I thank the Chairman and members for this opportunity to come before the committee, particularly in advance of next week when we will publish the legislation on which, hopefully, I can give them some information now. I thank the committee for the invitation to be here today to discuss the Miscellaneous Provisions (Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union on 29 March 2019) Bill 2019. I also thank them for facilitating me by hosting this session today. I appreciate the attendance of members of both the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Trade and Defence and the Joint Committee on European Affairs at this session. I very much appreciate their time and engagement as we bring forward this omnibus Bill to address a range of critical issues that may arise in the context of a no-deal Brexit.
While there are six weeks to go until Brexit formally happens on 29 March, the political process is continuing. However, as they have done since the decision to leave the EU was first taken, the answers lie with Westminster.
The EU remains committed to achieving an ambitious and comprehensive future partnership with the UK. Should the UK's intentions for the future partnership evolve, the EU will adjust the level of ambition of the political declaration on the future relationship. However, the EU has made it absolutely clear that it stands by the withdrawal agreement, and it is not open for renegotiation.
President Tusk and President Juncker reaffirmed this during the Taoiseach’s visit to Brussels last week, and they reaffirmed the EU's continued solidarity on the backstop. The Taoiseach also met Prime Minister May, at her request, in Dublin last Friday. Throughout, our focus has been on securing the withdrawal agreement which is the best and only way to ensure an orderly and managed withdrawal.
While we have been working to secure agreement, preparations for Brexit and the changes it will bring have been under way since the beginning. More recently with the impending approach of the Brexit deadline and the uncertainty in London, we have no choice but to ramp up our no-deal preparations. This Bill is one of the most tangible expressions of the deep and broad preparations that are under way across multiple Government Departments. Our work at national level is complementary to the significant work under way across the EU to be as prepared as we can possibly be just in case the UK leaves the EU without a deal on 29 March. While certain areas of our contingency planning require legislation, many do not and a wide range of other measures are under way such as the recruitment of customs and sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, officials, preparations at ports and airports, and a range of financial and advisory supports for businesses to help them to prepare and plan for Brexit.
This omnibus Bill covers the issues in primary legislation that need to be addressed immediately in the event of a no-deal Brexit. It also contains an amendment to the Interpretation Act which would be needed should the withdrawal agreement be ratified in order to facilitate a transition period. Measures relevant in the case of a no-deal Brexit were identified following a detailed screening by all Departments of legislation currently in force. The Government published the general scheme of the omnibus Bill on 24 January. The Bill contains 16 Parts, addressing primary legislative issues which would require immediate attention in a no-deal scenario.
This is a very wideranging Bill, but given the emergency nature of this legislation, the Government took the decision that progressing this through the Houses as an omnibus Bill is the most sensible way to ensure that we have the necessary legislation enacted on time before 29 March. This Bill focuses on protecting our citizens and supporting the economy, enterprise and jobs, particularly in key economic sectors that are vulnerable. It will underpin the common travel area and help to ensure that the associated rights and entitlements of Irish and British citizens under this longstanding arrangement will continue in any circumstance. In the area of health, the Bill will provide for a range of existing reciprocal healthcare arrangements between Ireland and the UK to be maintained after the UK leaves the EU. The Minister for Health will be provided with the power to make regulations in a number of matters, including to enable persons from Ireland to access healthcare in the UK. In a practical sense what we are trying to protect is the ability of young children to come from Belfast to Dublin for specialist paediatric care, the many patients in Donegal who go across the Border to Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry where Irish taxpayers' money has helped to put some of the infrastructure in place, and so on. We have particularly during the past 20 years found a way to co-operate in a pragmatic and friendly way to make the best of the infrastructure on both sides of the Border from a healthcare perspective, and we want to continue to do that, even when Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom is outside the European Union.
The Bill will also provide for the continued payment of 21 social protection benefits, including payments such as old age pensions, illness benefit and child benefit, in any circumstance. It also provides protection for workers whose UK-based employer might become insolvent. Currently, all these issues, essentially, are protected under EU regulations, derogations or directives. Many of us will know British citizens living in Ireland who get pension payments from the UK every week or every month. Certainly, many of us will know many Irish citizens living in the UK who continue to get their pensions from here. Likewise, there are parents who get child benefit payments and so on across the Border or between Britain and Ireland. It does not naturally follow that those payments remain intact in a no-deal Brexit scenario unless we plan for that.
We are doing two things. First, we are signing an agreement between Ireland and the UK to protect social protection payments but we are also putting primary legislation in place to make sure we can make that seamless transition, if we face this cliff edge at the end of March where Britain essentially crashes out of the European Union without a managed exit and all of the arrangements that should be in place for that.
Furthermore, the Bill will allow for Student University Support Ireland, SUSI, grants to be paid to eligible Irish students studying in the UK, as well as to UK students in Irish higher education institutions. I am a beneficiary of this, as I went to university in the UK and the British taxpayer paid for some of my education. There are many British students in Irish third level institutions, and they are more than welcome here.
We do not want to turn this into a situation whereby Irish students in the UK and UK students in Ireland would be obliged to pay foreign student fees. We certainly do not want a situation where we cannot support through student grants young Irish students going to colleges and universities in future, as we do today. Again, it requires practical legislation in education to protect that arrangement in the context of a no-deal Brexit, should that happen. I am of the view that such an eventuality unlikely but we must plan for it.
On provisions in transport, we must see to it that cross-Border bus and rail services continue to operate thereby ensuring continued service provision for passengers and commuters on the island of Ireland. One would assume that getting on a train in Dublin and alighting in Belfast would be a fairly straightforward process. After Brexit, however, that train will leave the European Union, travel to a third country and then return. These are things that we do not think about but which require a legal base in areas such as the recognition of drivers and various other matters, including those relating to safety provision and certification. A similar situation arises in relation to bus journeys. We need to plan for, and in this case legislate for, many things that nobody thought about when they voted for or against Brexit.
Enterprise Ireland will be given additional enabling power to further support businesses through investment, loans and research and development and investment grants so as to assist Irish businesses in remaining competitive and resilient in the context of a no-deal Brexit context. This is one of the only areas in which legislation was likely to be brought forward in any event because Enterprise Ireland has sought this increased power. However, it makes sense to take this element out of the larger Bill we plan to take at some stage in the coming 12 months and put it into this legislation in order that we maximise the capacity for Enterprise Ireland to be able to support businesses, particularly in vulnerable sectors through what will be a very difficult transition for many of them in the event of a no deal Brexit materialising.
Since the publication of the general scheme of the omnibus Bill, intensive work has been underway between Departments and the Office of the Attorney General. On the basis of this work, there have been some updates and amendments to the draft Bill. These include new provisions which will introduce postponed accounting for VAT purposes in a no-deal scenario. This will mitigate against a potential cashflow burden faced by businesses post Brexit. This issue was highlighted by industry, and this is a practical measure which will support businesses. Put simply, we are helping businesses with cashflow. Unfortunately, because of new trading relationships on the back of a no-deal Brexit, businesses that import and export products back and forth from the UK on a weekly or daily basis will have to pay VAT on each consignment in future unless we legislate to facilitate better arrangements. Currently, businesses pay VAT every second month. In that kind of environment, we are legislating to ensure that businesses can continue to calculate their VAT and, from a cashflow perspective, pay every second month rather than on the delivery of every individual consignment that may have to go through customs checks, SPS checks and so on, especially in the context of east-west trade, whether that comes through Dublin Port, Dublin Airport or Rosslare.
Following consultation with the Office of the Attorney General, the original Part 16 of the draft Bill, which contained amendments to the Data Protection Act, will now be covered by statutory instrument. Similarly, certain health provisions which were in the original draft Bill will be provided for through secondary legislation. That is good news because it simplifies the arrangements.
While this Bill covers a range of areas, it is very much operational legislation to allow for many of our current arrangements with the UK to continue to function after it leaves the EU and becomes a third country. The Government has discussed this proposed legislation during its meetings in January and February. Its provisions are the subject of daily engagements between Departments and Parliamentary Counsel.
We expect to publish the full single omnibus Bill on 22 February and we will continue to work closely with the Business Committee to confirm timelines. We propose to bring the legislation to Cabinet on Tuesday where it will be signed off by the Government. As a complicated piece of legislation, it will then go back to the relevant Departments for a final check to ensure that it is correct and then it will be published. It will be published on time, as we said we would, next Friday, 22 February. I am happy to brief Opposition parties before next Friday before we publish the Bill to ensure that there will be no surprises and that everyone will understand what is coming. We must work together in respect of the legislation.
Once published, the Bill will go before the Dáil for Second Stage between 26 and 28 February; it will undergo Committee and Report Stages between 4 and 8 March. We want to do this via a committee of the House. Originally, we thought we would try to do it through this committee or combined committees. However, having spoken to all the political parties, there is a view that this legislation is important enough to bring it through a committee of the House so that no one will be excluded. As a result of this, no one will be required to be a committee member in order to contribute to the debates. Anyone in the House will be able to speak, ask questions and secure clarification. This will also allow us to bring in Ministers to take the sections of the legislation that apply to their Departments. There are nine Departments, including the Department of An Taoiseach, to which sections of the Bill relate. In the context of matters of education, the Minister, Deputy McHugh, will come before the House to answer questions and deal with any amendments that are relevant to his section. Similarly, the Minister of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, can deal with anything related to her area, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan can deal with anything relating to his brief and so on.
If all goes well, the Bill will be send for Second Stage debate in the Seanad on 11 and 12 March. That will be followed by Committee and Report Stage in the Seanad on 13 and 14 March. Many Ministers will be away in the build up to St. Patrick's Day but I will not be, or, rather, I will be away for part of this week but I will be around for the legislation. I will be visiting European capitals for obvious reasons. That is the timeline on which we hope the committee can work with us. Members will find me absolutely open in the context of briefings, reassurance and clarifications and any amendments they may wish to test. We can do it offline or online as they wish.
The country is in an emergency situation and this is emergency legislation. We need to get it done together in order to protect Irish people, whether pensioners, students or members of the travelling public. We can get it done in the timeline I have outlined. To date, engagement with other political parties has been very positive. There is nothing party political in what we are doing and we will work in a very constructive way with everyone on this process.
This legislation is an essential part of our whole-of-Government preparations for Brexit. Our contingency action plan was published on 19 December and an update was published on 30 January. I will continue to provide such updates. I appreciate the co-operation of all Members of the Houses and their assistance and co-operation in ensuring that we will be able to get this Bill - should it be needed - through the various Stages and enact it by 29 March. I hope that the Bill will not be needed, nor do not think that it will be. However, we cannot be sure and we would be foolish to take anything for granted in light of the unpredictable nature of the Brexit negotiations to date.
The potential impact of a no-deal Brexit on Ireland would be severe. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, recently outlined the potential macroeconomic impacts, and there would be negative impacts across a number of vulnerable sectors. Our preparations, including through our legislative proposals, are focused on minimising these impacts and protecting as many people and sectors as possible.
Ireland will remain an active and enthusiastic member of the EU. The Government is committed to working with the European Commission and our EU partners to minimise any disruption for our citizens and businesses and to forge a continuing positive relationship among the EU 27. Of course, we also wish to maintain a positive relationship with the UK, which is of great importance to me and the country in general. However, we will not follow the UK away from the European Union. Rather, we will remain a committed and enthusiastic member of the European Union, the Single Market and the customs union.
I thank the Chair and members for allowing me to outline some aspects of our legislative planning. I am happy to respond to any questions that members may wish to pose.