Brexit & Beyond Newsletter

8 March 2022

Welcome to the 8 March 2022 Brexit & Beyond newsletter

The Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs took questions from MLAs on the UK’s trade deal with New Zealand, EU funding schemes, the impact of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland and labour shortages. At Westminster, debates have been held on the Protocol, and on the Shared Prosperity Fund. Concerns continue to be raised with the UK Government about the Nationality and Borders Bill.


Questions to the Minister for Agriculture

New Zealand trade deal

On 28 February 2022, the UK International Trade Secretary announced that the UK has signed a comprehensive trade deal with New Zealand. Further information from the UK Government on the free trade agreement (FTA) can be found here. According to the Government’s impact assessment, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland combined could see an increase in GVA of around £52 million from the agreement. The Commons International Trade Committee is holding an inquiry on the FTA with New Zealand and evidence can be submitted to the committee until 3 April.

Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Edwin Poots Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Edwin Poots | Source: NI Assembly

Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Edwin Poots was asked about the FTA at question time in the Assembly on 1 March. He said that he has “demonstrated quite clearly” his concerns about potential trade deals. On the FTAs with Australia and New Zealand, he said they “will always be challenging for us because they are large food-producing countries. However, there are opportunities for other businesses in Northern Ireland, not least for people who export engineering expertise to Australia, for example, with all the mining equipment that is produced, mainly in mid-Ulster. Therefore, there are advantages to those deals as well as disadvantages.”

EU funding

The Minister was also asked about the impact of the absence of EU rural development programmes. He said his Department is working on rural policy frameworks and other schemes. He said, “I do not anticipate any adverse impact on rural communities from the absence of the EU rural development programme. On the contrary, the opportunity that we now have, through the rural policy framework, to address the needs of Northern Ireland’s rural communities provides us with the opportunity to enhance the support that we provide and target our investment to address the most pressing needs of rural communities.”

Protocol impact

The Minister was asked to outline the impact on the agri-food sector of the full implementation of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland. He said, “Even with the grace periods, Northern Ireland's points of entry are currently processing in excess of 2,500 common health entry documents (CHEDs) a week and over 10,000 a month. Approximately 90% of those CHEDs relate to products of animal origin, and they must be validated and recorded by one of my Department's official veterinarians, which is a complete waste of their time. In addition, each consignment that is covered by a CHED requires an identity check, and European Union law dictates that a range of physical checks are also required, with frequency depending on the type of consignment. Were the grace periods not in place, it is estimated that Northern Ireland's points of entry would be required to process in excess of 12,500 CHEDs a week across all consignment types. Those would also require a significant number of identity and physical checks. To be clear, that is five times the number of checks that currently take place.”

Labour shortages

Regarding labour shortages in the agri-food industry, Minister Poots said they have engaged with UK ministers including Liz Truss and George Eustice, and argued, “It is not an issue related to leaving the European Union that has caused the problems; it is an issue of the Government's policy on allowing people to come into the country.” He added, “We need more butchers and more people who can carry out that work in the factories and it is sensible to have a migration policy that ensures that businesses can operate fluidly. The previous open-door policy was not sustainable in the long term.”


Peers debate the Protocol

On Thursday 3 March, Lord Jay led a debate on the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland and its impact on recent political developments in Northern Ireland. Lord Jay chairs the Lords Sub-Committee on the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland. He outlined the work of the committee and current issues around the Protocol, concluding, “for an agreement to be reached, whether now or in future, clearly there will need to be—I deliberately put this neutrally—movement on both sides.”

Former Brexit Minister Lord Frost spoke for the first time as a back bencher since resigning from government in December. He said that the best way forward “would be to renegotiate the Protocol, as the Government have proposed, so that it can be supported across all communities in Northern Ireland and so that it respects all three strands of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.”

Other peers raised issues such as the democratic deficit, constitutional implications, community support for the Protocol, the duration of ongoing talks with the EU, scrutiny of UK Government Ministers by the Sub-Committee, the political situation in Northern Ireland, and the role of the North/South Ministerial Council in the governance of the Protocol.

Lords Dodds highlighted that the protocol is being implemented in “only a light-touch way at the moment”, saying without the grace periods, “we would face a far worse situation.” He went on to say, “This is fundamentally an issue of democracy, respect for Northern Ireland’s constitutional position and identity, and respect for the Belfast agreement, as amended by the St Andrews agreement. We need to get back to those fundamental principles.”

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Northern Ireland Office, Lord Caine, responded to the debate on behalf of the Government. He emphasised concerns about the political situation in Northern Ireland and said that “in addition to the impact on business, the protocol strikes at the heart of the identity of the pro-union majority in Northern Ireland, who increasingly see themselves cut off from the very United Kingdom of which, on the basis of consent and in domestic and international law, they are an integral part. I assure my unionist colleagues that I never wish to see that position change.”

Lord Caine concluded, “Although I accept that opinion within Northern Ireland remains divided…a protocol that does not have the support of one part of the community is simply not sustainable and durable.” He said that the Government’s preference remains “to resolve our differences through agreement, if possible.” He said he couldn’t give a timeline for reaching an agreement but said, “we are seized of the importance of fixing this, and fixing it quickly. Failing that, the Government reserve the right to take unilateral action, for which the protocol clearly allows.”


Nationality and Borders Bill

Minister for Justice Naomi Long was asked about the Nationality and Borders Bill which is currently progressing through the UK Parliament. Caoimhe Archibald (Sinn Féin) stated that the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission have called for Northern Ireland to be removed from the modern slavery and human trafficking provisions of the Bill as it would potentially breach Article 2 of the Protocol. In Article 2 of the Protocol, the UK Government committed to ensure that certain equality and human rights in Northern Ireland will continue to be protected after Brexit. Minister Long said they have not assessed these provisions in relation to Article 2, pointing out that immigration and asylum “are reserved matters and, as such, we have no powers to except ourselves from them or to change them.”

The Bill is currently at report stage in the House of Lords. Concerns have also been raised about the implications of the Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) requirements for the Ireland/Northern Ireland border. The Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland Sub-Committee has again written to the UK Government stating, “It is clearly unsatisfactory for such significant details [of the Electronic Travel Authorisation scheme] to remain unclear prior to completion of parliamentary passage of the Bill.” The Committee asks how the commitment that “the UK will not operate routine immigration controls on journeys from within the Common Travel Area, with no immigration controls whatsoever on the Ireland-Northern Ireland border” can be reconciled with the requirements of the ETA scheme. It has further concerns about the Bill’s potential impact on supply chains and tourism, and on cross-border workers.


Shared Prosperity Fund

On 1 March 2022 in the House of Commons, Claire Hanna (SDLP) opened a debate on the Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF) and devolved administrations. The SPF is the UK Government’s scheme to replace EU structural funds. Hanna said, “From what information we have, we know that funding will come directly from Westminster, without the involvement of local authorities or devolved Parliaments. In Northern Ireland, some of the bodies that have been administering European funds for the last several decades and that have experience and trusted links are apparently being retired at this point, amid a centralisation of power. The phrase “Take back control” resonated with many people, but with some of the funds that have traditionally underpinned social progress and economic progress in Northern Ireland, it appears to mean taking back control and handing it directly to London.” She added that confusion around the design, the priorities, the level of funding available and the governance arrangements “has left substantial holes in a number of Stormont departments and left many key third sector partners in the lurch.”

Claire Hanna MP speaking in the Westminster Hall debateClaire Hanna MP speaking in the Westminster Hall debate | Source: UK Parliament

Minister Neil O’Brien responded to the debate, saying, “In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland we are very clear that we want local partners, at all levels, to be able to shape what is done to this funding and how it is allocated. In Northern Ireland, we have a unique local government landscape in our work on the UKSPF, so we proposed to deliver at a Northern Ireland-wide scale, which will enable us to have an allocation that is felt to be fair by all communities and that will make the most of all the fantastic opportunities that there are across Northern Ireland.”

In a response to a written question on 22 February, the NI Minister of Finance said that the UK Government’s engagement to date on EU Structural Fund replacements “has been wholly inadequate with a failure to recognise impact of the loss of approximately £80m per annum to spending power here.” Minister Murphy says he continues to seek a greater role for NI’s Departments in this fund: “It is essential that the SPF is co-designed and co-delivered, has a substantive role for the Executive, is complementary to other funding streams and aligns with Executive priorities.” The Scottish Parliament also held a debate on the Shared Prosperity Fund on 2 March.


Other news


This Week at the Assembly

  • Monday 7 March, 1.45PM – Plenary - Final Stage: Motor Vehicles (Compulsory Insurance) Bill (NIA Bill 53/17-22)
  • Tuesday 8 March, 2PM – Plenary - Question Time - Economy
  • Wednesday 9 March, 10.10AM - Committee for Infrastructure - EU Exit legislation - SL1 The Railways (Safety Management) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022; Logistics UK - Update on issues facing the freight/haulage sector
  • Wednesday 9 March, 2PM - Committee for The Executive Office -  Oral Briefing from NI Assembly EU Affairs Manager
  • Thursday 10 March, 12.PM - Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs - Common Frameworks - Oral Briefing from RaISe; Draft Position Papers on Common Frameworks
  • Thursday 10 March, 2.PM - Committee for Justice - Update on EU Exit and Justice-related issues: written paper


Catch up with Assembly Business

  • Tuesday 1 March, 12.30PM – Plenary- Motion: The draft Greenhouse Gas Emissions Trading Scheme (Amendment) Order 2022
  • Tuesday 1 March, 1PM – Plenary - Further Consideration Stage: Motor Vehicles (Compulsory Insurance) Bill (NIA Bill 53/17-22)
  • Tuesday 1 March, 2PM – Plenary - Question Time - Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs
  • Wednesday 2 March, 11.10AM - Committee for Infrastructure -  EU Exit legislation
  • Thursday 3 March, 12.10AM - Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs - Draft Committee Position Papers on Common Frameworks; EU Exit Legislation


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