The speech made by Robin Millar, the Conservative MP for Aberconwy, in the House of Commons on 1 February 2024.
It is a privilege to speak in the debate and to follow the many hon. and right hon. Members who have spoken with great wisdom, knowledge and personal experience on these matters.
It is informative to apply to article 6 of the Acts of Union the four tests for impact that were developed by Justice Colton—specifically, Northern Ireland’s compliance with certain EU standards; the bureaucracy and associated costs of complying with customs documentation and checks; the payment of tariffs for goods at risk; and the unfettered access enjoyed by Northern Ireland businesses to the EU single market. I question the representation of the Supreme Court judgment as set out in paragraph 14 of annex A to the Command Paper, but those were matters for the last debate, and there is not time to make my point.
The Windsor framework removed many EU standards for GB-produced consumer goods destined for Northern Ireland. That does not change under the SI before us. The second test—on bureaucracy and compliance costs associated with customs—should concern us, as the protocol saw the diversion of £1.2 billion-worth of goods in supply chains from GB to the Republic. Indeed, logistics businesses testified to the Lords Windsor Framework Sub-Committee on the complexity of managing mixed loads, with two large haulage firms stating that groupage had been “forgotten” in the framework.
Expert analysis has also suggested that 75% of output in non-exempted manufacturing sectors, including electronics, engineering and chemicals, comes from firms with turnover above £2 million, which will see their GB supply chains stuck in the red lane or diverted abroad. The Command Paper published yesterday contains a pledge—a UK internal market guarantee—that no more than 20% of goods will flow through the red lane. In practice, that creates a monitoring panel to report on any failures to hit the target and make recommendations to which the Government must respond. That is admirable but does not represent a material change to existing customs requirements under the protocol. It is also worth noting that, worryingly, that could be achieved simply by diverting supply chains away from GB towards the EU, as affected GB businesses cut Northern Ireland out of their distribution chains.
The regulations before us create important easements for Northern Ireland to GB trade, including a guarantee that future divergence will not impact the ability of Northern Ireland traders to freely access GB markets. That is welcome, but the bulk of distribution has always pertained to GB-to-NI trade, not the reverse. As is also noted in the Command Paper, although technology may ease compliance costs in the medium to long-term, those costs will still exist. Shipping from London to Belfast will continue to require significantly more bureaucracy than shipping to York or Edinburgh. The third test, on tariffs, is not covered and does not apply.
Finally, let me turn to Northern Ireland’s preferential access to the EU single market. I must emphasise that the clear trade-off that we have chosen to give Northern Ireland unregulated access to EU supply chains comes at the cost of complicating access to GB ones, despite the fact that Northern Ireland imports from GB are two and a half times those from the EU and six times those from Ireland. Whatever easements we offer, that has created a customs, judicial and legislative border across the kingdom, and it is hurting our businesses. The fact that Northern Ireland continues to have preferential access to the EU single market is unarguable, but it should not be misunderstood. Again, I find that final test informative.
Nothing I say today is intended to diminish the achievement of the deal when it comes to material gain for Northern Ireland. Although I welcome the elements within the new deal, which undoubtedly offer increased safeguards for the Union, it does not change the fact of EU law’s application to Northern Ireland, additional bureaucracy for GB businesses attempting to access Northern Ireland, the existence of tariffs, or Northern Ireland’s de facto placement within the EU single market. Once again, the qualities and effectiveness of this deal will emerge over the months and years ahead, I am sure, and through the scrutiny that must come from this place. I will continue to offer my support in those months and years ahead.