Northern Ireland Protocol: Veterinary Agreement
Published date : 15 December, 2021
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I thank the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) for securing the debate, and for the interest that he has shown. I see that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is not with us at the moment, but I would like to also thank him for his generous tribute. I learned many things on my visit to Northern Ireland, and perhaps one of the most important ones was that, even though a Northern Ireland fishing boat is fishing just a few miles off the Scottish coast, by the time it has caught its haul of prawns and taken them back to Portavogie, it is a Portavogie prawn and has had its passport.
I also concur heartily with the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna), who I also met when I was in Northern Ireland. Her constituency is many things. It is very beautiful, in parts, but it is certainly not an agricultural constituency—I certainly did not run out of fingers and toes counting all of the tractors I saw on the Malone Road of a morning.
The very simple reason we are here is because of another one of those familiar three-word slogans, which are so beloved by the Prime Minister: “Get Brexit done”. Of course, what he could not admit at the time was that his particular manner of choosing to get Brexit done would create a trade and regulatory border right down the Irish sea. Those frictions, which are already there, are only set to increase when the UK has to begin enforcing sanitary and phytosanitary checks on imports to GB from the EU and Northern Ireland.
As the hon. Member for Belfast South said, quite accurately, that is happening as a result of the negotiating objectives that Her Majesty’s Government had at the time. The only rationale I can think of for having those objectives was the need to keep options open about the level at which we were willing to impose animal welfare and food standards, in order to open up the possibility of trade deals with other jurisdictions. I know that the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart), who
made a couple of very telling interventions earlier, has to be on her way to get back home now. If she were still in the Chamber I would have said to her that, for all the issues around the Northern Ireland protocol, the terms on which the UK as a whole has left the European Union do not work for agricultural producers across the UK either. They certainly do not work for my constituents, and I represent a highly agricultural constituency in the north-east of Scotland. Simply put, the terms that we have agreed to are not working for us either.
While I take a keen interest in Northern Irish politics, I do not take any sides. Let me say that I do understand, I hope, and can sympathise with those in Northern Ireland who feel that they have been distanced or separated from Great Britain as a result of the manner in which we left the European Union. Although I am very clear that a protocol is required, it does not need to be on the terms of the current protocol; if we are going to renegotiate the terms of whatever protocol is there, it has to be done in a constructive way that keeps in mind the objectives of all parts of our jurisdiction. I understand the importance of having seamless trade east to west, as well as north to south, on the island of Ireland. However, we cannot get away from the fact that the very reason that we no longer have that is a function of the choices made by the UK Government.
I agree with the hon. Member’s intervention, and if he will allow me, I will go on to develop some of the many reasons why I believe that to be the case. We should be looking for the most pragmatic solutions in the short term to minimise those self-inflicted obstacles that we now have to trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and also between Great Britain and the European Union.
Businesses have been calling for a veterinary agreement for as long as the Brexit deal has been in place; it is now more important than ever that we get one. Before I was elected to this place I was a local authority councillor. One thing that we had blinking aggressively on our radar was that if there was a no-deal Brexit or something like that, the sheer amount of pressure that would be put our environmental health officers and local vets to try and provide export health certificates to be able to certify goods that were of an appropriate standard for export would be huge. We could not just wave a magic wand a create these environmental health officers overnight. They need a bachelor of science degree, I understand, which takes at least three years, and then they need two years of practical experience on the job. It takes five years from when someone walks through the doors of whatever institution they are studying at until they can sign off their first consignment of fish from Peterhead market. We were very worried about that, and those fears have not gone away.
I find it very difficult to disagree with James Withers, the chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink, when he said at the UK Trade and Business Commission’s session on the UK-EU TCA:
“A veterinary agreement is the single most important step that could be taken to improve exports to the EU, red meat and seafood, two of our most important animal product exports, are caught in a tsunami of bureaucracy and paperwork.”
Let us consider some of the evidence. For a dairy in Galloway in the south-west of Scotland—famed rightly for the quality of its agricultural produce, particularly in the dairy sector—it is easier to export a shipping container of ice cream to South Korea than it is to send a block of cheese across to Northern Ireland to somebody who wishes to buy it. Our food and drink exports to the EU were down 16% at the start of the year, and over the first half of the year they dropped by almost half. Filling out the additional forms that are required takes hours every morning, and businesses are incurring tens of thousands of pounds in additional costs to ensure that they comply with them. Some businesses need to hire customs agents that they did not before.
Adding to the delays are problems with the documentation, which is obviously very complex and takes a long time to fill out. If someone gets something wrong, it banjaxes the whole thing. Sometimes they need to fill out up to 80 pages of documentation compared with the one-page delivery note and invoice that went with shipping pre Brexit. We have heard the saga of seed potatoes. I have some seed potato growers in my constituency. Their standards were already the highest in the world, and they have not diminished, but because the UK is not prepared to sign up to the same level of obligation and standards, they are virtually unable to export to what were always their most productive markets, even though those markets are desperate for the disease-free quality that those potatoes can bring.
If there is an area crying out for pragmatism it is that multi-million pound trade. Europe needs our Scottish seed potatoes—we have always exported them—as does Ireland. There is a reason our producers did not take up the opportunity to export east of Aden despite being encouraged to do so: it is because it is so difficult to do that. They have had a ready market taken away from them. All it requires is a pragmatic realignment, which will once again allow that world-leading industry to get on with doing what it does best. Part of the problem will go away with an agreement on sanitary and phytosanitary standards. Such an agreement has widespread support. Back in June, the CBI was calling on both sides to negotiate a bespoke veterinary agreement, saying that it would end the friction that Brexit has caused, particularly to the food, drink and agri sector. The EU is clearly willing to sign up to such a deal; it has been signalling as far back as February that it would be open to signing that kind of bilateral deal with the UK.
I will cite a couple of business voices on how the matter is perceived in Northern Ireland. Richard Gray of the Carson McDowell law firm said that not one business has raised concerns about the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice or its role as the court of ultimate appeal under the Northern Ireland protocol; nor have any business organisations raised that issue on behalf of clients. Stephen Kelly, the chief executive of Manufacturing Northern Ireland, which represents
5,500 Northern Irish firms, has likewise said that not one of the businesses represented by it has raised issues with the ECJ position. He said:
“Everyone knows a treaty needs legal backup. There have been border problems with the rest of the UK”
but the ECJ is
“nothing but a Brexit purity issue”.
Again, I find that hard to disagree with.
I am sure that the noble Lord Frost has many estimable qualities, but as a negotiator he strikes me as the sort of person who seems to like to pour oil on troubled waters only to set fire to it later, when it suits his purposes to do so. The UK Government should look for pragmatic agreements, and focus on reaching agreements with the EU in this area. It is not just the UK that now has sovereignty; the EU has the sovereignty that it has always had, and nobody’s sovereignty should trump anyone else’s. It should be a pragmatic negotiation to achieve the best outcomes that we can.
The UK Government should focus on reaching the kind of agreement that businesses and the food industry are calling for, rather than focusing on artificial grievances that seem to be peripheral at best to the concerns of most people. The Government have a choice between ideological purity, and the accompanying impoverishment that it will cause for our businesses opportunities, or pragmatism. I dearly hope that the Minister will indicate that pragmatism is winning that battle.
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