Foreign AffairsNorthern IrelandSpeeches

Hilary Benn – 2024 Speech on the United Kingdom Internal Market

The speech made by Hilary Benn, the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in the House of Commons on 1 February 2024.

I begin by agreeing with the Minister that businesses in Northern Ireland want to make the current and future arrangements work, that they want them to work well and that there is huge potential for the people of Northern Ireland in the economic benefits that its current and future circumstances provide it.

I have some specific points about the regulations— I see the Minister clearly relishes responding to those. Paragraph 81 of the Command Paper states:

“We are now changing arrangements…to ensure…that checks are eliminated save for those conducted by UK authorities needed for the protection of the UK’s internal market on a risk and intelligence basis.

Will the Minister clarify which checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will be got rid of? Is he referring to identity checks, checks on paperwork or something else? At the moment, about 10% of goods using what is called the green lane—which will become the UK internal market lane—are subject to some checks on paperwork. Will he clarify what will happen to them?

I welcome the amendments to the UK Internal Market Act 2020 provided for in regulation 2. Proposed new section 45A would reaffirm Northern Ireland’s unfettered access to the rest of the internal market and ensure that no new NI-GB checks can be introduced. The regulation also makes provision for the Secretary of State to issue guidance to Departments on how they should carry out their duties under section 46 of the 2020 Act—namely, ensuring that they have special regard to, among other things, Northern Ireland’s status in the UK internal market when they formulate policy. Will the Minister confirm that guidance will soon be forthcoming and share any further details he can at this stage about what that will contain?

I note the changes to the Definition of Qualifying Northern Ireland Goods (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 made by regulation 3, which are intended to prevent Northern Ireland from being used as a back door for EU goods moving into GB and to protect Northern Ireland’s agricultural sector. Ensuring that NI-registered agrifood operators fully benefit from unfettered access is a very positive step and I welcome it. Will the Minister tell the House whether the Government envisage any further changes to the definition of qualifying Northern Ireland goods? I also note the Government’s confirmation in the Command Paper that

“there will be no Border Control Post at Cairnryan.”

That is greatly to be welcomed, but can the Minister say anything further about how checks and formalities on non-qualifying goods that enter GB from Northern Ireland through Cairnryan will work in practice?

Let me turn to some of the other commitments set out in the Command Paper. Will the Minister confirm when he expects the new body announced to promote trade within the UK, InterTrade UK, to become operational, and how it will be overseen?

I welcome the Government’s determination, which has been brought up by a number of Members, to ensure the continued supply of veterinary medicines into Northern Ireland beyond the end of 2025, when the current grace period expires. We all hope that an agreement can be reached with our European partners as soon as possible. I share the view expressed by others in the debate that we had the same problem with human medicines and, in the end, the EU recognised that something had to be done about that. I hope very much that the EU will show the same spirit in approaching this question. The Command Paper, however, says:

“we will if necessary deploy all available flexibilities to safeguard and sustain the supply of veterinary medicines”.

Will the Minister tell the House what those flexibilities are and how they will be applied if we get to that point?

In approving the regulations—which I hope we will do unanimously as we just did with the constitutional set—we will be taking another step closer, in this really important week, to the restoration of power sharing. The people of Northern Ireland, who have been without a Government for so long, may not, in all fairness, be studying the regulations in the way that we are doing today, but they very clearly understand why they are essential to getting their Government back. Once we have done our bit today, it will be over to the politicians of Northern Ireland, and I am sure that every single Member of the House wishes them the very best in the task that lies ahead of them.