Peter Kyle – 2022 Speech on the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill

The speech made by Peter Kyle, the Labour MP for Hove, in the House of Commons on 19 July 2022.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship once again, Mr Evans.

I shall start by responding to a point made by the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). To clarify, the Labour party and I voted against the protocol when it was before the House. In fact, we walked through the Lobbies together on this issue. I am surprised he does not remember such a memorable occasion—it is quite a rarity, it must be admitted. I hope that when he comes to speak, he will correct the record, because we have a good relationship. It is one that I value and that I hope will continue.

Sammy Wilson

For the record, will the hon. Gentleman tell us the stance of his party on the protocol today?

Peter Kyle

First, I am slightly disappointed that the right hon. Gentleman did not take the opportunity to correct the record from his previous intervention.

My stance and that of the Labour party on the protocol is very clear: it needs to evolve, to change and to be improved, and that should be done by all lawful means. This Bill is not lawful. Of course, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), the former Prime Minister, said on the Floor of the House just a few days ago that in her opinion it was unlawful. We heard from a former Attorney General in the last day of debate that he felt it was unlawful.

For that reason, the Labour party believes that although we voted against the protocol in the first place, now that it is in domestic statute and part of an international treaty, the responsible thing to do is to negotiate a way forward. What we cannot do is repeat the debates of previous days. We need to stick to the clauses before us. Today, we are talking about—

Ian Paisley

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Peter Kyle

Of course I will give way, but I will not rehearse the debates of the previous two days.

Ian Paisley

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s giving way. The issue of lawfulness, which he put on the agenda today, has to be addressed. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is the only Committee to have taken evidence on the lawfulness, or otherwise, of the protocol under international law. For the record, it was stated:

“no, it does not violate international law. It does not violate the protocol.”

I have heard people who should know better saying that it does, but I am afraid they are wrong. They are obviously not international lawyers. The evidence given to this House by the emeritus professor of public international law at the University of Edinburgh, who advises the Government and the Opposition, says that it does not break the law. Why does the hon. Gentleman persist with this inaccurate point?

Peter Kyle

Again, I will not repeat the debate from the first day of Committee, when all those issues were explored in detail. It is a shame to hear the hon. Gentleman say that of the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead, whom I know he respects. She said in the House that she asked herself three questions:

“First, do I consider it to be legal… Secondly, will it achieve its aims? Thirdly, does it…maintain the standing of the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world? My answer to all three questions is no.”—[Official Report, 27 June 2022; Vol. 717, c. 63.]

Stephen Farry

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Peter Kyle

I am going to move on, because we need to stick to the clauses before us. I will give way once, but I promise, Mr Evans, that I will then crack on with the business before us.

Stephen Farry

Hopefully it will be a very helpful intervention. Does the shadow Secretary of State agree that it is important for Members to reflect fully on the evidence that was given to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee? The last time the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) made reference to it, at least one of the people who gave evidence expressed concern, along with other international lawyers, that what was said did not fully reflect the subtlety of the arguments put before the Committee, which were not as simplistic as the hon. Gentleman said.

Peter Kyle

I am very grateful for that intervention. For the record, I think that all the interventions I receive here are helpful. They are certainly in the spirit of the debate that this place exists for. I believe that the hon. Gentleman is right, and I am grateful to him for setting the record straight so that we can move forward.

Today, we are considering clauses 7 to 11, which deal with the dual regulatory regime the Government want to set up for Northern Ireland. Amendment 28 would require a Minister to carry out an economic impact assessment and a consultation before making any regulations for a dual regulatory regime. Some parts of the Bill indicate that the Government have been listening to problems that businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland are facing. In those areas, the Labour party is clear that the EU must show more flexibility to deliver the progress that businesses in Northern Ireland need.

However, in proceeding with the dual regulatory regime, the Government demonstrate that they are ignoring the voices of most businesses. We saw that in the Government’s press release about Second Reading. It revealed, alarmingly, that the Government had only just begun

“a series of structured engagements with the business community, to discuss and gather views on the detailed implementation of the Bill.”

That had happened in recent days—not recent weeks, months or years, but in recent days. Businesses I know that are taking part in the process have asked for a commitment from the Government that they will publish the results in a report. I hope that the Minister will give that assurance from the Dispatch Box today.

Instead of taking the time to develop a policy that works for businesses, the Foreign Secretary is doing what the Government have done from the start: they have been so preoccupied negotiating with the various factions in their own party that they neglect to engage meaningfully with the stakeholders and partners who are the only ones able to unlock the progress our country needs.

Declan Billington, the chief executive of John Thompson and Sons animal feed manufacturers and co-chair of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association, said, when asked for his assessment of the proposals,

“I cannot actually answer the question because when I say, ‘Lift the bonnet under the bill and show me the detailed policies that we can engage with,’ I hear conversations about co-design and, therefore, I cannot benchmark.”

This is absurd. Instead of coming up with serious proposals, the Government are simply asking businesses to do the hard graft for them. In a damning assessment, the trade expert Sam Lowe described the proposed dual regulatory regime as

“a solution looking for a problem: it is near-impossible to find a business in Northern Ireland advocating for it.”

There are many reasons businesses are not calling for a dual regulatory system. High on the list is the shift in the burden of responsibility for ensuring that goods do not enter the EU off the Government agencies and on to the 75,000 individual Northern Ireland businesses. That might work for retailers, but exporters and businesses with highly integrated all-island supply chains see it as an almost existential threat. Again, the Government have been clear that their preferred outcome for the protocol is a negotiated solution. Such unserious proposals undermine the common ground in other areas.

The dissent in Tory ranks complicates the situation further. Several prominent Conservatives, including the Attorney General, have said that they want the dual regulatory regime to be scrapped in favour of mutual enforcement down the line. The irony of asking for mutual enforcement is that it requires absolute trust between the UK and the EU. It would take serious negotiation and deep good faith to achieve it. It is pure fantasy to think that we can get there with this Bill, which unilaterally rewrites the agreement we have.

Hilary Benn

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Peter Kyle

It would be a pleasure.

Hilary Benn

The dual regulatory regime raises more questions than it answers. If I understand the Government’s position correctly, a firm can decide to operate under one regime or the other. Say, for the sake of argument, that UK regulation banned a particular ingredient for a food product, but it was not banned by the EU. Is it my hon. Friend’s understanding of the Government’s proposals that it would be legal for a firm in Northern Ireland to sell that product with the banned ingredient in the rest of the UK, so long as the company claimed it was operating under EU rules?

Peter Kyle

I am always very grateful to my right hon. Friend for his interventions in these debates; they always add a great deal. He has, with his forensic mind, picked a situation that shows one of the many absurdities thrown up by this Bill. It will, in practice, mean a huge amount of complexity for businesses across Northern Ireland and elsewhere. Some businesses will find it impossible to answer the questions he has raised, and will be deterred from trading on current terms, simply because they are worried about infractions from one of the markets or the other, or indeed about how the two interact. That is an area that I will move on to.

I listened with great interest to the exchanges with Northern Ireland Members a few moments ago about the dairy trade, and to the interventions by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley). I am straying into the same territory now as I quote the representative body for the dairy sector. I encourage all Members to read the written evidence that the Dairy Council for Northern Ireland submitted to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee just last week. This is a hugely important industry for Northern Ireland. There are over 3,200 dairy farming businesses there, which contribute at least £1.5 billion a year to the economy. It is very good to know that the hon. Member and his family are part of that success for Northern Ireland.

In the words of the Dairy Council,

“The NI Protocol Bill represents a threat to the IoI”—

the island of Ireland—

dairy value chain through the proposal for a Dual Regulatory Regime…which will open the potential for products used on dairy farms in the production of milk to be imported from GB without having to adhere to EU standards.

The IoI dairy value chain operates on the basis that NI and RoI milk are produced to the same EU standards”.

It also stated:

“Annually around 800m litres of milk, about one third of total NI production, moves to RoI for processing. NI does not have sufficient processing capacity to process all the milk produced in NI, so anything that damages or limits the dairy value chain would have serious consequences for the NI dairy sector.”

At present, Northern Ireland vets issue certification that the Republic of Ireland vets accept for each consignment of milk.

Ian Paisley

Will the hon. Member give way?

Peter Kyle

After I have made this point, I will, because I am always interested in the hon. Member’s views on this issue.

What the Government are proposing would impose additional layers of bureaucracy to prove that every step of the milk processing complied with EU standards. This would be disastrous for the dairy industry; it would require segregation of milk at every stage and push the sector into negative growth in Northern Ireland.

Ian Paisley

On that technical point, as the hon. Member will accept, the protocol is an example of red tape being used to tie up commerce. Given what he has just said, does he accept that a commercial opportunity is being set aside, and farmers are not being allowed to take it?

Peter Kyle

The hon. Member talks about what I said, but all I did was quote the words of the Dairy Council for Northern Ireland; I was not expressing my views. When I talk about an industry in Northern Ireland, I of course try extremely hard to listen to the people on the frontline who represent that industry. Of course I take into consideration his experience, and the frontline experiences of his family.

My amendment 28 says, “Let’s listen to those on the frontline and get the Government to do an assessment before we do something that could have radical consequences for the sector.” I understand that the hon. Member has first-hand experience of talking to people, and of living in a family of people, who are affected by this. Expert opinion fed to me contradicts that view. What is the logical conclusion? Before we move forward with a set of regulations that could ride roughshod over the dairy industry in Northern Ireland, let us take the time to make an assessment. We should have an impact assessment, lay it before the House, and debate it before we pass a law that could radically impact the industry.

Sammy Wilson

The hon. Member has to be very careful in listening to bodies that claim to be representative of an industry; those at the top of the body very often have their own agenda. Let us look at the logic of his argument. A third of Northern Ireland’s milk goes for processing in the Irish Republic. In other words, some businesses in the Irish Republic are dependent on an awful lot of milk, which they cannot produce in their country, from Northern Ireland. If we have a system of dual regulation that ensures that the milk is as safe tomorrow as it was yesterday, and as safe after the Bill goes through as it was before the Bill, does he not think that businesses and Government in the Irish Republic will accept that Northern Ireland milk is essential for those industries, and so would not seek to put a barrier in its way?

Peter Kyle

The point I am making is quite clear. There is a difference of opinion here, and I think it is unwise to reject out of hand the representative body for the dairy sector in Northern Ireland. Let us engage with that. I have been very respectful of the right hon. Gentleman’s view, but I make the point that that was the second intervention from him, and I did ask him to correct the record in relation to his previous intervention, when he said something that was categorically untrue about my voting in the past. I hope that when he makes his next intervention he will do the right and honourable thing, which is to correct the record unequivocally and recognise that I voted in the polar opposite way to the way that he said I did.

The best way for us to resolve these issues is to have an independent assessment of the impact on different sectors that might be negatively affected—or certainly affected—by the legislation. It would be irresponsible not to, because there is such a difference of opinion.

Stephen Farry

Talking of putting things on the record, would the shadow Secretary of State join me in standing up for the credibility of Mike Johnston, who leads the Dairy Council for Northern Ireland? I stress that no one here has any evidence whatsoever that he has any motivation other than standing up for the interests of his industry.

Peter Kyle

I am certainly very grateful for the intervention, and to the witness for giving the benefit of his insight, wisdom and experience to a Select Committee of the House—insight gained from his membership of his organisation. All submissions to this place are welcome, and must be received in the spirit in which they were given to the House. However, it is the role of Government to deliver, and I urge the Government and Ministers to deliver in the way that has the least chance of negatively impacting a sector as important as the dairy sector in Northern Ireland. We are talking about the dairy sector, but it is just one of many sectors that could be negatively impacted if the Government get the implementation of the Bill wrong.

The Dairy Council for Northern Ireland estimates that processing all the milk that Northern Ireland produces would take three years and up to £250 million of investment. Let us be clear that we are debating a proposal that would cripple a part of the economy that supplies basic consumer goods and is working well. The proposals would take a wrecking ball to this key sector in the middle of a cost of living crisis, wreaking havoc on businesses and driving up prices. It would be a different debate if the Government were saying that they are introducing a dual regulatory regime because they do not want Northern Ireland to have dual market access any more, and this was the first step towards that, but that is not what Ministers are saying.

On Second Reading, the Foreign Secretary said that this regime

“cuts the processes that drive up cost for business”—[Official Report, 27 June 2022; Vol. 717, c. 40-41]

and allows business to choose which market they want to use. That is the exact opposite of what businesses are saying that a dual regulatory regime would achieve in practice. It is self-explanatory that moving to a dual regime would lead to more administration. The clue is in the name: dual regulation, under a dual regime, means double the number of processes that a business could encounter.

Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson

I fear the shadow Secretary of State is approaching this on the premise that the dual regulatory system will be compulsory. As I understand the Government’s proposal, it is for each business—and sector, indeed, if it so wishes—to decide whether it wants to opt in or opt out of this system. Businesses and sectors could decide to opt into the UK system only or the EU system only, or both. The idea that every business and sector will have to adopt both sets of regulations is simply not true.

Peter Kyle

I am grateful for the intervention. I make two simple points: first, I used the word “could” encounter, not “would” or “be compelled” to encounter. Secondly, let us take a business that might be operating in both markets. It would be forced to undertake the bureaucracy required by both markets. He says that is optional. Of course it is, but it is not optimal if a business that is operating perfectly contently and successfully—perhaps even growing, and creating more wealth, opportunity and jobs in Northern Ireland—wants to withdraw from one of the markets just to avoid the paperwork. It would not be forced; I understand that. It would be voluntary, but let us not kid ourselves that withdrawing from one of the markets simply to avoid bureaucracy or red tape would not have any impact on jobs, prosperity and wealth in Northern Ireland.

Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson

Northern Ireland does not operate in a vacuum. A business in my constituency is no different from a business in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. If a business in his constituency wants to sell goods in the EU single market, is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that that business can apply British standards, even if they are different from EU standards, and sell those goods in the EU without complying with EU standards? Of course not. Businesses in Northern Ireland have to make commercial decisions. If they want to sell goods to the EU, they must comply with EU standards. If they want to sell goods in the UK, they must comply with British standards. That is the way the commercial world works. That is the way it is regulated. Let us not pretend that we are creating a new regime here for Northern Ireland businesses, and that if we want to sell goods both in the UK and the EU, we need only one set of standards. That is not the case.

Peter Kyle

I am not quite sure where to start with that intervention. The right hon. Gentleman suggests we take the instance of my community in Hove and Portslade, on the sunny Sussex coastline. If businesses there are exporting to the EU, then of course they have to do all the additional red tape that has been imposed by the particular Brexit deal negotiated by this Government, but they do not have to do so if they are selling locally. This is the problem we have at the moment: we are suggesting a dual regime for the domestic Northern Ireland market, so it is not the same. Those who trade within Sussex—there is such fantastic produce grown, compiled, sold and retailed there—would not expect to have two regulatory regimes forced on them in Sussex. I do not think we should conflate exporters with those who produce for the domestic market. That is the problem we face in Northern Ireland; producers there are certainly being forced, in that situation, to make a choice. I am not suggesting that anybody is being forced to trade under both regimes. They can unilaterally decide to withdraw from one of the markets and perhaps downscale their business. But let us move on.

Hilary Benn

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; he is being most generous. The argument has been put by the Minister and others in the Chamber that businesses in Northern Ireland would be entirely free to choose whether they use one regulatory system or the other, but according to the explanatory notes, clause 11

“allows a Minister to prescribe whether the dual regime should no longer apply to a specific class of regulated goods. It also provides a power for a Minister of the Crown to modify the different regulatory routes available in Northern Ireland.”

In other words, the Government are taking for themselves the power to turn off the choice that they advocated that businesses should have, as an argument for voting for the proposals.

Peter Kyle

Again, my right hon. Friend makes a fundamental point about the weakness of the Bill. It is basically a one-sentence Bill. Paragraph (a) in clause 1 states that the Bill

“provides that certain specified provision of the Northern Ireland Protocol does not have effect in the United Kingdom”.

That is the heart of the Bill. The rest of the Bill is, as he says, powers for Ministers to act as they will into the future. That is a fundamental problem. We have heard time and again throughout the passage of the Bill that it repatriates the most enormous powers not to British traders and not to the regions of Britain and Northern Ireland, but to Ministers directly. It creates huge uncertainty. As I said earlier, businesses recognise that they cannot prepare, because they do not know how Ministers will implement the powers they have into the future. At the moment, all they are saying is that they want those powers to make use of as they see fit.

Let us move on. If goods in Northern Ireland can be made to GB standards or EU standards, a Northern Ireland manufacturer with a presence in both markets could find themselves having to make goods to both standards because of customer demands. That will all have to be administered by a combination of Westminster and Stormont. There is also the issue of allowing businesses to continue to have market choice. According to the Northern Ireland Business Brexit Working Group, the biggest issue with a dual regulatory regime is that it causes significant reputational risks to Northern Ireland exports sold into the EU market, which could damage access. Our amendment 28 is simple. It would require the following:

“Before making regulations under this section, a Minister of the Crown must carry out an economic impact assessment of the proposed regulations, and conduct a consultation on the proposed regulations with any stakeholders whom the Minister of the Crown considers appropriate.”

A report on those exercises would then have to be laid before Parliament. It should not be controversial to ask the Government to do that before proceeding with proposals which could have such a devastating impact on businesses in Northern Ireland.