical. We are planting Her Majesty's canopy to celebrate the platinum jubilee and the 70 years of service that Her Majesty has given. It is more than likely that the trees will have to be imported from a third country rather than planting trees that have been grown in Her Majesty's United Kingdom. That is how perverse the protocol is. For anyone who thinks that we are going to go along mildly, ignore all that, roll over and accept it — sorry, that will not happen. People need to wake up to that reality.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I thank Members for their cooperation. That concludes questions on the question for urgent oral answer. I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.