I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Last Friday, when the Government published this no-deal Brexit legislation, I remarked that, as an Oireachtas Member for 21 years, I found myself having the curious feeling of hoping this was one law which would do no more than sit on the shelf. People knew what I meant. It is in part an expression of the overall sense of sadness Ireland feels at the UK's decision to leave the European Union. It is also an expression of disbelief that the British Government and Parliament would allow the UK to leave the EU in a disorderly fashion. Members should make no mistake. Such a result would be a lose, lose, lose for the people of the United Kingdom, Ireland and the European Union.
The Westminster Parliament is the only place which can prevent this from happening. Westminster needs to make up its mind, collectively, about what it wants. Today's debate in the House of Commons illustrates the fluidity of the situation and, accordingly, the need for us to be prepared for all eventualities. Our history with Britain is deep and complicated but it has arrived at a position of parity, trust and close friendship where we are co-guarantors of peace on our islands. The Irish and British live, study and work together, as well as marry each other and have families together. We understand each other's sense of self and sense of humour.
In politics we agree on a lot more than we disagree on. Brexit must not be allowed to take any of this away from the British-Irish relationship today.
Somewhere along the road, the Irish and the British outlook and politics related to the European Union diverted dramatically. We joined the EU together in 1973 when critics here claimed a small nation like Ireland would be assimilated. Instead we flourished. As a Deputy representing the people of Cork, I am proud to be Irish but I am also proud to be a European. I am proud of the European Union and what it has given our country but also what we in turn have given the EU. I want my three daughters to have the freedom to travel in Europe, perhaps to study or work in another EU country and speak other European languages. They will be no less Irish for doing so. Being Irish today is about being outward looking, generous and European.
As an Irish politician I will face no backlash from the people who elect me for saying any of this. However, too few politicians in the UK were able or willing to say such things when discussing whether to leave the EU. That is something every Member of this House must be wide awake to as the same inward looking political reversal is possible in all European Union countries. It would be complacent and naive to think otherwise. Brexit has reinforced once again that the loudest agitators in politics, the ones who get the most media attention, often have the least understanding of the consequences of that for which they advocate. It is important for all of us who believe in the EU, as I do - the Government, Opposition and those standing for public office, especially those standing in this year’s European elections - to communicate honestly to the Irish people the ongoing privileges and advantages of our EU membership.
However much we wish, we are not going to wake up to find the last two and a half years have been a bad dream. The UK is leaving the European Union and today we still do not know how or under what conditions. This poses unique and unprecedented challenges for Ireland. The Government continues to work towards the ratification of the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, as a priority. We remain closely engaged with our EU partners, as well as maintaining ongoing contacts with the UK. Discussions are ongoing in Brussels between the EU and the UK. The EU has made it absolutely clear that it stands by the withdrawal agreement, and it is not open for renegotiation. However, the EU has made it clear throughout this process that it will listen to British concerns. It will continue to do so and try to accommodate them. Ratification of the withdrawal agreement would allow us to move on to start work on the agreement that will frame our future relationship. The withdrawal agreement gets us to that next phase in the best way possible.
I would like again to take the opportunity to state that the unity and common purpose of all of the parties here in the Dáil to deal with this common challenge has been invaluable. I thank all Members for this facilitation and support that they have given in the context of the negotiations to date. Brexit will bring real changes for all of us. The Government has been working hard to ensure that Ireland is ready for the changes and challenges that Brexit brings. We continue to seek to mitigate, as far as possible, the negative impacts of what is to come. With the impending approach of the Brexit deadline, we have had no choice but to ramp up our no-deal plans. The Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill, which the Government now lays before the Dáil, is a key part of that work. It covers, in primary legislation, the issues that need to be addressed immediately in the event of a no-deal Brexit, ensuring that key measures and protections are in place. It focuses on protecting our citizens and supporting the economy, enterprise and jobs, particularly in key economic and vulnerable sectors.
The Bill forms part of the extensive preparations that are under way across Government and across the EU. Our preparations include a range of measures such as the recruitment of customs and sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, officials, preparations at our ports and airports, and a range of financial and advisory supports for businesses to help them to prepare for Brexit. Comprehensive, cross-Government preparations were set out in the Government’s contingency action plan, published in December, and updated on 30 January. This work continues at both a national and EU level. All Departments have sector-specific plans in place. These address key challenges arising from a no-deal Brexit, and associated mitigation efforts.
Our work at national level goes in tandem with the significant work under way across the EU to prepare for the UK’s possible departure without a deal on the 29 March. At EU level, 12 separate legislative proposals have been made as part of Brexit contingency preparations. They range from aviation connectivity to road freight connectivity, from dual use goods to fishing authorisations. Ireland has engaged on the detail of what is proposed at EU level on contingency to ensure that our concerns are reflected in proposals being taken forward at EU level.
Given the emergency nature of this legislation, the Government took the decision that progressing this through the Houses as an omnibus Bill was the most practical and sensible way to ensure that we have the necessary legislation enacted on time. The Bill contains 15 Parts, addressing primary legislative issues which require immediate attention in a no-deal scenario. These will be complemented by range of issues which will be addressed by statutory instrument, also before 29 March. Primary legislative measures have been identified following a detailed screening by all Departments of legislation currently in force. The relevant Ministers will introduce their sections of the Bill and set out those measures under their remit in more detail. However, I would like to give Deputies a brief overview of the proposals.
First, should the withdrawal agreement be ratified, this Bill will make provision in domestic law for a transition period during which EU rules and regulations will continue to apply to the UK, even though it will be formally a third country. This transition period effectively maintains the status quo up to December 2020. It will allow for the negotiation of an agreement on the future relationship between the EU and the UK, and provide certainty to citizens and business as we continue our preparations for the new relationship with UK outside the EU. That provision will apply should a withdrawal agreement be agreed and we move into a transition phase. It will ensure that we treat the UK as a third country outside of the EU but in transition, effectively, as an EU member state. That section is different from the rest of the proposed legislation which applies in a no-deal emergency situation.
Protecting and maintaining the common travel area and the associated rights and privileges is a key part of our planning and preparations. This is vital in the context of the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland peace process, as well as for broader Ireland-UK relations. The Bill, therefore, includes measures to underpin the common travel area, CTA, to ensure that the associated rights and entitlements of Irish and British citizens under this long-standing arrangement will continue in all circumstances, deal or no deal.
In the area of health services, the Bill provides continuity for a range of existing healthcare arrangements between Ireland and the UK, once the UK leaves the EU. The Minister for Health will be provided with the power to make regulations in a number of matters, including to enable persons from Ireland to access healthcare in the UK. This seeks to ensure that insofar as possible there is minimum disruption to health services and that essential services are maintained on a cross-Border, all-island, and Ireland-UK basis, which anyone living in the Border counties will understand only too well, as will those living elsewhere.
In the area of social protection, the Bill provides for the continued payment of a range of benefits, including old age pensions, illness benefits and child benefit. It ensures the recognition of contributions made when working in the UK, and access to social insurance payments.
It is important that we ensure a seamless transition and that existing payments are protected and maintained. The Bill also provides protection for workers whose UK-based employer becomes insolvent.
In the area of higher education, the Bill protects the continued mobility of students under the common travel area. It will allow SUSI grants to be paid to eligible Irish students studying in the UK, as well as to UK students in Irish higher education institutions. This will provide certainty for Irish students studying, or considering studying, in the UK and for UK students in Ireland. These measures protect and enhance the long-standing excellent co-operation and collaboration between higher education systems in Ireland and the UK.
The Government is determined to maintain the strong co-operation with the UK in the area of law enforcement, particularly in the context of Northern Ireland. The Bill includes provisions to ensure that justice and security co-operation with the UK, as a third country, can continue. It puts in place measures to apply the 1957 European Convention on Extradition to the UK. This will ensure workable extradition arrangements are in place between ourselves and the UK. It also makes amendments to the Immigration Acts, which might otherwise expose the State to the risk that removals would be unsuccessful and undermine existing arrangements.
From the outset, the Government has made it a priority to minimise the impact of Brexit on North-South co-operation and the all-island economy. The Bill addresses sectors where major challenges associated with a no-deal Brexit have been identified, including all-island transport and energy. Provisions in transport will protect cross-Border bus services, ensuring continued service provision for passengers and commuters on the island of Ireland. This covers compatibility with EU rules that govern services between a member state and a third country in respect of areas such as the recognition of driver qualifications.
The Bill will enable the Commission for Energy Regulation to address possible issues arising from a no-deal Brexit and maintain the operation of the single electricity market, which is so important to Northern Ireland in particular.
The Bill also covers tax measures that seek to minimise the disruption to business operating cross-Border in the immediate aftermath of a no-deal Brexit. In the context of capital acquisition tax, the amendment provides continuity in existing treatment so that landowners who operate cross-Border will not be disadvantaged. On corporation tax, the amendment maintains the status quo for tax treatment of certain transaction or corporate group structures.
The Government and the Commission have paid particular attention to the impact of Brexit on Irish business in their contingency planning. Businesses and other affected areas need to respond and prepare themselves, and the Government is providing an array of supports and information to assist them.
The Bill will give Enterprise Ireland additional enabling power to further support businesses through widened investment, loans, and research and development and investment grants. This is to further assist Irish businesses in remaining competitive and resilient in a no-deal Brexit context. This will maximise our capacity to support businesses in the face of what could be a difficult transition.
The Bill also provides continuity for financial services, while the Irish market transitions to a new central securities depository provider. Other measures provide for a temporary run-off regime to protect Irish policyholders from continuity issues with their insurance contracts in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Finally, the Bill includes provisions to introduce postponed accounting for VAT purposes in a no-deal scenario. This will alleviate the impact of potential cashflow burden issues faced by businesses post-Brexit. This is a practical measure which will support businesses and was an issue highlighted by multiple industry representatives.
I would like to flag that, in the area of taxation, the Minister for Finance will introduce two technical changes on taxation on Committee Stage next week. I will happily brief any of my colleagues on the content of that should they want it.
It is the Government’s intention that, following the Second Stage reading this week, to take Committee and Report Stages next week. The Bill will go to the Seanad for Second Stage, Committee Stage and Report Stage in the week of 11 to 14 March. This timeline allows for commencement orders and other secondary legislation arising, numbering some 30 items, to be enacted in time for 29 March. Ministers have briefed Oireachtas committees over the past two weeks, since the publication of the heads of the Bill, to discuss the proposed measures in their sectoral areas. As the timelines are tight for the necessary enactment, the Government will work closely with all Opposition parties in the Oireachtas and all Members of the Dáil and Seanad to ensure that the necessary no-deal Brexit related legislation will be in place before the end of March. This legislation is an essential part of our whole-of-Government preparations for Brexit. I appreciate the co-operation and assistance from all Members in both Houses to ensure that we can get this Bill through the relevant stages and enacted in time.
The potential impact of a no-deal Brexit on Ireland would be severe. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, recently outlined the potential macroeconomic impacts and negative impacts that would be faced across a number of exposed sectors. Our preparations, including through our legislative proposals, are focussed on minimising these impacts. I reiterate, however, that managing a no-deal Brexit is an exercise in damage limitation. It would be impossible in a no-deal scenario to maintain the current seamless arrangements between the EU and UK across the range of sectors which are, at present, facilitated by our common EU membership. The Government is committed to working at a national level, as well as at a European level, to minimise impacts for our citizens and businesses as much as possible. The Bill before the House forms an important part of this work. It puts in place necessary measures for the application of a transition period under the withdrawal agreement. It also provides continuity in key arrangements with the UK, notably in the context of the CTA. In doing so, it seeks to protect our citizens and support the economy, enterprise and jobs, in key economic sectors.
There will come a time, I hope, when the word "Brexit" will no longer dominate the lens through which the British-Irish relationship is viewed. The Government is determined to ensure that Britain and Ireland build new structures to build and maintain our strong and special relationship. I say again, however, that our future is European. It is incumbent on all of us here to ensure Ireland remains an active and committed member of the EU and its Single Market and customs union. There is no greater demonstration of the benefits of EU membership to a country like Ireland than the unity and solidarity shown by our EU partners in the face of the potential exposure of this country to the UK's withdrawal from the European Union.
I look forward to colleagues' comments.