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Tue, 11 August 2020

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Brexit: government leaving business in the dark with ‘political approach’ to Northern Ireland, MPs warn

Brexit: government leaving business in the dark with ‘political approach’ to Northern Ireland, MPs warn

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has accused ministers of leaving firms in the dark post-Brexit (PA)

3 min read

The Government has been accused of taking a “political approach” to the post-Brexit future of the Northern Ireland border by a cross-party group of MPs.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee said ministers risked leaving firms in the dark and putting them at a competitive disadvantage after Britain leaves the bloc.

And they are warning that the Government's apparent “limited understanding of how business works” means businesses will be ill-prepared for the end of the EU transition period on 31 December.

The comments form part of the committee’s inquiry into the Northern Ireland protocol and promises of "unfettered" market access to the UK for NI's firms in post-Brexit customs arrangements.

Under the protocol policy, Northern Ireland will be part of the UK’s customs territory, but will continue to follow EU customs law and regulations on goods in order to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. 

But the report suggests the Government’s Command Paper on implementing the plans “does not sufficiently recognise that achieving its stated aims requires negotiation, and creates new barriers to free trade within the UK internal market”.

And it highlights businesses’ "anxieties about the lack of detail on the processes that they will face trading across the Irish Sea”, along with fears that time to prepare for new customs arrangements is running out.

'TIME TO GET CLARITY'

In response, the MPs are setting a 1 October deadline for the Government to provide more details of the processes and documents required for trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

On Monday Michael Gove laid out plans for the post-Brexit border trade with the EU, but the measures did not cover Northern Ireland.

And the the report comes amid concern in the Cabinet about whether the UK will be ready when the transition period runs out, after a letter from trade secretary Liz Truss outlining her concerns was leaked to the press last week.

Mr Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, dismissed claims of a dispute with his ministerial colleague, referring to her as one of his “bestest friends”. 

But Simon Hoare, chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, said: “Political process must not trump the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.

“The Government may be able to wait until the wire for clarity on customs arrangements, but business cannot. 

“Those trading across the Irish Sea have been told to prepare without knowing what to prepare for. It’s now time for them to get that clarity, and they must have it by the 1 October.”

He added: “If not, business will not have time to prepare for the realistic prospect of friction and delays to products moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This will increase their costs, with an accompanying increase in the cost of living.

“Such frictions would be incompatible with the notion of ‘unfettered access’ touted by Government ministers. 

“It would put Northern Ireland at a competitive disadvantage compared with the rest of the UK and would damage business confidence at a time when it has seldom been lower.”

Responding to the report, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said the Government was "engaging intensively with businesses and the Executive in Northern Ireland and will set out further guidance later this month".

They added: "We have set out our clear approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol which will uphold the gains of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, protects the place of Northern Ireland in the UK's customs territory and ensures no hard border on the island of Ireland.

"This would guarantee unfettered access for Northern Ireland's goods across the UK, no tariffs on goods moving within the UK, and no new physical customs infrastructure in Northern Ireland.

The Government said it would formally respond to the MPs' report "in due course".

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