After the Minister has made his opening statement, Deputies may make statements or ask questions and get answers.
Brexit (Foreign Affairs): Statements
I propose to share time with the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne.
The United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union posed unprecedented political, economic and diplomatic challenges for Ireland. Countering the risks to peace and prosperity necessitated not only a whole-of-government but a whole-of-society approach. To do so as effectively as we have done required substantial contributions from people across this House, from countless public servants and from business, academia and civil society. I thank everybody involved for that.
These collective efforts helped to secure positive outcomes that were far from guaranteed at the outset. They include protecting the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement, avoiding a hard border on this island, maintaining the common travel area and securing Ireland's future in a strong European Union.
The decision of the UK to leave the customs union and Single Market brings inevitable and unwelcome consequences for Ireland. It is simply not possible to mitigate every risk. We can only work together to minimise the impacts. The Government will do whatever it can to ease the burden on businesses trading with our nearest neighbour. However, we must all accept that this new environment is now permanent. The new systems are there for a reason. They protect the EU Single Market and secure Ireland's membership of that market, membership of which has formed the basis for Ireland's modern prosperity.
The decision of the UK Government is regrettable. However, Ireland's continued direct and open access to the Single Market of 450 million Europeans, along with our continued role in shaping its future, will be essential to our continued economic and societal well-being. Throughout the negotiations of both the trade and co-operation agreement and the withdrawal agreement Ireland benefited enormously from the solidarity of our fellow EU partners. No member state wavered in its support for Ireland's critical interests in these negotiations. We will always be grateful to them for this. That solidarity is demonstrated not just in terms of the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland but in the continuation of the PEACE PLUS programme. Our position as the most impacted member state is reflected in Ireland receiving one quarter of the first tranche of the Brexit adjustment reserve, just over €1 billion.
We must all do what we can to use the trade and co-operation agreement to the maximum benefit. We welcome the ambitious commitments for the protection of workers and consumer rights, environmental protection and climate change while ensuring trade will be fair and sustainable. Without this agreement, our trade with Britain would have faced significant tariffs to the detriment of consumers and with devastating outcomes for certain sectors of the Irish economy.
The agreement contains the most wide-ranging commitments towards liberalising market access for goods ever to feature in an EU free trade agreement, including zero tariffs and zero quotas on all goods from day one. It allows EU companies to participate on an equal footing with UK companies in bids for public procurement tenders covered by the agreement and vice versa. The non-discrimination obligations of the agreement ensure that service suppliers or investors from the EU will be treated no less favourably than British operators in the UK and vice versa.
Provisions in the area of law enforcement and criminal justice will allow for the continuation of close co-operation between the Garda, the judicial system and their UK counterparts. Without this agreement, transport connectivity between the UK and the EU could have been badly impacted. This agreement provides a basis for continued air, road and maritime connectivity, including for cross-Border bus services. The agreement allows for continued UK participation in the Horizon programme, reinforcing scientific research links with the UK.
The decision of the UK to leave the Common Fisheries Policy threatened to remove all EU access to UK waters. Had we not reached a deal, the consequential impact on the Irish fishing industry could have been devastating, far more damaging than the accommodation arrived at in the trade and co-operation agreement. The Government, however, will continue to engage with the European Commission to seek constructive solutions and the burden these changes will place on our fishing industry versus others. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine has already made clear he is exploring a variety of possible measures. The Government is also examining how our allocation under the Brexit adjustment reserve can be used to assist sectors such as fishing which are clearly disproportionately impacted.
It is never possible in negotiations to achieve a perfect deal. One never gets everything one wants. There must always be give and take. There should be an acceptance, however, that this agreement represents a fair and reasonable compromise between the EU and the UK, given the circumstances we faced. It establishes a framework for the relationship that has clear potential to be built upon and developed in the future.
The agreement reached on Christmas Eve closes a chapter in our relationship with the UK that began 48 years ago when we joined the EEC together. That also happens to represent my lifetime and the lifetime of many others. We are already working to renew and strengthen our relationship with the UK. We are looking at new approaches. As we lose the regular engagements and connections built through our shared EU membership, we are deepening our relationship with the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales with distinct programmes of co-operation with each.
However, there can be no doubt that Ireland's interests are best served by remaining a full, committed member of the EU, as well as forging a new and positive relationship with the UK. Ireland will continue to use its voice to shape shared policies in support of greater fairness and prosperity in the interests of all citizens on this island.
The trade and co-operation agreement secured a new basis for engagement between the European Union and the UK. It preserves our and the EU's core principles while respecting the wishes of the UK, wishes with which we did not agree but respectfully do so. There is a framework which can be built on by mutual agreement over time. The agreement provides for zero-tariff and zero-quota trade for goods of EU or UK origin. Securing a zero-tariff and zero-quota agreement was a major priority of Irish exporters which rely on markets in the UK. For example, a substantial proportion of Irish agrifood exports go to the UK which have been damaged by Brexit in any event but would have been completely devastated if tariffs had been imposed.
Tariffs and quotas are only part of the complex story of supply chains. The difficulties we are seeing, particularly in Britain, remind us why the Single Market was set up in the first place. It was designed to avoid those difficulties, to have frictionless trade within the European Union and to get rid of all of the inconvenience that existed in the past. Unfortunately, the UK has chosen to be outside of the seamless trading environment of the European Single Market and customs union. Traders moving goods to, from or through the UK, excluding the North of Ireland, now have to comply with new rules and procedures. We have been emphasising this to businesses and the Dáil for many months. One only needs to look back at the Brexit readiness action plans from September last year and previous years, as well as the Official Report for Brexit debates.
The Government has invested significant time and resources preparing for the new trading environment. Funding commitments for Brexit-related expenditure now sit at more than €1 billion. We have installed new infrastructure and IT systems, along with 1,500 additional staff at ports and airports. There are difficulties but generally the systems are working well. We have encouraged officials to engage with businesses and traders to ensure as much help as possible can be given. There are dedicated supports and helplines to help businesses to adjust to the new trading arrangements, including the clear customs scheme and €100 million in dedicated supports to the agrifood sector. These are along with a range of funding options to drive investment in longer term mitigation measures, including the €300 million Brexit loan scheme and the €800 million future growth loan scheme. We have also introduced postponed accounting on VAT for imports from the UK to help businesses with cash flow issues.
The feedback from stakeholders is that there is demand for this help and support to continue. The Government will continue to be there to help businesses through change. When specific issues arise, such as moving goods through our ports, we are there to help. Businesses must also continue to engage and adapt, however - these changes are here and not going anywhere - and many businesses already have.
The most recent statistics indicate that more than 70% of consignments moving through our ports have the correct paperwork in place and are receiving a green routing to exit directly. There was a significantly increased number of inbound goods movements through Dublin and Rosslare Ports in the past 24 hours with 1,136 recorded. The previous day it was a high of 1,063. Everyday more and more movements are coming through customs from Britain. That is just the reality of life as it is. There are also more services direct to the Continent where we have seamless trade and that continues.
Goods moving from Ireland to the EU do so seamlessly. Supply routes are reorienting. Ferry operators have responded to industry-led demand. We seek new routes, new capacity and bigger vessels. We have seen one vessel come off a Britain to France route to come to an Ireland to France route. Given the scale of our trading relationship with the UK, significant capacity is also still needed on routes to the UK, but it is welcome that additional direct connectivity options are now in place.
The trade and co-operation agreement will never replicate the closeness of the co-operation that takes place between member states in the shared framework of European Union law. In addition to its provisions on trade, it also provides for unprecedented levels of sectoral co-operation between European Union member states and the UK. As the Minister, Deputy Coveney, just set out, the agreement contains important provisions on police and judicial co-operation, transport connectivity, energy connectivity and fisheries, but difficulties still remain. These areas of sectoral co-operation are essential to underpinning economic co-operation and co-operation between our public administrations. The trade and co-operation agreement, together with the withdrawal agreement including the Northern Ireland protocol, mean that at the very least there has been an orderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU and a structured basis for future co-operation. This was not always a given. It will be important that the Government, Oireachtas Members and other stakeholders remain active and engaged as we continue to construct this new relationship.
I want to put on the record of the House our thanks to Michel Barnier and his team and our EU partners. I warmly congratulate again Michel Barnier on achieving the European Movement Ireland's award of European of the year. He has incredible links to this country going back over decades. We have only achieved what we have achieved with their support. The strength and solidarity that comes with membership of the European Union has been on clear display during the Brexit process. The announcement last week of the Brexit adjustment reserve by the European Commission and the detail of it, which was negotiated in the July summit by the Taoiseach and other leaders, is but the latest manifestation of EU solidarity and support, with approximately €1 billion allocated to Ireland. This money we will receive from the European Union will help us in softening the effects of Brexit but in no way eliminating them. Those effects were brought on by the decision of the British people, and particularly the decisions of the British Government, to leave the customs union and the Single Market.
Our relationship with the European Union and our role in it are not simply transactional or economic. It is not simply a money relationship. As the European Union begins to move on from Brexit, Ireland must and will continue to play a leadership role at European Union level, promoting our common values and the rule of law to deepen our alliances and friendship, showing leadership on climate and building an economic model that allows our citizens to reach their full potential. I am very excited by the objectives of the Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the European Union this term with regard to social Europe.
As the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, I hope Members of the House will be at the centre of this effort. In this regard, and for example, I have asked the Chief Whip to facilitate a Dáil debate on the rule of law in the European Union at some point when we can. Many Members with whom I have discussed this will be glad of it and I look forward to it. It is one of a number of issues on which we must continue to lead at European level and show the solidarity we have received over recent years.
Now that the reality of Brexit is here we are left to deal with its wide-reaching implications, especially in the areas of trade and fisheries. Politically, the advent of Brexit, with its accompanying unleashing of English nationalism, has made the future of the British union one of the central political issues for the next decade. The unification of Ireland is now an urgent political issue that cannot be ignored. Workers and families in the North of this island will face the full impact of Boris's assault on workers' rights, food safety, the environment and human rights. Respect for human rights is an essential critical element of the Good Friday Agreement. Yet Boris Johnson has succeeded in weaponising human rights as something unpatriotic and some form of insidious foreign weapon to be used against the British people by the EU.
Since July 2019, more than 1 million foreign nationals have taken the decision to leave Britain, with 700,000 from London alone, primarily due to Brexit. Many cite the emerging xenophobia, misplaced British exceptionalism and shortcomings in British democratic structures as their reasons to leave. Recently, British journalists spoke recently of their fears about anti-European sentiment fuelled by English nationalism turning violent in the time ahead. There are also strong rumours emerging from within Whitehall that the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has tasked Home Office mandarins with producing a scoping document to look at the reintroduction of the death penalty in Britain. These reports have yet to be confirmed but they emerge amid a political miasma that has witnessed a complete regression of normative political discourse. The former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, recently stated the North is heading for the exit door of the United Kingdom, slowly inching towards a united Ireland. The future prosperity of the people of the North of Ireland is now dependent on its relationship with the South and Europe.
The Tánaiste has said the priority of the Irish Government in its approach to Brexit was to protect citizens' rights north and south of the Border. I put it to the Government that the only meaningful way the rights of the citizens of the North can be protected from a Boris Johnson Government assault on the rights of ordinary people is through unification. If there is one clear message that arises from the experience of Brexit and Covid, it is that we must begin the process of planning for constitutional change on this island. We must ensure the process of planning is all-inclusive, that it provides for input from all shades of opinion and outlooks on the island and that it is an all-island approach. It must begin by putting in place the appropriate infrastructure to support an all-Ireland economy. Nothing could be clearer than that the future of the shared experience of the peoples of this island lies in the reunification of Ireland.
I have a number of questions I want to put to the Minister. There are emerging rumours that the DUP is putting out 24 November this year as being the date it will review the current arrangements that allow the North to remain in the EU customs region. There is a real danger this will create the sense of a mini-Brexit scenario, reintroducing the levels of uncertainty we witnessed before Christmas. What will the Government do to prevent this from happening?
The way we work is undergoing a huge transformation, driven by Brexit and Covid-19. As we put in place plans to address this transformation, does it not make sense to ensure a future model will be an all-Ireland model? Are there plans to look at the development of all-island supply chains? Will the Government consider the establishment of a body to look at an all-island strategic approach to economic planning?
Will the Minister take questions now?
I am conscious the Deputy was looking to share his time. I can address them at the end. If the Deputy is happy, I think I get ten minutes at the end of the debate to wrap up and I can answer his questions then and let his colleague in now.
That is fine. We will move on to Deputy Darren O'Rourke.
I want to focus on the issues of logistics, strategic connectivity and supply chains. There have been significant changes and some finger-pointing but it should be recognised that the issue of Brexit is hugely complex. In recent days, I have met a number of hauliers who outlined some issues they have with the lived experience of the current systems.
There are unaccompanied trailers and they are getting information that they have been red routed just 30 minutes before they are due to pick up the trailers. There are examples of lorries being red routed for three days, meaning a 69-year-old has had to spend that time in tractor units that are not fit for purpose and not designed for overnight use. There is talk about systems where there is a need to transcribe manually 15-digit figures, talk about being shifted from terminal to terminal for inspection at Dublin Port, for example, from T11 to T10 to T7, and talk about phone numbers that just ring out. There is huge criticism of the IMDO report, which they say undermined the effort to secure additional ferry connectivity with the Continent. Again, there is the ask in regard to PSOs in terms of direct connectivity to the Continent, given the ferries are not there yet and there is a need for more capacity because existing ferries are overbooked. There is huge concern in regard to groupage, given the situation in Britain, and lorries are coming back but are not able to pick up back-loads because of the complexities of the new bureaucracy. There are also issues in regard to rules of origin.
There is a huge crisis. We should recognise that the average size of a haulage company in Ireland is 5.5 lorries, and there is a big challenge in terms of being in a position to deal with the new administrative burdens. The business model for many of these companies is up in the air. There are significant risks to the businesses themselves and also, from the State's perspective, there is significant risk to vital connectivity and to supply chains.
Will the Minister outline the model that will be in place to refine and improve these processes? There is significant duplication. There needs to be an acknowledgement that we are in the early stages of these new processes and there should be the opportunity to refine and improve them. Will stakeholders be involved in that process?
I do not like to interrupt the Deputy but I have just re-read the schedule and there is no provision for a ten-minute response at the end from the Minister. If the Deputy wants to get answers, we will have to get them within the time available to us now.
Okay. I have two questions. There is a specific ask in regard to a six-month adjustment period, which is happening in Britain but is not happening here, reflecting the complexity of the situation. I also have a specific request in regard to the Brexit adjustment fund. Is it decided how it is going to be used? Can it be used for investment in the freight, distribution and logistics sector and to support haulage companies and for investment in port infrastructure, including traffic management systems? Will that be done on an all-Ireland basis, as said by my colleague?
I call the Tánaiste. I mean the Taoiseach. No, I mean the Minister.
That is fine. I am not ever hung up on that formality, to be honest.
There are a lot of questions. On the Brexit adjustment fund, first, we have to get it approved. At the moment, what we have is a draft proposal. Some countries are questioning that allocation process and we need to get that approved in the European Parliament and signed off on in the European Commission so we can access that money as soon as possible. The Government will then look to the areas that have seen the most disruption from Brexit and that need supports, whether that is fishing, agri-food or haulage. We will then come forward with a proposal in terms of how we spend that money. We will certainly bear what the Deputy says in mind because I know that hauliers have been significantly disrupted by this change.
I do not want to raise expectations around transition periods, grace periods and so on. We had a transition period; it was 2020. We knew what was coming. Even though a deal was only done on Christmas Eve, the UK had made a very clear commitment to leave the customs union and Single Market. That has real consequences in terms of trade across the Irish Sea and it is important we do not pretend that, by negotiation, we can actually get things back to the way they were before. This is about adapting to the new reality rather than pretending we can change that reality. That being said, of course, there are things around the edges that we can work on to make sure the paperwork works in a slicker way. I can promise the Deputy we will continue to have very close engagement with the haulage sector.
We must move on. I call Deputy Howlin.
I want to use questions and answers, if I may, in the short few minutes I have. I raised a particular issue yesterday in regard to the practical outworking of these arrangements. Like the previous speaker, I have a complete understanding of the complexities involved. I understand that the Minister can say we have had a year in transition, but we did not because, like everything, until it actually happens and we see specifically what is needed, there will be things we have not prepared for.
I do not take great comfort in the Minister of State's announcement that 70% of paperwork is correct. That means 30% of a diminished throughput in our ports right now is subject to being halted and having problems. That will be monumental when the volumes increase.
In regard to the particular point I raised yesterday, I know the Minister indicated he has had a chance to look at that. Can we have flexibility within our ports system so that, where there are identifiable problems that can be resolved, mechanisms are devolved locally to resolve those as far as is practicable? That is my first question.
The straight answer to that is “Yes”. To put some context around the question, in the last 24 hours, we have had 1,136 movements into Ireland through Rosslare and Dublin from the UK. That, I think, is about a 15% increase on where we were last week, so we are seeing-----
That is understandable.
Absolutely. This started with significantly lower volumes because of stockpiling at the end of last year, because of concern and worry, understandably, and because of people getting their heads around the paperwork, particularly in the UK, where there was a real lack of preparation by many companies. We are now starting to see the volumes ramp up. The Deputy will be glad to hear the figure for green routing of goods through our ports is now 80%, when a few days ago it was 70%. Companies are working the new systems and getting better at it day by day. Revenue, on a 24-hour basis, is helping to guide companies through these systems, which are complicated, laborious, bureaucratic and time-consuming. I think we will see an improvement week-on-week.
Where there are genuine problems, and there were in regard to the case the Deputy raised yesterday, which we have looked into in some detail, we are learning lessons from those. It is an example of how flexible Revenue can and will be within the parameters within which it has to operate. My understanding is that there will now be a payment mechanism installed in Rosslare, which was not there yesterday, to try to deal with issues like the one the Deputy raised yesterday. There are other issues linked to that case, which I can go into privately with the Deputy. The answer to the straight question is that, yes, we will adapt as we can.
I greatly welcome that and I thank the Minister for looking at the particular question I raised because it was just an indicative question. To have local mechanisms to resolve that is something I will certainly be monitoring in Rosslare.
My second question is in regard to the Brexit fund which the Tánaiste mentioned and the €1 billion. Of course, he talked about it still needing European Parliament assent. It was said that we had just over €1 billion. What is the mechanism by which decisions are going to be made? Are they going to be made by the Department of Foreign Affairs or the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform? Is there a particular committee to which people make applications? What is the evaluation process so that people, particularly those in the fishing sector, who are really impacted and desperately worried, will know where to go, how to prepare their case and who to submit it to, as well as hauliers and everybody else impacted?
That is a fair question. My understanding is that the actual allocation of this money, once it has been confirmed, will be managed by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, which the Deputy will understand only too well, given his time there. I suspect the Department of Finance will be involved in the discussion as well, with other Departments like the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and other sectors will then make their contributions. I hope we will also have an Oireachtas committee system that can contribute to the discussion to make sure that we get this right.
My job, along with the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, was to try to do everything we could to maximise the amount of money that Ireland could access through this fund.
Once that money is approved it will be a collective Government responsibility, managed by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I expect there will be a lot of consultation with stakeholders. We want to do it as quickly as we can so that we can respond to areas of disruption quickly rather than this leaking into next year.
I congratulate the Minister, the Minister of State and the Government for the way they have handled the negotiations so far and the cool and calm manner in which they have dealt with the issues that have arisen.
To respond briefly to others' remarks, I think I was the first person in the country to promote the idea of an all-island economy and a single market for the entire island of Ireland. I think that is the best route and I think it will eventually come down to that. It is important that in this State we show our colleagues in Northern Ireland the benefits accruing to an all-island economy, and we can do that in the way that we do our business daily. A united Ireland is an aspiration already provided for in legislation. It should not be part of a threat but part of a solution as we proceed.
The possible snags are now becoming apparent. I know there has been a rapid response to the various issues, as the Minister has referred to. I ask that it might be intensified and that it might be possible for hauliers and business people in general to be able to get a fairly rapid response to issues as they arise and to get information on what is likely to arise given the current through-flows.
Has adequate provision been made on the alternative routes for Irish imports and exports to and from the Continent, given the knowledge that there will be difficulties in using the route through the UK? As the Minister pointed out, that was already envisaged. It must be time to rely more on the things that we can make happen, rather than on what might happen. That is best done by the operation of the situation as it presents itself now, and hopefully we will see the best result.
I do not foresee a successful arrangement from the UK's perspective. I predict that some time in the next three or four years the UK will reapply for EU membership. That will become more obvious as time goes by.
On the question of the all-island economy, a huge priority of the Brexit negotiations has been to ensure there is no border infrastructure and no barriers to trade between North and South. That has been a huge challenge. The solution we arrived at - the protocol on Northern Ireland and Ireland - is somewhat controversial for some because it requires some level of checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland on trade in order to effectively create a de facto extension of the EU Single Market for goods into Northern Ireland and in Northern Ireland. That said, there are still differences between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland from a trade perspective. We have seen country of origin issues on steel, for example. The grace period that was put in place in the protocols on Northern Ireland and Ireland for Northern Ireland, some for three months and some for six months, in terms of health certificates and so on, make the trade slightly different from Great Britain across the Irish Sea into Northern Ireland compared with the Republic of Ireland. In time, I think we will ensure there is a level playing field in that trade. We are trying to protect an all-island economy that functions well and is a significant contributor to community relations and good political relations on the island.
I want to record the tremendous achievement of our Taoiseach and Ministers in that we were able to trade on 1 January this year. We all feared that Brexit would be Armageddon for industry in this country. While there are snags, some of which we are raising here today, trade has continued in a fairly seamless fashion.
I raise the milk processing industry. During the week, there were media reports that mixed milk, as we might call it, will not have access to EU trade agreements, whether with China, Morocco or other countries, and that market supports will also be denied to mixed milk. This would prove a serious problem for many of our processors, one of which gets 60% of its milk north of the Border. Other Members have highlighted the all-Ireland economy, but milk processing has operated on a 32-county basis for a long time. A significant amount of Northern Ireland milk is processed here in the South. It would create great difficulties if that milk did not have the same access to trade agreements and market supports as milk from the Twenty-six Counties.
I am glad that Deputy Cahill raised this. He has a lot of credibility on this area. It is a real problem. I do not want to pretend it will be solved easily. About 900 million litres of milk comes south from Northern Ireland farms to be processed. Lakeland Dairies is probably the best example of a processor which has a very significant percentage of its milk pool coming from the North, but Glanbia and others do too. The challenge is that one can sell milk that has been sourced on a Northern Ireland farm across the EU as if it is produced in the EU, but if one is selling a product that has been processed with that milk pool from Northern Ireland to a third country that is subject to a trade agreement that the EU has put in place, that milk is sourced outside the EU, even though it is at equivalent to EU standard, under country of origin rules. It is seen as UK milk rather than Irish or EU milk. As a result, there is a problem with EU trade agreements in different parts of the world and selling Northern Ireland milk as EU milk.
The only way to change that is by changing the trade agreements to insert an asterisk to say "EU and Northern Ireland products" which is something we would like to do. I have campaigned for that with the European Commission, with Michel Barnier and his task force and with Maroš Šefcovic, who will be a key figure in EU-UK relations. We will continue to do that but it will take time and a great deal of goodwill on the EU side to be willing to do that. It does pose difficulties in the meantime, but there is a huge market across the EU, where milk from Northern Ireland will be treated the exact same as EU milk. It is only because of the technical legalities of trade agreements, and the country of origin element to those agreements around accurate labelling, that the protocol on Northern Ireland does not cater for products like that. Milk is the best example. The problem is that Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland milk is all mixed into the one milk pool and separating those two milk pools, depending on the markets into which they are sold, is costly for processors. We will continue to engage and work with the processing sector, which is a hugely important part of Irish agriculture, to try and find solutions on this where possible.
Can issues relating to access to market supports and aids to private storage be overcome as well?
We probably need to look to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to comment on how we support the sector. I do not want to do his job for him. He is more than capable of doing it and is very vocal in this space at Cabinet meetings. Some of the disruption to the agrifood sector is clearly linked to Brexit, and our key market and nearest neighbour for agrifood products - we sell €5.5 billion of food to the UK every year - has to be factored into the Brexit adjustment reserve.
I hope that part of that €1 billion will be earmarked for the agrifood sector.
In the limited time I have I will go over and back in asking my questions. I commend the work that is being done at stakeholder, ministerial and official level. We met the Department of Transport and I appreciate that it is operating in a sort of war cabinet type scenario in that when it comes upon a problem, it deals with it. However, everybody agrees that a huge number of problems for hauliers here are being caused by the fact that many British firms did not prepare for Brexit in the way the need for preparations was pushed at governmental level and happened here. We have heard of the difficulties with groupage. We know there are problems with the systems in that they do not talk to each other, so to speak. I refer to the manual transfer of, say, the movement reference number, MRN. We know that certain people involved in freight transport are wondering if there is any possibility of leeway. A number of these systems have only been put together. There was no time to try to test them. We did not even know what we would be testing them for and that is a difficulty at this time.
I have spoken to hauliers and haulage companies on this. There are a range of issues they are concerned about, including being able to get on ferries in terms of direct ferry routes, and we have seen a dramatic increase in the capacity of multiple ferry operators from Irish Ferries to Stena Line to Brittany Ferries and two or three other operators, That situation has improved and continues to get better in terms of increased capacity on direct routes.
Hauliers that are operating between the UK and Ireland are facing challenges, although I believe they are overcoming them as the days go by. We should focus predominantly on responding and adjusting to the new realities, working with Revenue, which is available 24-7 for advice and support for haulage companies and exporters in terms of helping them get their paperwork in order. Nobody wants to be holding a trailer for two or three days and to have the disruption, inconvenience and cost of that.
We have a legal obligation here. This is not something that we are doing because we want to do it politically. The rules of trade are clear. We have a legal agreement that we have to comply with to protect our place in the EU Single Market and its integrity. What we are dealing with now are the consequences of British Government choices in terms of the kind of Brexit it has chosen to negotiate and deliver. In terms of looking for flexibility, we will do that within certain parameters. Revenue has shown flexibility already in regard to safety certificates, for example, but there is only so much flexibility it can show. The honest message that we have to get across here today is that companies have got to adjust to the new realities, although it is somewhat difficult, rather than pretending that there is a magic political solution to put all this off for six months to give everybody more time. That is very unlikely to happen.
I have three questions for the Minster. I will ask them individually and I will be brief, so I would appreciate it if the Minister would give brief answers to allow me get to the other questions. First, the tariffs on steel imports into Northern Ireland potentially could affect construction costs in the Republic. A 25% tariff is being applied to most steel imports into the North, including reports of steel destined for the Republic, and because the two ports on the island of Ireland that are best capable of handling large imports of steel are located in the North, that could have a serious knock-on impact on our construction sector and for home construction costs. I ask the Minister to address that.
Steel is a problem and there is much effort going in now to look at how we solve that. In simple terms there is what is called a safeguard measure that has been introduced by the EU. As a result of Covid-19 and a lack of building activity globally, the EU decided that it needed to act to protect the EU steel industry, and therefore it introduced what is called a safeguard measure, which effectively is a 25% tariff or duty on steel coming into the EU from a third country. The problem on the island of Ireland is that, under that measure, an EU country importing steel gets a certain quota that it can import before the duty applies. However, because Northern Ireland is not an EU country, if it imports that steel from the UK because it is part of the UK customs code, my understanding is that it does not have the quota exemption, so to speak, to avoid that 25% tariff. Ironically, if the steel were to be brought in through Dublin, not only could that be done without having to pay the 25%, it could also potentially be supplied into Northern Ireland without having to pay the 25%. However, if it comes through Belfast, there is a problem. The additional problem is that while that sounds like a solution, actually it is ports in Northern Ireland that are geared up to offload steel whereas Dublin Port is not. There are multiple issues here that people are trying to work out at the moment in terms of how we respond to that but, again, it is essentially a consequence of the complexity of the trading environment to which Brexit leads.
I thank the Minister. I take it from that that it is being looked at because it would be an unfair and unintended consequence if we were penalised just because we do not have those deep port facilities.
The second question is on the potential impact of Brexit on low income households in particular. Two years ago the ESRI estimated that the cost of a trade deal Brexit could be approximately €900 per household. We do not know the actual cost as it is playing out at the moment. We do not know how that is being absorbed but is the Government monitoring the impact on low income households?
I do not have a precise answer to that but I will get one for the Deputy. Part of the budgetary process in Ireland is to ensure that there is fairness and equity as part of how we put budgets together, whether that is the taxation system, social welfare system, equality issues or housing issues, and so any budget that we put together has to be shaped by that. The new realities of life are that Brexit will shape elements of our economy in the way Covid-19 has done. The straight answer to the Deputy's question is "Yes" but I do not have the detail of the measurement tool in terms of how it operates.
The ESRI did a very good piece of work on this two years ago and I believe it would be a good idea to ask it to analyse this to see what the impact is and if its original estimations hold.
Regarding my final question, I have concerns in terms of a level playing field and the agreement and that the UK Government has indicated that it intends to erode workers' rights further in the UK. That could affect us the most as the closest country to the UK. Will the Irish Government be monitoring any relaxation or lowering of regulations in the UK that could impact on our industries and jobs?
It will not be the Irish Government that will be doing it; it will be the EU that will be doing it. This is an EU-UK agreement; it is not an Irish-UK agreement. We are part of something much bigger in the context of our EU membership. This is a trade and co-operation agreement that has very strong level playing field provisions in it. If it is the developing view of the EU collectively that the UK is moving away from a level playing field through regulation or policy in the UK, there are very clear mechanisms in the agreement that can be triggered to respond to that.
I will make a few introductory comments and I have three specific questions which I will ask together. It has to be said that new customs and regulatory checks have caused a few problems so far. There are some empty shelves in some supermarkets like Marks & Spencer, which is supplied by British supermarket chains, and there is a possibility that some of those supermarket chains will simply not bother bringing in their goods to Ireland.
Difficulties have been reported with online shopping, where new charges have been imposed on sites and sales, and some parcel services have ceased. There are problems in our ports too.
Like other speakers, I thank the EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, for the important role that he played in the negotiations. He is a patient man. He told this House in 2017 that he would not abandon Irish interests and that he would respect the Good Friday Agreement in all its dimensions, and he kept his word in that regard. The European Movement Ireland honoured him with the European of the Year award for 2020 today. Michel Barnier said that he considered himself a little bit Irish. It is fair to say that we all consider Michel Barnier an honorary Irishman at this stage.
How is the operation of the Ireland-Northern Ireland protocol going on the ground? Are goods flowing without any problems between Britain and Northern Ireland? Are there teething problems? I say this because the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has told the House of Commons that he is willing to invoke Article 16 of the protocol which allows unilateral action if there are economic, societal or environmental difficulties arising from its implementation. DUP MPs have said that the protocol has ruined trade in Northern Ireland, but they would say that for their own political reasons. Is there any danger that Article 16 will be invoked? Is this something that the Irish Government would oppose at EU level?
Regarding the British land bridge, the Government has been advising exporters to switch to direct ferry services to the Continent rather than going through Britain. Stena Line and Irish Ferries are providing services from Dublin and Rosslare to Cherbourg. In addition, DFDS is providing direct daily services between Rosslare Europort and Dunkirk. The Irish Marine Development Office previously said that there was enough capacity on these routes, yet services have since been increased on a commercial basis. I know the Minister dealt with this earlier, but to clarify again, is there sufficient capacity on direct services from Ireland to the European mainland?
On the bilateral relationship between the United Kingdom and Ireland, with the UK leaving the EU, the EU structure for engagement between Ministers and their officials is no longer available. Our bilateral relationship needs to be re-examined. There are strong social, economic, cultural and political links between our two countries. I understand that the British Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have agreed to begin work on a strategic review of the Irish-British relationship. The Taoiseach has spoken of the need to develop new structures for formal engagement between the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister and at ministerial and official level to formalise co-operation across several policy areas. I believe we need to develop and enhance the various bodies established under the Good Friday Agreement to develop and enhance relations on all parts of these islands. I presume the Minister agrees with that.
It is becoming clear that we are not quite done with Brexit. The partnership council established to oversee the agreement will have 20 committees. There are definitely more painful negotiations ahead but this agreement will make Brexit a little easier for all of us to deal with.
On the protocol for Ireland and Northern Ireland, there are clearly some issues that are frustrating trade. Some of them are linked to a lack of preparation beforehand and some are linked to adjusting to the new realities of bureaucracy, much paperwork, notice and engagement with port authorities and revenue commissioners. That new adjustment is something that we have seen political kickback against, particularly from some political parties in Northern Ireland. Looking at the amount of trade coming into Northern Ireland's ports, it is more or less the same as it was this time last year, about 6% down. Ironically, trade from the UK coming into Dublin and Rosslare is significantly down. That is for a number of reasons, partly because we have seen a number of hauliers choosing direct ferry routes to France as an alternative, where there is a 300% increase. Trade is happening. There are some problems and disruption which we will try to overcome. The threshold to invoke Article 16 is very high and I do not think it is realistic that Article 16 will be used, unless something extraordinary happened that certainly is not happening today. The politics and commentary around Article 16 have not always been based in reality about what Article 16 proposes to do and who can invoke it.
Regarding the land bridge, my understanding is that the reports done on this have said that the ferry sector has the capacity to respond by providing significant increased capacity for direct ferry routes that avoid the land bridge. We are seeing that. DFDS, Stena Line, Irish Ferries, Brittany Ferries and a number of companies providing lift-on lift-off freight services have provided a dramatic increase in a short period, and it will continue, with more to come. It is not perfect. At the start of the year, there were pressures and hauliers were not able to get onto ferries when they wanted to, but I think because of that pressure, we have seen ferry companies respond remarkably quickly to that increased demand. In some cases, we have seen larger ships that were on Irish Sea routes between Dublin and Holyhead switching to direct routes between Ireland and France.
The strategic review between Ireland and the UK is being led by the Taoiseach. My Department is involved too. That will be a significant focus for the next 12 months.
On Christmas Eve, a Brexit deal was announced and hailed as the answer to all our problems, but many people who have been in touch with me and my office disagree with this. Many people's daily lives have been affected by the fallout from Brexit. One lady was told that her car cannot be repaired because there is a problem getting parts from the UK. Her car is safe to drive but will not pass the NCT because there are diagnostic lights on the dashboard. She now has to risk driving the car to get to the shop to buy baby food with the insurance-related and legal implications for driving while not having the NCT. There is no end in sight. The next available slot in Portlaoise NCT centre is in the middle of March. Another gentleman had an accident on the way to work last weekend. His car was towed to a main dealer where he was told that it could be there for weeks because parts were in short supply. His car insurance covers car hire worth €200, which will hire a car for less than one week. He is an essential worker and will be unable to afford to hire a car if this issue drags on. In the course of making inquiries for these people, I have been told of a main dealer in Kildare who has had to strip parts from two new cars to carry out work under warranty. This is not good enough. It is incredible that it is happening.
This Government announced with great fanfare a scheme to provide funding for the training of staff to help businesses to deal with customs paperwork and I am told that the uptake has been low. We need to look at and address the reasons for this. I have spoken to lorry drivers who have contacted me because they have been stuck in queues at ports for days and have not seen their families. We have all heard of the lorry drivers queueing on the M20 in Kent in England for days.
They survived due to the kindness of the local residents who lowered food parcels containing beans, fruit and sweets from a motorway bridge. It is 2021. We can, should and must do better.
Many retailers have taken the decision to cease trading internationally, due to the mess and uncertainty around Brexit. It should not have to be like this. These issues are affecting people's daily lives. We cannot just ignore them and hope that things will get better. These are sources of worry and frustration for people and we must start addressing them. Finally, as the Minister is aware, last year customs dealt with 2 million declarations. This year they expect to deal with 20 million declarations. That is more than 50,000 per day and ten times what was dealt with previously. We must invest more if there is to be any hope of solving this mess. There is a €1 billion contingency fund and it is about time we started spending it wisely.
I can respond to the Deputy, but I think it was more of a statement than a question. We know what some of the problems are and we are addressing them, one after the other. However, with respect to the Deputy, the Irish Government can only do so much for lorry drivers that are stalled in Kent. This is what happens when an economy and a country the size of the UK decides to leave a customs union and a Single Market, never mind the EU. There are new realities to trade. That is why I would encourage companies to reach out. There is a lot of support and advice available. Revenue Commissioners are doing a really good job in very challenging circumstances. Most companies that I speak to are very complimentary of Revenue in terms of knowledge, skill set and so on. We will keep engaging with companies and people that are impacted by Brexit, and we will try to solve problems. However, we also have to be honest with people. Some of the new realities, including disruption to trade, increased bureaucracy, paperwork and preparation, are here to stay. We will be able to work the systems more efficiently as time goes by, but we are never going to get back to what we had before, which was a seamless trading market that the UK was part of in a shared EU customs union and Single Market.
I wish to raise my comments and questions in the context of Covid and Brexit. I listened to Dr. Gabriel Scally on the radio this morning arguing for some form of quarantining and looking towards a zero-Covid strategy. He used the example of the level of co-operation between this State and the Northern Ireland state and the image of Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley, who famously became known as the Chuckle Brothers, working well together. Dr. Scally argued that if these two states can work well together on the Brexit deal, then they can work well together on something like quarantining at our airports and ports. The Government needs to give this serious consideration. Telling us that a zero-Covid strategy will not work because we are an island nation of two different jurisdictions is just nonsense. An island nation with two different jurisdictions has just worked out a very complex Brexit trading deal. Therefore, we need to push hard against that argument and look for an investigation into an all-island zero-Covid policy. I say that to all parties involved, North and South, in the Northern Ireland Assembly and in Dáil Éireann.
It is often said that the EU can be held up as a beacon of all sorts of rights, including women's rights, workers' rights, fairness, trade, sustainability, environmental policies, etc. People were fearful of Boris Johnson and the era of Trump and Putin. I understand how people are afraid of the arguments made against immigration, but the EU certainly is not a beacon. I refer, in particular, to the Mercosur and the CETA deals. It is outrageous that the State, with the EU, is pursuing deals of an international trade level that are not at all sustainable or environmentally- or worker-friendly. As in the past, there was no problem with the EU, with the compliance of our Government, allowing for the containment of immigration, whereby thousands of migrants lost their lives in the Mediterranean or were forced back into slave camps in Libya. These are issues that we really must get a grip of, and have our own policies on.
Finally, I wish to raise the issue of workers' rights in the context of Covid. Despite much lobbying by all the airlines, which came to the Government with their hands out asking for help and claiming the industry was in trouble, none of the big companies which made vast profits from air travel has ever offered to pay for testing at airports or other track and trace facilities and instead have relied on the State. Nevertheless, they are using this opportunity of Covid to pull back on workers' rights. I refer in particular to Ryanair, one of the biggest airlines in Europe. They are increasing the use of bogus self-employment. They are changing people's contracts and giving them much more precarious contracts. They are sacking trade unionists. They are using the loopholes in European legislation as a cover for this. We must be a voice, along with other countries, on this issue. I sent a letter to the Ministers at the Department of Transport, asking them to sign it, and I got nothing back, but a statement to say that they had taken note. Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Luxembourg and, lately, the Netherlands have signed a campaigning letter which states that we need to work co-operatively together, both in our transport and social protection departments, to stop the use of bogus self-employment and social dumping, particularly in the airline industry. I would like the Minister to respond. I ask him to pursue the issue with the Ministers at the Department of Transport and ensure that they join with those other progressive ministers for transport who are campaigning on this issue.
While the questions on Covid, Mercosur and CETA are important in themselves, they are not relevant to the subject matter that is before us. However, if the Minister has something to say, we will certainly hear him.
I do not want to be unhelpful, but this session is predominantly on Brexit and its impact. The Deputy has raised some serious issues and I am sure we will have an opportunity to debate both CETA and Mercosur in this House in the months ahead. I certainly hope we will have the opportunity to do so. When it comes to Covid and the strategy we adopt, as we have done for the last year, we will continue to rely on the considerable expertise that our public health team has built up in terms of the advice that it gives us. A Cabinet sub-committee on Covid will meet again on Monday. NPHET and other experts will contribute to that meeting in respect of the approach we should take. There is North-South co-operation on the Covid strategy. It does not always result in agreement on approach, but there is often much agreement. We have what are referred to as "quad meetings" which I attend along with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the First and Deputy First Ministers and both Ministers for Health. We plan to have another quad meeting next week on co-operation on Covid management.
I understand the point the Deputy made about airlines. However, there are not many airlines making vast profits at the moment. I am not aware of the letter mentioned by the Deputy, but I can take the issue up with the Minister for Transport.
First, I want to raise the issue of hauliers. They are still encountering difficulties and challenges when they present themselves at ports. I am going to use some jargon here. When they arrive at a port, they must prepare a customs entry form and obtain a movement reference number, MRN. This is basically getting pre-clearance. They then need to complete an entry summary declaration, ENS, which is essentially a security document and nearly a duplicate of the document they have already completed. Finally, they must prepare a pre-boarding notification, PBN, before they leave on the ship. There was supposed to be Revenue software available to tally all of this, match it up and ensure that the process was quite seamless. There have been a number of glitches with the software. There was supposed to be a mobile app and an on-board electronic notice board to simplify matters. They have not been working and I am told that some of them are not fully in place. This makes it difficult and challenging for hauliers to board a ship and bring their freight with them.
Recently the Oireachtas transport committee heard testimony from two really good witnesses, namely, Damien Regan from Clare and Kieran O'Callaghan from Limerick.
They are proposing that we would have an air cargo bridge from Ireland into Europe. Brexit should not be all about the disadvantages and this proposal represents an opportunity. At the moment, only 1% of all freight leaving Ireland does so through air channels. The committee witnesses are suggesting that Shannon Airport, given its long runway and extensive hangar space, would be an ideal place for a cargo bridge. I would like to hear the Minister's view on this. I understand the witnesses have given a great deal of detailed information on their proposal to his Department.
I hope the Minister can respond to my final point, which concerns the arrival of 140 students from Algeria to Ireland in the past two days as part of a study abroad programme. I did an Erasmus study programme back in 2002. It is a fantastic programme and a wonderful opportunity. In normal times, every student should be encouraged to do it, but perhaps not during level 5 Covid restrictions. The students from Algeria have arrived at a time when students of the University of Limerick cannot enter the campus, despite living only 1 km or 2 km away. Suddenly, there is an influx of 140 students who have come into the country from an airport in Algeria. I know Covid restrictions are in place and the students are quarantining but their arrival is against the spirit of the level 5 restrictions. I would like to hear the Minister's views on that.
The last issue is separate to what we are discussing but I will comment on it in due course. First, I am more than familiar with the challenges that many hauliers face and I have spoken to people in many haulage companies in the past number of weeks. Some are adapting to the new realities reasonably well and others are not. It is important to say that the numbers are increasing and have done so significantly in the past few days. We are at a point now where 80% of hauliers are being green-laned or green-lighted. When those vehicles come off the ship, their drivers are free to go. That figure was 70% a few days ago. It is getting better all the time despite the increase in traffic volumes.
However, let nobody pretend otherwise than that the paperwork, preparation and notice period are very different from what was required in December and before that. These are the new realities of trading with the UK. We have to be honest with people that these new realities are not simply going to disappear through the use of slick software systems. We can, of course, improve the management processes in our ports to ensure that traffic moves as smoothly as it possibly can under the new arrangements. Revenue has already shown some flexibility in regard to safety certificates. This is about training, educating, informing and helping people to deal with the new realities as best we can.
We need to go to the next Deputy.
The air cargo bridge is an interesting concept. I certainly would not have any problem with it. If there is a demand for that, I do not see why it cannot progress.
In regard to the students who arrived from Algeria, all I can say is that the advice we give in regard to international travel is that only essential travel should happen now. We have pretty strict protocols around that.
I do not wish the Minister to respond to me, because I want to use my time to put a few points on the record. I ask that he take the points on board and, if he feels the needs to respond, he might do so in writing at a later time.
I was involved in the export business for many years. I am glad I am not involved in it now. I would respectfully suggest that until such time as we get through the Brexit teething problems, the Government needs to select and appoint, on a statutory basis, a supply chain general. It must be done on a statutory footing in order that the person appointed can have reach with all the relevant bodies, from Revenue and Customs and Excise through to the HSE and the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine; Health; Enterprise, Trade and Employment; and Transport. Unless the individual appointed has that kind of reach, we are not going to make the kind of progress that we need. The Departments and bodies I have mentioned are not the supply chain but they are links in it. Without somebody with reach across each of them, we are inevitably going to end up with an exponential rise in transport costs throughout the country. I am sure Deputy Verona Murphy is much better qualified to make this case than I am and I am sure she will do so.
As things stand, the cost of customs duties alone is calculated by some of the larger haulage companies to be up to 8%. There is a suggestion and an anticipation that transport costs for exporters may go up by as much as 35% to 45% over the coming seven or eight months. The sorts of teething problems that are being endured by hauliers are having a huge impact. There seems to be a particular focus by hauliers on Dublin Port and the potential incompatibility of the IT systems there with the British side. Our colleagues in Northern Ireland face an awful situation with cliff edges looming in April and July. That will have implications for us as well. I appeal to the Minister to consider the appointment, on a statutory basis, of a supply chain general with reach across all the relevant Departments and agencies, starting with Customs and Excise and Revenue.
As the Minister will no doubt be aware, under the cross-border directive, a substantial number of people here in the South benefit from HSE funding or reimbursement for medical procedures in the North. We have a one-year unique replacement arrangement for Northern Ireland, after which the cross-border directive will cease to operate between North and South. Given the benefit of the existing arrangement to people in the Republic of Ireland, I appeal to the Minister to explore how we might come up with a longer-term or more permanent arrangement that goes on beyond this year.
Finally, I am being opportunistic in raising a Covid-related matter in which I believe the Minister could have a role. It concerns securing adequate supplies of vaccines for our population. The Minister for Health informed the House earlier today that everyone in Ireland will be vaccinated by the end of September. That is great news but I am interested to know how it will be done. The supply chain that is available to us and the vaccines that are available to us do not add up to meeting that sort of deadline. I very much hope that things will improve. I ask that we use our diplomatic channels to secure additional supplies. Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna all have facilities in this country, some of them very large ones. Let us start cashing in on that. These companies have benefited greatly from us over the years in preferential taxation treatment. We would like a little more in return.
The Deputy's time is up.
I am concluding. In case we are worried about being poor Europeans, I would point out that when Angela Merkel said in January, "We don't want national solo runs and think the most effective protection for us can be reached with a European approach.", none of us knew that she had her own little side deal already done for the German people. While being good Europeans, let us also put the Irish people first on this matter.
Can the Minister confirm that the common travel area ensures that all Irish and British citizens can continue to access further and higher education on a same-fees basis, as was the case prior to Brexit, and that no students from the North will be charged international fees at any of our educational institutions? This is a very specific question and the Minister may intend to make a statement on it.
Fishing has been central to every exchange we have had with the Minister regarding Brexit. As always, he has assured us that the Government will protect our fishers and our fishing communities. I find it disturbing, therefore, that so many of them feel they have been excluded. Who compiled the priority list of Irish licensed and registered fishing vessels seeking access to UK waters that was sent to the Commission after the full list was rejected? How were those vessels selected? What does the Minister say to the fishers who tell us that there is a total disconnect between the Government and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and fishing families?
I want to give the Minister time to respond, so I only have one more question. There is much confusion among people who are finding that products ordered from the UK which would normally take five or six days to arrive have not yet been delivered a month later. They are finding that their purchases have gone a distance but are now going back to the manufacturer. What warning or advice would the Minister give Irish citizens when ordering goods from the UK?
On the Deputy's last question, making online purchases from the UK is something that large numbers of Irish consumers have been doing on a daily basis, particularly throughout the Covid period when local retailers were closed because of restrictions. Even though there is much evidence that there has been very strong support for purchasing locally online, there is still a great number of platforms based in the UK from which Irish consumers make purchases. The truth is that there is now a different arrangement in place. The automatic consumer protections that applied under EU directives and so on when the UK was part of the EU, its Single Market and its customs union, are no longer there.
Added to that are potential taxation complications. It is a matter of understanding that the price advertised will be the price paid, including taxes. There are also potential delivery challenges. We have seen a number of haulage companies temporarily stall or stop deliveries because of the need to understand the paperwork of the new systems that are being put in place. Therefore, there is ongoing adjustment that is impacting the pace of delivery. That is absolutely true. We need to say to our consumers and the public very clearly that they should be aware of the risks when they buy online now. They cannot simply assume, because a brand or platform is credible, that they will be able to have the kinds of delivery times that were taken for granted up to the end of last year.
With regard to fishing, all I can say to the Deputy is that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and I have spent a great amount of time speaking to the industry to ensure Irish fishing interests are very much part of Brexit negotiations. That conversation is continuing, even after the Brexit deal has been done, in the context of fair burden-sharing, support packages and so on. It will continue. The Taoiseach is also involved in that. I have heard much loose talk and criticism. I can understand the frustration in many of our fishing ports in that their element of the Brexit deal has resulted in a loss of fishing opportunities, particularly for certain species, mackerel being the best example. We will, however, continue to work with the sector. It is important and we will do everything we can to protect it.
I am not aware of any changes regarding students from Northern Ireland coming to universities down here. Certainly, they will not be treated as international students.
On a point of clarification, I said that the students who had come to the University of Limerick were on Erasmus placements. They are actually enrolled in the college, but my point still stands. I just want that corrected on the record.
Having been involved in the Brexit process from the start, the Minister is only too well aware of the detrimental impact of Brexit on the island of Ireland. Indeed, both he and I attended many a Brexit forum detailing to larger audiences throughout the country just how bad it would be with tariffs. The deal, as we will call it, may have avoided tariffs and, to the Minister’s mind, solved the problem but I can tell him it did not. We have exactly what I warned we would have: Ireland’s enforcement agencies doing what they do best, that is, enforcing the 30-year-old EU customs code to the nth degree on an IT system that is not fit for purpose. Each agency concerned has its own IT system and those systems do not even talk to each other. With these systems, many hours of working time must be spent to access and complete a declaration, all to Ireland’s detriment. A food consignment declaration can mean accessing as many as eight different IT systems, and the procedure is taking hours, if it successful at all. People arrive at the port only to be told there is a problem with one of the eight IT systems accessed. Clarifying which one can take days. The result is that tonnes of food must be destroyed. Where is the Government's social conscience?
Past and present Governments dealing with Brexit — the Minister has been a member of both — promised to assist businesses. Governments have promised to ensure alternatives to the land bridge so EU markets could be accessed without disruption. The Government promised to provide grants to assist with training of customs agents to get the private sector Brexit-ready. Here is what the Government did: it provided a shipping report from the Irish Maritime Development Office, IMDO, stating we did not need to do anything, leaving businesses and their hauliers languishing at ports as ships left them behind. The capacity was not where it was required, as depicted in the IMDO report. Shipping now involves a massive cost increase, a cost that will be borne by all Irish consumers, but especially by low-income earners doing their weekly shopping. The Government advertised grants from Enterprise Ireland to train customs agents but applications were capped or turned down. Now, instead of having people with the expertise to carry out the customs paperwork, we have a shortage of customs agents. The Government has a €15 million fund sitting unused because of bureaucracy while businesses go down the tubes and jobs are lost. The Minister was made aware of this in July 2019. I will read a little excerpt from an email that demonstrates this:
Good afternoon Tánaiste Coveney,
...I am completing Customs Clearances now for 36 years and have quite a bit of experience...
We have been given the statistics for companies importing and exporting to the UK [by Revenue]. I have also seen the amount of shipments that take place. With the volumes that are forecasted for clearances, there is not a chance in the world that the volume of traffic can be cleared customs due to the lack of agents and staff...
It has been highlighted at the Customs Consultative Committee Meetings to the various Governmental Departments. I do not think they realise the urgency of the matter...
The information needs to be inputted into the Customs Automated Computer System. Agricultural goods need be inputted into the European Traces System...
Speaking to other agents and importers and exporters, I know a lot are not geared up. A lot of experienced agents are near retirement...and they simply will not be interested in taking on extra work. Importers and exporters are of the opinion that they will employ an agent. But we, as a country, will not have the capacity [of trained staff]...
I urge you to highlight this as a matter of urgency at Government and European level.
No customs agent means reduced movements on exports and imports. That means business closure, job losses and a massive increase in the cost of Johnny and Mary's weekly shop while they listen to the Government repeat that this is Brexit and that it is not of its making. It may not be of the Government's making but it is still its problem.
According to an analysis by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the cost of the Brexit deal to the fishing sector is €43 million. This represents a 15% loss of all fish caught by Irish vessels. What has not been taken into account is that from April 2021, Irish vessels will no longer be able to land in the UK and instead must go to Belgium or France with their catch, adding 16 hours in travel time and €4,000 in costs. Why can the Government not change this? The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, designated five extra ports at which foreign fishing vessels may land their catch in Ireland. Is the Government beyond asking the UK or the EU to alleviate the problem of Irish vessels travelling for 16 hours in dangerous weather conditions? The Government must request a derogation or an exemption unless it would prefer its image as poster boy of Europe to continue at the expense of our fishermen, their communities and the fish processors from Kilmore Quay to Killybegs. The cost of the Government doing nothing for Wexford's fishing communities in Kilmore Quay and Duncannon and the 100 families involved is €6 million per year. This is but one sector affected. I do not have the speaking time to mention the others but what is happening will continue and there will be time in the future for me to address it.
The Government has two choices. It can either sit back and watch Ireland’s trade volumes reduce drastically as businesses close, jobs are lost and consumers' costs continue to rise or it can go over to the EU and negotiate for Ireland. Today, the volume of trade from the UK is 30% of the normal rate. Customs agents are overwhelmed at 30% but, despite this, the Revenue Commissioners are informing the Government that these are teething problems. It seems there is no one who can do the simple mathematics, neither in the Revenue Commissioners nor the Government, but the losses will keep mounting. For the Minister's information, the volume of traffic in Rosslare has increased by 600%. It has no bearing on the reduction in the UK-Ireland trade that we see.
I am sharing time with Deputy O'Connor.
I thank the Minister very much for this session. There is much to discuss. I am deliberately not going to repeat points other Deputies have made because the Minister has addressed them or can address them later. I want to build on some of the statements made by Deputy Verona Murphy, with whom I spent a great deal of time in the Brexit trenches over the past few years. The issue I would like to raise first with the Minister concerns replacement and the opportunities provided to the Irish economy by Brexit.
I mention that with particular reference to the work of the Minister's Department in securing additional trade within the European Single Market. Deputy Verona Murphy mentioned the 600% increase in traffic in Rosslare and the importance of direct shipping, as have others, but, crucially, we are still underperforming when it comes to maximising the opportunities that are presented by the Single Market. Much of the lead on that needs to be taken by the Minister's Department.
I greatly appreciated the replies to parliamentary questions I received from the Minister, the Tánaiste and the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, on the efforts in relation to trade missions, the offices of Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland across the EU and the additional staffing within member state embassies from the Department of Foreign Affairs. I welcome the work going on in relation to the consulate in Frankfurt and the Enterprise Ireland office in Lyon but we are still missing a trick when it comes to other major cities outside the capitals, such as Milan, Barcelona, Gdansk and Gothenburg. How can Irish exports replace British exports that were once much sought-after, such as products from the Scottish seafood industry? There is huge potential there and it requires the Department of Foreign Affairs to lead on this. There is the model of the Ireland House that the Department is pursuing outside the EU but it should also ensure that in ten years' time every Irish mission in the EU has in the embassy not just diplomats but officers from Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, Bord Iascaigh Mhara, Bord Bia, Tourism Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland and many other State agencies.
I raise an issue that has come up today but I do not believe anyone in this question and answer session has raised it. It is a specific Brexit issue whereby the British Government, sadly, does not seem to be affording full diplomatic credentials to the EU representative to the UK post Brexit. Some 143 countries give the EU representative full diplomatic status. I ask the Minister to raise this with his equivalent, the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, and with the British ambassador to Ireland. Why are they doing this? Will they rectify it? In my opinion, it is a petty move which serves nobody's interest. The fact is that 143 countries allow this. The only other regime that has tried to use that before now was that of former President Donald Trump. It is worrying. If we believe in the close relationship between the EU and the UK that is allowed for in this deal, and if we believe that Ireland should be the UK's best friend in the EU, we need to see that reciprocated by the British Government. We need to see full diplomatic credentials presented to the European mission in London and in any other regional offices that remain open or will open in the future. Will the Minister raise this in a serious manner and ensure it is clear that, in order to maintain those relationships, diplomatic norms must also be maintained?
It is rare in politics these days when everything is so negative that there is something positive to say. As a newly elected Deputy, I thank the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Minister for the work they have done over the past number of months and years on the issue of Brexit. The day Joe Biden was paying his first official visit to Ireland as Vice President was interesting. I had the pleasure of meeting him that day, which was the day the UK had voted to leave the European Union. We have made enormous progress as a country to protect to the best of our ability critically important sectors of our economy. In my constituency of Cork East we were exceptionally concerned about the effects it could have on the cheddar cheese and dairy industry. Cork East is at the heart of agrifood in Ireland.
I was highly impressed when I was first elected as a Deputy by the extraordinary efforts put in by staff at the Department of Foreign Affairs after my engagement with them in trying to get citizens repatriated and by their work on Brexit. It has to be outlined that the Department has done well for the country and I thank the Minister for the continued work he is doing.
We have entered into the British relationship post the UK being a member of the European Union. We have to be incredibly careful to protect all of the positive moves we have secured for Ireland, including looking after Northern Ireland to the best of our ability. There are hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens in the North on whose behalf we fought very hard to ensure freedom of movement across the Border.
From a logistics point of view, the previous speakers outlined the frustration felt by many hauliers. I am hearing a significant amount of discussion about that and around new systems that the Department is continuing to work on. Everybody knew we would face significant challenges in trying to address the new realities as a result of a decision taken not by Ireland but by the people of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. We have to put our best efforts into ensuring our systems are as seamless as possible. The Minister has outlined that those things cannot always be perfected given the circumstances but we have to try.
Something I am strong on is the fact that we are now in receipt of funds from the European Union as a result of the departure of the United Kingdom and it is important that we do not put that public money to waste. We have to ensure we invest it in areas most affected by Brexit and in ways that improve and diversify our economy. We have to ensure our ports are at their maximum capacity and have all the infrastructure they need in addition to what they already have. We must also invest in the technology we have seen in other parts of the world that will ensure our trade is as seamless as possible. I have been in countries that border the European Union. I have been to Croatia and anyone who has been to Dubrovnik would be aware that there are multiple checkpoints when crossing into Bosnia. We have avoided the situation where there are armed checkpoints at border crossings. That is a testament to the work of the Department of Foreign Affairs but when it comes to our trade as an island nation, we have to ensure we are doing everything possible. I ask the Minister to use that money to good effect so it does not go to waste or go out in handouts. That would not be welcomed by the public at large throughout the country.
In my county of Cork there are many projects that would have a huge impact on our ability to trade. In east Cork, we are crippled with traffic congestion at Castlemartyr and Killeagh. I would like to see us upgrading our national road network, connecting ports like Rosslare to the Port of Cork so we have the ability to get the goods to the Continent and the European Union as quickly as possible. It is welcome that we have additional crossings now between Ireland and the European Union. We have to ensure we do everything we can to expand upon that.
From the Rural Independent Group, Deputies Michael Collins and Mattie McGrath are sharing.
I have three minutes for questions and answers and Deputy Mattie McGrath has the remainder of the time.
We have been six months fighting on the cross-border directive for a new scheme. There seemingly is a newly announced Northern Ireland planned healthcare initiative. Will this scheme be available to people from west Cork or elsewhere in the Republic of Ireland who have problems with cataracts, hips or knees, or are generally in need of surgical procedures, in exactly the same way as the old cross-border scheme? I am happy this has been announced and I thank the Minister and others involved but there is the worry that it is not a seamless transition. If it is, the Minister might explain that. Why is it until 31 December of this year? Will I be back in the same situation on the floor of the Dáil in October or November worrying that we will not have a scheme in place? Due to the procedures held up by Covid this year, I can see that where there were 7,000 using it last year, it could well be 10,000 or 12,000 using it next year. The Minister might be able to explain the new scheme.
I have to time my interventions. I am not sure whether Deputies want me to answer now or at the end.
The Deputy and others have been raising this for many months and I have, not for the first time, said we have to wait and see what the deal looks like before having detail and clarity around what replaces what was there previously. This is the responsibility of the Department of Health but my clear understanding is that the ability to travel from the South to the North for medical operations will continue under the new arrangements. The full intention of the Government is that, whether it is cataracts or knees, we will be able to use the excess capacity that is available in hospitals in Northern Ireland for patients who cannot get that pace of delivery of service in hospitals here.
Obviously, the priority is to build capacity in our own hospital systems in order that people do not have to cross the Border, but I acknowledge the Deputy's involvement and that of others in the cross-Border support from a health perspective.
The cross-border directive, as it was, does not apply any longer because it cannot legally. We have to put in place an alternative system that effectively does something very similar in terms of outcome to what was there before. My understanding is the Department of Health is absolutely committed to doing that.
In view of the failure that has happened with customs, the rigmarole at the ports, food being dumped, drivers being incarcerated and held up, and hauliers being destroyed, will the Minister appoint an outside facilitator with experience in trading, IT and business to bring this together and to knock heads together? The Government was warned by Deputy Verona Murphy and many more of us that this confusion and disarray would happen, and that is what we have. It is too serious, and our industry is too important, to allow that to happen. We do not have enough trained agents and not enough training has been given to hauliers. Above all, there are two or three different systems but they are not connecting and there are systems failures and everything else. Will the Minister please bring in an external facilitator before it is too late, to try to save businesses, hauliers, and good food and other products that are being damaged?
My second question relates to Algerian students coming to the University of Limerick, UL. We are told we cannot travel more than 5 km and people are being prosecuted for doing so, but this flies in the face of all that. My daughter is a student in Limerick, as are many others. They are all at home, having been told they cannot drive beyond 5 km. This pilot of an Erasmus+ scheme should not be happening in the middle of a pandemic.
There is not a complete failure at ports. We all have a responsibility to try to address problems when they arise but not to exaggerate them for effect either. The Revenue Commissioners are working night and day with haulage companies, exporters and importers to try to help people adjust to the new system. This is a change we have been warning about for many months. Grant aid and advice have been made available and there have been hundreds of stakeholder engagements, and there continue to be with the Irish Road Haulage Association and many other sectors.
As I said, we are at a point where 80% of goods that come into Rosslare and Dublin are being green-laned successfully, without any delays or checks. It is the other 20% that we need to work with to help them adjust to the new systems. Of course, the Revenue Commissioners are adjusting, changing and improving their systems all the time, and are showing flexibility when they can. Introducing some kind of outside tsar will not improve the situation; instead we need continued consultation. These new systems have been in place for only a number of weeks. There was always going to be a difficult adjustment period to the new realities of the United Kingdom being outside of the customs union and the Single Market. That is what we are seeing. We will continue to work closely with stakeholders and hauliers to do everything we can to ease this transition.
I thank the Minister for waiting. It matters when a senior Minister does that. Today, I spoke to an importing and exporting company in Leitrim that has been meticulous in its preparation for Brexit from day one. As part of its business, it imports and exports materials from Europe and the carriers pass through the UK, where delays are up to a week. To maintain a reduced level of production, the business's only solution is to import three or four times the quantity of raw materials it needs. Will the Minister use his influence with the banks to ensure additional credit lines on a temporary basis for such companies? Behind the scenes - I do not expect him to respond to this - I ask him to use his influence to encourage the UK to upskill and employ sufficient numbers to process further checks.
My second question concerns public procurement. What measures has, or can, the Government put in place to assist Irish companies that want to tender for work in the UK? Barriers have been put in place and I understand that, but I refer to providing good information and proper signposting for these companies. Furthermore, where there is a divergence in standards between us and the UK, what protections are in place for Irish companies that want to tender for work in the Republic? This is a huge issue in the Border region.
My final question, to allow the Minister time to answer, is in regard to dairy. He responded to Deputy Cahill and I listened to what was said. Lakeland and Glanbia were mentioned. As the Minister knows, this is a huge issue for co-operatives along the Border, including Aurivo. A total of 20% of its milk comes from Northern Ireland. This has a massive impact on the north-west and Border region. I accept the Minister's bona fides that he is working with Commissioner Šefčovič and others to find solutions, but we always knew this was going to happen. Is there any route to a possible solution that the Minister can see? Will he give an up-to-date report on baby milk formula exports to China? Written replies will do if he does not have time.
There were some good questions. On the Deputy's example of the Leitrim company that, effectively, wants to bulk import because of the difficulties with individual consignments and is seeking banking facilities for that, she might send me the details and I will try to be helpful if I can. I do not want to over-promise in respect of our relationship with banks but I would be surprised if flexibility did not come from banks in respect of companies that are clearly viable but that are having temporary difficulties with importing linked to new Brexit arrangements.
On public procurement, it is important to say part of this deal guarantees that EU companies, such as Irish companies, should be able to tender and compete for business in the UK, as is also the case on a reciprocal basis for UK companies competing for business throughout the EU on the basis of equivalence.
As for protections around the level playing field, of course we need to watch this closely. There are strong protections in the Northern Ireland protocol in respect of fair competition, particularly in the food and agrifood sector on the island of Ireland, to protect the all-island economy and to ensure that the de facto extension of the EU Single Market for goods that applies to Northern Ireland under the protocol operates on a level playing field. Moreover, there are broader questions around the EU's relationship with the UK, with constant assessing and measuring of whether there is a level playing field for business. If there is not, clear mechanisms in the trade and co-operation agreement, TCA, that involve arbitration and follow-on actions can be triggered if necessary.
I know Aurivo reasonably well and it is a great company. It is true that about 20% of its milk pool comes from the North. I have been raising this issue for eight months with the EU side. I am trying to protect an all-island economy and food producers in Northern Ireland as well as south of the Border in the context of benefiting from EU trade deals. The only way I can see this issue being resolved, unless someone has a better idea, is if the individual trade deals are amended to incorporate Northern Ireland as well as EU product.
Under country of origin rules, it is clear that milk originating and produced in Northern Ireland is Northern Ireland milk and therefore UK milk, not EU milk, even though it is produced to the same standards as EU milk under the protocol. The way to do this is by minor amendments to individual trade deals, which will take some time. It is certainly possible but it is a laborious process and not easy to resolve.