Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Questions (36)

Lisa Chambers


36. Deputy Lisa Chambers asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the status of the Brexit process and preparations for all Brexit scenarios, including no deal; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25184/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Foreign)

We are approaching the new Brexit deadline of 31 October and there is still much work to be done. My question seeks an update on the current state of the Brexit process and preparations for all Brexit scenarios, including the possibility of no deal.

I could give the Deputy a long written answer, which she will receive in any event, but instead I will speak directly on the matter. While in many ways the public debate on Brexit has lessened somewhat since the middle of April and the putting in place of an extension to the end of October, the Government has not taken its focus away from the issue. Everybody is waiting to see who the next British Prime Minister will be and what approach he will take on trying to find a way of getting a Brexit deal agreed and ratified in Westminster and supported by Brussels and Dublin. While we wait for that new approach, if there is one, we continue to focus on no-deal Brexit preparations. It is a worst-case scenario but a real possibility, particularly in view of the language being used in the current debates relating to the election of a new leader of the Conservative Party.

We are continuing to prepare in the many areas with which the Deputy is familiar, such as finalising port arrangements and ensuring to speak to the small and medium-sized enterprises which are trading with the UK every week but which have, in many cases, not yet registered with customs. They may have to adapt to a very different type of trading environment. Our focus will continue to be on working with our EU partners to find a way to ensure that there will be a managed, sensible Brexit that will be predictable and that will bring us into a new transition period that will provide the necessary legal certainty to the Government, businesses and citizens. However, we have worked hard to ensure that we do everything we can within our control to protect Irish citizens should there be no agreement.

Probably the most significant occurrence since we last spoke was the signing of a memorandum of understanding with the British Government in advance of the last British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference which essentially is about protecting the free movement of Irish and British people in both countries and recognising a series of other rights that are linked to the common travel area.

One of the matters we discussed on many occasions was the possibility of a change of Prime Minister in the UK. We are now in the middle of that process and waiting to see who will take over. There appears to be no moderate candidate coming forward, if I can put it that way. It is worrying to hear almost all of the candidates for the position openly talking about a no-deal Brexit as a viable option and stating that it is something they are willing to progress if they do not get a new deal or a change in the withdrawal treaty. I note and welcome that the position of Ireland and the EU remains unchanged. We have been steadfast that the withdrawal treaty is the only deal available if the UK wants a managed exit, but they persist in discussing the possibility of a no-deal Brexit and even, as recently as a few hours ago, the possibility of a managed no-deal exit.

The Tánaiste mentioned citizens' rights. The Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, is still indicating that he wants an agreement on citizens' rights to be separate from the Brexit process in the event of a no-deal scenario. Mr. Michel Barnier has rejected that. In a recent interview with the Sunday Independent, the Taoiseach discussed the possibility of being open to alternative arrangements on the backstop. Can the Tánaiste confirm that there has been no change in the Government's position on the backstop?

Let me be crystal clear on this: the Government's position has not changed and it will not change because there is about to be a change of British Prime Minister. This has never been about personalities. It has always been about evidence, facts and trying to deal with the complexity of the decision of a country and economy the size of the UK to leave the European Union, of which it has been a part for 47 years. The approximately 57 trade deals it has in place, the €70 billion trade relationship it has with Ireland and the fact that we share responsibility for a peace process on this island make the UK's exit from the European Union very complicated. That is why the withdrawal agreement, which deals with that complexity in terms of the divorce arrangements for leaving, if one wishes to call it that, took two and a half years to negotiate. That is the position of the EU and Ireland and it is not going to change with a new person taking charge, regardless of what is being said or claimed. The facts do not change. We have to be respectful in how we say that to the UK because we must be respectful of the decisions it makes, but we also must be firm and consistent. That is what we are doing.

I agree. To return to our preparations domestically, in a reply to a parliamentary question to the Minister for Finance, the Revenue Commissioners identified that in a central-case scenario, where a deal is done, they will need 600 additional staff. I am aware that 500 have been hired. Has anything else been done in terms of planning for no deal? How many staff will be needed in the event of a no-deal Brexit?

The Tánaiste mentioned that there had been something of a break from the Brexit discussions since April. The elections were probably a distraction from the issue. Figures released to my colleague, Deputy Michael McGrath, last May show that 45% of businesses which engage in some level of trade through the UK have not yet acquired an economic operator registration and identification number, the Revenue Commissioners number they require if they wish to continue trading. That is worrying. It would indicate a degree of complacency or perhaps a hope that it will not be needed. An extra push from the Government to try to get that figure up is most definitely required.

I will update the House on staffing and recruitment. The Revenue Commissioners had accelerated and expanded recruitment and training schedules to meet the previous 12 April deadline for Brexit. They are now on track to have more than 450 additional staff in place by the new 31 October 2019 deadline. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine will have approximately 200 staff trained and in place to conduct import controls by the end of October. The HSE had 59 staff trained and available as a first tranche to conduct no-deal Brexit import and export activities for the 12 April deadline. Approval has been given recently for 68 environmental health service staff and the HSE will shortly advise of the requirement for a further tranche needed before the end of October. We are using the extra time to build up the staff numbers and ensure that we have the physical infrastructure which might be required in place by the end of October.

With regard to businesses getting ready, the Deputy is correct that not enough of them have registered with the Revenue Commissioners to prepare for no deal. It does not cost them anything and it can be done in ten minutes online. We will have a communications strategy through the summer to ensure that it happens.