Official Report: Minutes of Evidence

Committee for The Executive Office, meeting on Wednesday, 12 January 2022

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Ms Sinéad McLaughlin (Chairperson)
Mr John Stewart (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Pádraig Delargy
Mr Alex Easton
Mr Trevor Lunn
Mr Pat Sheehan
Ms Emma Sheerin
Mr Christopher Stalford


Mr Kearney, junior Minister
Mr Middleton, junior Minister

European Union Matters: Mr Declan Kearney MLA and Mr Gary Middleton MLA, Junior Ministers, The Executive Office

The Chairperson (Ms McLaughlin): I welcome the junior Ministers, Declan Kearney and Gary Middleton. This session is being recorded by Hansard, and a video of the meeting will be available on the Committee web page. I invite the junior Ministers to brief members.

Mr Middleton (Junior Minister, The Executive Office): I will go first, Chair, and I take this opportunity to congratulate you on your appointment. This is the first time that we have been in front of the Committee with you as Chair, so we wish you well. We welcome the opportunity to update the Committee on EU exit matters. We have provided you with a written brief, and we hope that we will be able to provide a further update today.

I will begin with the protocol and the ongoing discussions between the UK and the EU. Members will be aware that the parties continue to engage in intensive discussions to assess how far the gap in the respective positions can be bridged. Lord Frost, of course, resigned from the Government in December, and the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, Liz Truss, has replaced him as the lead negotiator. In a statement that was issued following a phone call with EU Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefcovic on 21 December, the Foreign Secretary reiterated that her Government's position on the protocol had not changed and that their preference remains an agreed solution to the issues that are currently under discussion. Triggering article 16, however, remains a possibility for them.

The Committee will be aware that the Foreign Secretary is due to meet Vice-President Šefcovic later in the week. The Committee will also be aware that progress has been made in seeking agreement on medicines. On 17 December, the EU announced that it will begin taking unilateral action to ensure the continued supply of medicines to Northern Ireland. The current grace period has been extended until the end of 2022, unless legislative arrangements can be put in place sooner than that. The EU has not yet published the legislative details of its solution. Of course, given the complexity of the issues involved, detailed analysis will be required to ascertain whether the proposals will ensure a long-term, stable solution for our medicines supply. Civil Service officials will continue to engage with their colleagues in the relevant Whitehall Departments in order to gain the required clarity on those proposals and the other issues being discussed from the EU non-papers.

As you are aware, the five parties in the Executive have differing opinions on the status of the protocol, including on whether article 16 should be triggered. We are, however, agreed on the need for long-term and workable solutions for our citizens and our businesses. Of course, these solutions should cause the least disruption to all our communities and provide our businesses with the certainty that they need, not only to plan but to invest in, grow and maintain their competitiveness as we emerge from the COVID pandemic. To that end, we will continue to communicate all our positions to the European Union and the UK Government. As we continue to monitor the progress of the discussions, Departments have commenced work to understand what might be required in the event of a solution not being reached. The Committee is well aware that, as a result of the EU exit and the continued operation of the protocol, there is an increased likelihood of policy divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. It will not be possible to assess the impact of that divergence, or any divergence that is driven by those regulatory changes, until we see the full detail, which we do not yet have.

To minimise and mitigate any potential negative impact of divergence, Executive Office officials are engaging with colleagues in the Cabinet Office and other Whitehall Departments to ensure that, through the policy development and regulatory processes, consideration of the impact that divergence could have on our businesses and our economy is taken into account at the very earliest stage. Officials, via attendance at the UK/EU joint consultative working group and the development of an IT system to monitor and track changes to legislation that will fall under the remit of the protocol, also remain apprised of potential divergence that may be driven by changes to EU legislation. The impacts of divergence are, potentially, broad and cross-cutting, and TEO officials have established a monthly cross-departmental working group to scope and monitor potential impacts and to identify appropriate actions where necessary.

I will now pass over to junior Minister Kearney.

Mr Kearney (Junior Minister, The Executive Office): Thanks, Gary. Bliain úr faoi mhaise daoibh go léir. Sinead, you are very welcome in your new position as Chair of the Committee. We look forward to working with you for the remainder of the mandate.

The continued implementation and operation of the withdrawal agreement, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) and other trade agreements will govern our future relationship with the European Union and the rest of the world. Eventually, it will become "business as usual", and there will be consequential bilateral liaison between relevant Whitehall Departments and officials here.

To ensure that the Executive are fully apprised of any key developments in that context, TEO will continue to provide central oversight and coordination via the interdepartmental steering group, which Gary has just referenced. Membership of the group continues to include a senior representative from each Civil Service Department. That ensures a consistent and joined-up approach, and it enables Departments to share knowledge and expertise on cross-cutting issues and information from key counterparts in Whitehall, the Irish Government and other devolved Administrations, as well as from our representatives in Brussels, China and Washington. The interdepartmental steering group also routinely considers a forward work programme that looks at priorities for Executive consideration.

Representatives from lead Departments continue to engage with their Whitehall counterparts on the implementation of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. Following a meeting of the Specialised Committee on Participation in Union Programmes (SCPUP) on 21 December, all of the specialised committees established within the TCA governance structures have now met. Progress has also been made by the British Government and the EU on the establishment of the Parliamentary Partnership Assembly. The TCA also provides for engagement with civic society on the implementation of the agreement through the creation of a domestic advisory group and a civil society forum. An expression-of-interest exercise for membership of both of those groups was undertaken by the British Government in October and November last year. Civil Service officials engaged with the British Cabinet Office to promote local interests in that process, and, through liaison with TEO, the Executive Departments shared information on the civic society mechanisms with their stakeholders to encourage a broad range of representation from here on both of those groups. British Government officials have advised that applicants to the groups will be advised of the outcome as soon as is practicable.

Work continued on the publication of the remaining common frameworks during December, and it continues this month, allowing the process of scrutiny by relevant departmental Committees to begin. We continue to engage with the British Government and other devolved Administrations on the EU settlement scheme to ensure that the rights of all EEA citizens who are resident here are fully protected.

On 20 December, the joint First Ministers and their counterparts from the Administrations in Scotland and Wales wrote to Kevin Foster, the Minister for Safe and Legal Migration, to highlight their continued concern that EEA citizens have to rely on digital-only proof, which indirectly discriminates against vulnerable citizens who may struggle to prove their status. The letter follows the British Home Office's decision not to provide a physical means of proof, which was requested in an initial letter sent to Minister Foster in November. We are also aware of the concerns arising from the provisions in the Nationality and Borders Bill, whereby non-Irish EU nationals will require an electronic travel authorisation (ETA) to travel here from the South. Our officials sought urgent clarification on that matter, and the British Home Office advised that there will not be routine controls on journeys within the common travel area and that there will be no immigration controls whatsoever on the land border with the 26 counties.

Finally, I highlight the fact that the British Government recently launched a consultation on their proposals to reform the Human Rights Act 1998 with a bill of rights. We have received assurances that rights obligations under article 2 of the protocol and the Good Friday Agreement will continue to be met.

We hope that that provides you with a useful update on EU exit matters.

The Chairperson (Ms McLaughlin): Thank you very much for that update, junior Ministers. I have several questions. I have a list of questions as long as my arm, to be honest. The first is on the issue of medicines. What are your thoughts on the proposals for solutions in relation to medicines? How are you dealing with the fact that the proposals do not include veterinary medicines?

Mr Middleton: I will come in on that initially. In my opening remarks, I touched on the issue of medicines and the fact that a proposal was outlined in the EU non-paper. Although that is a step forward, there are concerns about the lack of detail, given the complexity of the medicines issue. That lack of detail has been raised particularly in relation to labelling on products from GB and how that will play out in Northern Ireland. Given the complexities of the issues, analysis of the detail continues.

All the issues that were brought forward in the EU non-paper, or, indeed, in the Command Paper from the UK Government, are very much a basis for discussion. We highlighted one area of medicines, and that was the veterinary issue. The Department of Agriculture has raised that issue as well.

We give a cautious — well, I give a cautious welcome to the fact that a resolution is being worked on. At this time, however, it is just an idea and a thought process. We need to see that being put into some sort of formal, long-term solution that will ensure that we have complete equity of access to medicines across these islands.

The Chairperson (Ms McLaughlin): Thank you, Minister. We have definitely made great inroads on the issue of medicines. I am more comfortable now than I was a few months back.

Gary, you raised the Agriculture Minister issue. We get a lot of information through the media, and we are hearing media reports that the Agriculture Minister intends to bring the implementation of the protocol to the Executive. Surely, this is a matter of implementing the UK's international commitments. Will you give me your view on that? Perhaps junior Minister Kearney will give me his view as well.

Mr Middleton: Obviously, I can give you a view, albeit we are here to discuss issues on behalf of the Executive Office, so I cannot speak on behalf of the Minister of Agriculture.

It is clear, and I speak from a party political perspective, that we have concerns about agreements that were made in the past, particularly New Decade, New Approach (NDNA), and the need to ensure unfettered access within the internal market of the United Kingdom.

Questions have been raised about the legality of the processes and whether Executive approval will or will not be required for progressing with individual checks. The Department of Agriculture has taken steps to address issues around pets and pet passports, for example, and how we ensure that pets can be moved to GB and back to Northern Ireland without those checks. Steps have been taken unilaterally by the Minister of Agriculture.

We have not yet had an Executive meeting at which such issues have been discussed, but there is no doubt that they will be discussed in the very near future, so I do not want to pre-empt anything that the Minister of Agriculture will do. Of course, there is what we are hearing in the media, and it is fair to say that not everything that we hear in the media is always accurate.

The Chairperson (Ms McLaughlin): Junior Minister Kearney?

Mr Kearney: Thanks, Sinead. I will come in on that point, but I will pick up briefly on your question on medicines. The real significance of the initiative that has been taken by the European Commission rests in the fact that it has offered to take decisive and substantial action in relation to an issue that was, understandably, causing considerable alarm. We can be very reassured that there is an absolute commitment on behalf of the European Commission, as articulated by Maroš Šefcovic on several occasions, repeated by Ursula von der Leyen and then Mairead McGuinness, that no effort will be spared to ensure that we have full access to medicine supplies and that there will be no disruption to access to all forms of medicines, including important cancer medicines, for citizens here in the North.

That indicates a clear resolution on the European Commission's behalf to find a way through the impasse. That now needs to be met with the same spirit and resolve by the British Government to ensure that those vexed issues, which have cast a shadow over the implementation of the protocol and, more generally, over politics in the North for over 12 months, are, in fact, resolved and put to the side to allow us to move on. By addressing the other areas of friction around the protocol, we can move on with the smooth implementation of all its elements.

The whole issue of medicines is bound up in a complex way with European legislation. The fact that the European Commission is saying that it can resolve a matter of such complexity to the satisfaction of citizens here does not just demonstrate good faith but indicates that nothing in this impasse is beyond resolution if the good faith exists to find solutions and to ensure the effective, smooth implementation of the protocol so that everyone can benefit from the inherent advantages for businesses in the North.

On the other issue that you raised, the Executive have a legal obligation in these matters as they apply to us in the North. There is a requirement for border control posts to be put in place in order to create the necessary infrastructure to ensure that everything — for example, the European Commission has offered to reduce sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks by as much as 80% and customs checks by as much as 50% — can be smoothly progressed.

Gary is right in saying that we have heard a lot of media commentary on the issue. Some of that media commentary, however, has come from the Minister of Agriculture himself. The Committee can be reassured that no such documentation or paper will be brought before the Executive, because, as all members know, all paperwork, proposals and documentation from individual Ministers pass through the Executive Office for clearance before being tabled on the agenda. You can be reassured that the Executive Office will not allow, and will resist, the bringing forward of any type of proposal that has the potential to put the Executive Committee in a situation where it is outwith its legal obligations under the protocol and under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement as it applies here in North.

The Chairperson (Ms McLaughlin): That is welcome news. From all parties' perspective, we have to be cognisant of the instability that those types of issues pose to our business community, and we need to put them first in these circumstances. I am well aware of the responsibilities and duties of our civil servants, and putting them in that position is regrettable. Thank you for that.

I have a quick question for both Ministers. You will be aware that the House of Lords European Affairs Committee's subcommittee on the protocol has written to the UK Government about the democratic deficit created by the protocol, and that significant 10-page correspondence from Lord Jay is among the papers for today's meeting. What plans have you made for direct engagement by the Executive and the Assembly with decision makers in the EU and the UK Government, and between the Executive and the Assembly and the EU institutions? What formal arrangements are there for Executive engagement with civil society in Northern Ireland on the protocol and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement? This is a fundamental part of the arrangements in Northern Ireland. We have not spent an awful lot of time talking about the barriers. Where is the decision-making, the process, the transparency and the governance around this? It would settle an awful lot of the issues if we knew that there was a voice that was being listened to by those at the heart of the decision-making process. Where is your Department on progressing all those areas in order to address the democratic deficit?

Mr Kearney: I think that you have received correspondence from the Department on participation in the committees that I spoke of in my opening remarks. Our officials are very closely engaged, through the relevant structures, in ensuring proportionate representation from business and civic society organisations in the North so that our voice is heard. It has been a consistent position shared by all Ministers, notwithstanding differences around the Executive table and within TEO, that we speak best for ourselves, that our local businesses speak best for themselves and that civic society should be given the opportunity to express its opinion on how all these issues impact on society in the North. We want to see that facilitated by the British Government and the European Commission to ensure not just that our voices are heard but that we are influential in that respect.

Significantly, the report of the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU, which was published in December, has brought forward some interesting and innovative ideas to ensure that the North continues to have a voice that is well heard in the European Commission. There are specific, formal proposals on how the Executive and the Assembly should be included in the processes of engagement relating to the oversight of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. There are, I think, other options that would add further value by ensuring that our perspective, our experience and, in particular, the ideas of our business community are integrated with the architecture of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement and the implementation of the protocol itself in the time ahead.

My last point is that more direct engagement between the European Commission and MLAs, our Executive Departments and TEO itself is essential. That is why the ongoing engagement by Maroš Šefcovic with the joint First Ministers and with all the parties is very important. That is why it is essential that we continue to see more direct engagement in the North by the European Union ambassador based in London and also by some of the significant members of the European Parliament who have visited in recent months. I include in that number Bernd Lange and David McAllister, two of the most prominent MEPs, who have responsibility for the International Trade and Foreign Relations Committees in the European Parliament. Much more of that is needed to ensure that, formally and informally, our concerns and views are properly taken on board.

Mr Middleton: I will add to that. Every Minister around the table — not least Declan and I — has endeavoured at every opportunity at all the meetings on EU exit, whether with the EU and the UK or with the UK on its own, to raise all the issues that have been raised not only in this Committee but directly with us as elected representatives. As Declan said, a letter to the Committee — I think that it was sent today — provides a more detailed update on civic engagement, but your point seemed to highlight elected Members and how we can input. We, as Ministers, have that input in our elected offices, and we will continue to use it.

Of course, it will be vital over the next number of weeks to have engagement not only on divergence issues especially and issues of state aid, which have been raised in the past, but on issues of funding. It is important that, as local elected representatives and as Ministers, we have as much input as possible. There is agreement, I think, right across the Executive that more engagement is beneficial, and we always welcome any representative engaging directly with us, whether they are Vice President Šefcovic, the Foreign Secretary, any Minister or a person from the House of Lords. It has been welcome, particularly over the last number of months, to see the number of ambassadors from different countries who have come to Northern Ireland to hear directly from us about the issues that we have, how we see the future and how we see us coming out of the issues that we face. Hopefully, that is some help, but, as I say, the letter that was issued to you today has a lot more detail on the engagement piece.

The Chairperson (Ms McLaughlin): Thank you very much, junior Ministers, for that. Precedents have been set for engagement. Norway has a very structured approach to engagement with the EU in lawmaking and the processes with that. There are examples there of good practice, so we are not furrowing an absolutely new field in that area.

I will now pass over to the Deputy Chair for questions.

Mr Stewart: Thank you, Chair. Minister Middleton and Minister Kearney, happy new year and thank you for your presentation and for answering questions. I was listening to the radio this morning, and I heard business organisations describe a very productive and positive meeting with Liz Truss and her team yesterday. They felt, from her feedback, that things are going well and are progressing in the right direction. What engagement has your Department had with her and her team since she took over from Lord Frost? Do you have any indication about which areas are going well, as reported? Where do the stumbling blocks remain, and what estimated time frame, if any, are Liz Truss and her team indicating will remain for the ongoing negotiations?

Mr Middleton: Thanks, John. There is a lot in those questions. It is welcome that the business community continues to be heard, and it is positive if it is saying that the soundings are positive. The First Minister and deputy First Minister have not yet had an opportunity to meet the Foreign Secretary. No doubt that will happen in the future. I know that, certainly at a political level, party leaders have met her. Obviously, there are various versions of the meetings that they have had. What we need to see and we what we have been pushing for is a time frame. What we do not want are endless negotiations.

Of course, at the outset of the process, we were told that the protocol was not up for negotiation and that there could be no changes. I very much welcome the fact that we are now seeing changes, particularly when it comes to medicines, but there are other areas that need to be addressed, and they are no doubt part of the discussions. What we know, and from what I have seen in the EU non-papers and the UK Command Paper, is that there are significant gaps. That having been said, progress has no doubt been made, especially with the announcements on medicines. The difficulty is that we do not have a direct line of communication into those specific negotiations. Members of our Executive Office team continue to be in all the calls through the various Committees. Again, they are giving their views and their voice, but, ultimately, the decision will be made between the UK and EU. We have been clear that this cannot go on forever and cannot be endless. It needs to have an end point, and we need to see the resolution and the negotiations come to an end in a satisfactory way so that all of us can move on and try to bring stability for our businesses and for all our communities.

Mr Stewart: Thanks, Gary. Declan, do you want to come in?

Mr Kearney: Yes, I will come in briefly on that, John. Thanks. It is a useful question, John. I spoke with some of the business leaders who took part in that meeting. It was quite short, but Liz Truss said — she repeated this in a meeting with the Sinn Féin leadership — that she has no desire to trigger article 16 and that she wants to approach the meetings with Maroš Šefcovic on Thursday in a constructive way with a view to bringing the impasse to an end. In my earlier comments, I indicated my view that I believe that that is possible. I see nothing insurmountable in dealing with those issues.

The reason why we are in the bind that we are in is essentially to do with the approach driven by David Frost, which finds its origins in his approach to all the issues going back to 2017. He set it out very clearly in his contribution to the Policy Exchange journal a matter of weeks and months ago. We are now living with the legacy of that intransigence. A very ideological approach was taken to the issues. It is important to say that the protocol and how we manage the new trading realities that arise from Brexit are not ideological but economic issues, so they need to be approached pragmatically. As long as there is a shadow hanging over our economy and our political process as a result of not bringing those matters to a conclusion, it creates uncertainty for our local businesses and it confuses the picture. If there is a political will and if Liz Truss is now prepared to bring a new attitude to the remaining discussions with the European Commission, we can cut through the issues, find the landing zones and build on the momentum that has been delivered by the European Commission to date.

The difficulty that we have is that, while we have seen the shape of the European Commission's proposals across all the relevant issues, whether they be customs, SPS, medicines or governance issues, we have yet to see the British Government's proposals. To that extent, we all remain blindsided. To echo a point that Gary made, the reality is that the British Government have not, in any democratic or inclusive way, allowed our Executive to be involved in the discussions. It is so important that we are relentless in the pressure that we bring to the British Government and the European Commission in order to ensure that that is not an impediment and that final solutions are arrived at.

Nothing will change in all that unless matters are approached honestly, and it is my hope, therefore, that Liz Truss will be good to her word and will not implement article 16. There is a huge fiction surrounding the triggering of article 16. Article 16, if triggered, will not make one bit of difference to the current situation. It will be time-bound, it can be used only on an agreed basis and it must then be reviewed after a period of time. The notion that article 16, the threat of triggering it and all the surrounding sabre-rattling will in some way be a panacea and magically transform the situation is, frankly, nonsense. That should be dispensed with as reckless rhetoric, and we should encourage the British Government and the European Commission to get on with the real business of closing out the remaining matters of disagreement in order to allow the economy to function successfully with simultaneous access to the British and European single markets.

Mr Stewart: Thanks, Declan. That leads me to my next point. While we all agree, I think, that we want the talks to conclude fruitfully and with a conclusion that works for everybody as quickly as possible, and even taking on board what Liz Truss says, triggering article 16 remains on the table as a possibility. I take on board what you say about the impact that it could have. What contingency planning have the Executive Office or the other offices in the Executive done to prepare for the impacts of article 16 on them, should it be triggered? Will you talk me through any plans that there are for dealing with the impact that it might have?

Mr Kearney: Briefly, John, in some respects, that is the stuff of unknown unknowns. We are already living with considerable uncertainty for businesses, which brings its own destabilising consequences. That said, businesses are getting on with doing what they do best, which is finding solutions to problems.

They have not been held back in their efforts to continue to be productive and profitable, to open up alternative routes and supply chains and to establish workarounds for the difficulties that have arisen from some of the disruption that we face.

I mentioned the interdepartmental working group. We repeatedly raise with our officials the status of contingency planning. We have done that since the beginning of the year. Contingency planning/horizon scanning is an ongoing piece of work, but, in many respects, our officials are hampered by dint of the fact that they are not being allowed to become directly involved in the technical discussions that are taking place between the European Commission and the British Government.

There is a genuine level of uncertainty about what immediate consequence would flow from the impact of triggering article 16, but I assure you that, on an ongoing basis, the interdepartmental working group, engaging with all the relevant personnel across Departments, is looking at horizon-scanning processes and article 16 and is anticipating situations. It is then ensuring that we are as match fit as we can be to deal with whatever emerges, positive or negative, in the short to medium term.

Mr Stewart: OK. Thank you.

Mr Middleton: I will add briefly to that, John. Thank you for that question. Officials continue to assess the potential impacts. The interdepartmental working group is looking at those, and we are all cognisant of them.

Obviously, the preference for all of us should be agreement and resolution. The EU has put proposals on the table on SPS checks, albeit, as far as I see, they go nowhere near far enough. If the EU can, in one fell swoop, propose an 80% reduction in SPS checks, many of us and many in business will of course ask why there was a need for them in the first place.

The negotiations need to be brought to a timely conclusion. In the event of article 16 being triggered — Declan is absolutely right about this — there would be a time-bound process. The time that we would have would need to be used wisely. The Government must legislate for unfettered access on an east-west and a west-east basis, and we will need to ensure that the links are no longer broken but are restored and brought back together. That being said, we are all hopeful that there will be a resolution. We want to see that, albeit it will be time-bound. I assure you that officials are there and are very much aware that that is a potential issue that is coming at us quickly. They continue to assess the potential impact of that for our businesses and communities here in Northern Ireland.

Mr Stewart: OK. Thanks for that. Chair, I have a final brief question, if I may.

Gents, the Joint Committee has not met since June 2021, as you are probably aware. I appreciate that there are ongoing negotiations. Given that the Chair discussed the democratic deficit and that you both pointed out that there is a need for civic society and businesses to feed into it and for the problems to be aired, surely the place to do that is the Joint Committee. The fact that it has not met for the guts of seven or eight months brings into question its effectiveness. Will you comment on that? Do you know when the Joint Committee plans to meet next?

Mr Kearney: John, the difficulty is that the Joint Committee is required to be jointly convened, and David Frost and the British Government refused to do that. I raised that matter directly with David Frost over recent months, and I am on the public record calling for the Joint Committee to be established. All those issues need to be resolved within the joint framework of the protocol. The Joint Committee is the mechanism that exists to ensure that those kinds of difficulties can be successfully ironed out so that we can build on the progress that is made.

As you correctly pointed out, the last meeting of the Joint Committee was in June. As a confidence-building measure for our political process, for all the parties in the Executive and for our business community and civil society, I urge Liz Truss to break with David Frost's refusal to convene a meeting of the Joint Committee and to engage directly with Maroš Šefcovic this Thursday so that an announcement can be made — it should be made — that, following that engagement, we will see a meeting of the Joint Committee. That is the way to deal with those issues, and, in my view, convening the Joint Committee is essential now in order to assist in breaking the impasse.

Mr Stewart: OK. Thanks for that. I appreciate both of you giving your time today.

Ms Sheerin: I wish everybody a happy new year in the first meeting of 2022, and I thank both junior Ministers for their presentation and the questions answered thus far.

I have a question about some of the funding that we have lost in the North as a consequence of Brexit, specifically the European social fund (ESF). I have had correspondence over the past weeks from a local organisation that I am very familiar with in my home parish of Ballinascreen — the Workspace Group. It does a lot of vital work with local businesses and voluntary organisations, and it brings people into employment. It has brought people through various programmes and has seen massive success rates with that. As part of its remit, it operates as a social enterprise, and the work that it does is key. It has two problems at the moment, given that the one-year extension to the European social fund has not been able to be accessed thus far, because match funding, the majority of which previously came from the Department for the Economy, has not been provided yet, and there is a lack of clarity about whether it will be delivered. That is the priority at the minute.

There is no understanding of what the replacement fund that was promised by the British, the Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF), will look like as a replacement for the ESF, which the Workspace Group and upwards of 60 organisations across North have relied on. That will impact rural communities not only like mine in South Derry but others across the North in places that depend on that European money. We know the amount of funds that we are losing as a result of Brexit. What conversations have there been around that replacement and what detail have we received from the British Government about what we will see going forward?

Mr Middleton: Thanks for that question, Emma. Hopefully, you will have received the letter that we issued to the Committee on Monday. It was a detailed briefing about the replacement of the EU funding. The Committee requested that in the past. I do not propose to go through it exactly, line for line, but you raise a very valid question. Certainly, if there is anything that we or Departments can do in individual cases, I am happy for you to contact us, and we will take that forward.

You raised the specific issue of the European social fund. The paper said that we received on average £70 million per annum from the ESF. We received £12·6 million last year from the UK Government for the Shared Prosperity Fund and the Community Renewal Fund. There is a recognition that that is, obviously, less than £70 million, so there is a loss there. You will appreciate that that fund has been delivered directly by Whitehall. The first thing that we need to ensure is that we continue to have a clear input into the spending power that we would have had and that it lines up with the priorities that we have in our communities. Of course, the SPF is a pilot fund, but we need to ensure that we are maximising it. We have to get to the bottom of that £12·6 million and ensure that we get our fair share of the money that is available.

That is a breakdown of that point, and we provided a detailed paper on the ins and outs of specifics on the Shared Prosperity Fund and exactly what it entails on a three-year basis. Hopefully, that goes some way to answering your question.

Mr Kearney: Following on from that, Emma, I will say that I am familiar with Workspace. It has played an indispensable role in the development and expansion of the local economy across Mid Ulster. As you said, it has played a hugely important role.

Workspace, unfortunately, is typical of the kind of casualty that we will see emerge as a direct result of the decisions that are being made by this British Administration. The reckless way that they have withdrawn from Europe has effectively cut their own and our throats on where access to the type of funding that our regional economy has relied on so heavily is concerned. Gary cited some of the headline figures that apply here. You can take Workspace as an example of a community economic regeneration organisation, and you can consider that the European regional development fund (ERDF) and the European social fund would have been directly responsible for assisting with that organisation's entry to the labour market, for its staying there and for reskilling and supporting small to medium-sized enterprises. However, we then learn that we are going to lose up to £69 million, and that has been established as a result of analysis by our officials. That is going to be the hit to our block grant and to the Budget. That will have serious repercussions for organisations such as Workspace and other small to medium-sized enterprises right across the North in urban and rural areas. If you add to that the loss of LEADER from the rural development scheme, you are looking at a total loss in the region of £70 million. Those are significant hits that we need to realise are direct consequences of the madness of leaving Europe and how this British Government are handling the process of withdrawal.

Mr Sheehan: It sounds as if Emma's connection has dropped off. In any event, I will carry on. The context that we are in is that, on the one hand, we have seen the significant proposals from Maroš Šefcovic and the EU Commission on medicines and the suggestion that SPS checks will be cut by 80% and customs checks by 50%, which are all very welcome, but, on the other hand, Liz Truss has taken over from David Frost, and, on the face of it, British Government policy appears to be the same: there still appears to be that same belligerence towards the EU. Here we have the threats from the DUP to pull down the institutions over the protocol. According to all the polls here, the overwhelming majority of businesses are supportive of the protocol. The one thing that they need and want more than anything is certainty, but the British Government's belligerence and the threats from the DUP are undermining any possibility of providing that certainty for businesses as we move forward. How do we resolve those issues?

Mr Middleton: Thanks for your question, Pat. Obviously, that is a political question, so I will more than likely respond in a political fashion. I hear a lot of the commentary in the media, and, of course, there are a lot of polls that are rolled out now and again. Some of the polls will be factual, and some will be questionable. Whatever about that, all of us accept that there are businesses that are doing well at the moment and that there are businesses that are being severely damaged. There is a recognition in the EU non-papers, which you highlighted, that that is the case and that said, "Look, let's reduce SPS checks in one fell swoop by 80%".

There is recognition that those checks are doing harm, and our businesses continue to raise those very issues, not just with the UK Government but with the European Union. There is therefore welcome movement, but, for us, it is nowhere near enough.

We want to see political and economic stability, as well as stability in society in general. The protocol is causing serious harm, and not just, in our view, to our constitutional position within the United Kingdom but to the business community.

For example, the Road Haulage Association has come out very clearly. It has provided figures indicating a 27% increase in its costs. There are lots of factors involved, and we can all choose our particular narrative. You come at it from a different perspective to mine, particularly when it comes to the constitutional question. We all agree that there should be stability, however, and we need to ensure that there is stability. We will not have stability as long as the current protocol remains in place. Our party leader has been clear about what it will mean if the protocol remains as it is. It is not a sustainable position, certainly for us as unionists, to allow a situation in which there remains a clear border in our country. We will not allow that to happen.

That having been said, the decision will ultimately be taken by the United Kingdom Government and the European Union. We will do all in our power to ensure that the checks that exist at present are done away with so that business can flow freely, east-west and west-east. We also want access to our neighbours in the European Union.

Mr Sheehan: Thanks for that, Gary. It is difficult, however, to take you seriously on stability when your party leader threatens every couple of weeks to pull down the institutions and your party's AERA Minister is threatening to stop work on the border checks. That is a difficult circle for you to square, is it not?

Mr Middleton: Pat, your party is very familiar with the process of collapsing the institutions. We do not do this out of any selfish interest. We are trying to make it very clear to the United Kingdom Government that we will not stand by and allow a commitment that they made to provide unfettered access between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom to be trashed. We cannot allow that. Of course we are going to take action. People expect us to do so on that basis. That having been said, that is not where we want to be. We want to be in a position in which the protocol has been dealt with and we have a place where our businesses are not at a disadvantage to those in the rest of the United Kingdom.

We have just seen some of the reports. Indeed, just today, I have been contacted by businesses. This may be minor in the grand scheme of things, but it is not minor to the businesses affected. Tattoo artists, for example, have not been able to access ink. We hear that there are issues around energy. If the UK Government take a decision to reduce VAT on energy costs, we could be left in a situation in which, in comparison with the rest of the United Kingdom, we are disadvantaged. That is not a sustainable position for us. Why would we place Northern Ireland at a disadvantage and not have all the benefits that the rest of the United Kingdom has?

We want stability. What is causing the instability is the fact that there has been no recognition of the issues that have become apparent through the Northern Ireland protocol.

This is not to be smart about it, but I will say that I genuinely welcome the fact that there has been recognition that there are issues with the protocol. Not so long ago, when I was in front of this Committee, members were telling me that there were no issues with it, that everybody was happy and content and that we needed to implement the protocol vigorously. We now have a situation in which there is acceptance that there are issues with medicines and with bringing products in from GB. That acceptance is welcome. If we were all to put our shoulder to the wheel and sing off the one hymn sheet, we could get a resolution from the UK Government and the EU that we can all live with. That would enable us to move on and to try to ensure that Northern Ireland prospers for years to come.

Mr Sheehan: I do not accept what you say, Gary, because the Joint Committee was set up as a mechanism to deal with any teething problems as a result of the protocol's implementation. We were always happy that any difficulties would be brought to the Joint Committee and resolved there. Thanks for your answer anyway, but I cannot say that we are going to have a meeting of minds. I do not know whether Declan wants to come in on that.

Mr Kearney: I will come in briefly.

Mr Kearney: If you do not mind, Chair, I will leave the meeting when I finish up here. I have a meeting with colleagues from Scotland, Wales and Whitehall to attend at 3.15 pm. The time of that meeting was brought forward.

We have to situate all of this in the context of Brexit. We have the protocol as a direct consequence of Brexit. Brexit did not have the consent of the majority of citizens living here in the North. Frankly, it is about time, as we move into 2022, that the DUP start to own the consequences that have flowed from the Brexit that it championed and the economic and political instability that has been caused as a result. None of us can be absolutely sure, but I get a sense that the DUP is quite conflicted and confused about the situation. It is a known fact that a number of DUP members and supporters opposed Brexit in its time. I think that, increasingly, people are looking askance at the approach that the DUP is taking to these issues. The danger is that, as conflicted and confused as it might be, the DUP is in the process of walking people up to the top of the hill again. We know what has happened on previous occasions of instability and impasse: the DUP has whipped up tensions and taken people to the top of the hill. Invariably, it leaves them at the top of the hill.

None of this has anything to do with constitutional issues. To repeat the point, it is not about ideology but about economics. The protocol has been weaponised for sectional political reasons and for electoral reasons. That is wrong. It does a disservice to politics. It also does a huge disservice to our business community and to many people who vote for the DUP in that section of political unionism.

What to do? The play-acting and the posturing need to stop. What we need is constructive and positive leadership from all parties. That is what must be set forth from the Executive Committee. I am certainly committed to continuing to provide that leadership on the issue. Let us withdraw all the threats. Gary is right: let us work together, but let us do so positively and constructively. I think that, on that basis, we can find a way forward to ensure the smooth implementation of the protocol. I reiterate, however, the point that I made earlier: that should be in the context of convening the Joint Committee. That is the place where, finally, the issues can be ironed out.

Finally, the concerns about the consequences that are now flowing from Brexit from the protocol are not confined to the North. It is very interesting to note that a significant opinion survey that was carried out and published before Christmas by 'The Observer' indicated that more than six out of 10 voters believe that Brexit has gone badly, or worse than they expected. Those are people living in Britain. A year after Britain left the EU, people are saying that it was a bad idea and that they are feeling very negative repercussions as a direct result. It is interesting that, when one goes into the granular detail of that survey, only 7% of Remainers, as they would be described, think that Brexit has gone better than expected. Very significantly, 20% of those who voted to leave the EU are now saying that Brexit has gone worse for them than they originally expected. Cold realities are beginning to dawn, and not just here in the North, about the consequences of Brexit and the impasse from the protocol. Some cold realities and very severe headwinds are beginning to glide into Britain as a direct result of the mistake in England of voting to leave the EU.

Sinead, I will drop out here, if you do not mind. I think that this part of the Committee meeting is possibly coming to a conclusion.

I am under time pressure. If you do not mind, I will move on.

The Chairperson (Ms McLaughlin): OK. Thank you very much, Declan. I have to ask junior Minister Gary Middleton whether he wishes to stay, because a few other members want to ask questions.

Mr Middleton: I am happy enough to stay on.

The Chairperson (Ms McLaughlin): You are happy enough to stay. That is fine. Thank you very much.

Mr Kearney: Thanks, Sinead and Gary.

The Chairperson (Ms McLaughlin): Thank you very much, junior Minister.

Trevor, do you want to ask any questions?

Mr Lunn: Yes, I do. My questions are for Gary anyway. Thanks to Declan, but I am sure that Gary can manage perfectly well.

In your answer to a previous question, Gary, you said that it was not really a matter for discussion at the Committee, but, regarding the question of border controls and posts, do I not recollect that Edwin Poots did that before and instructed his officials to stop construction? I do not recall whether he had to get Executive approval for that. The question now for the upcoming Executive meeting, which will probably be held tomorrow, appears to be this: if the First Minister and the deputy First Minister do not agree jointly to put the matter on the agenda, it cannot go on the agenda and therefore cannot be discussed, can Edwin Poots not take any unilateral action, as he has threatened to do? If I remember correctly, the previous time that this happened, albeit in a slightly different context, the only thing that stopped him was a reprimand from the UK Government in the form of George useless. Did I say "useless"? I meant "Eustice". [Laughter.]

Sorry about that. I did not mean that. I am sure that he is a great guy.

What about that, Gary? Just to be clear, is it the case that, if the joint First Ministers do not both agree to allowing the matter to be put on the agenda, it cannot be discussed, and therefore, no matter what legal advice comes from Donaghadee, Edwin Poots does not have the right to take that action unilaterally?

Mr Middleton: Thanks, Trevor. You are correct in your assessment that the First Minister and the deputy First Minister have to agree that any item go on the agenda. That has to be done jointly. Regarding what Minister Poots, the Agriculture Minister, will do, I have not seen, nor am I privy to, any legal advice that he has had. If we base it on what you have said, and he were to put forward a proposal for an Executive decision on the posts and checks that are currently in place, and it were not allowed to be put to the Executive for a decision, the issue, which has been raised publicly, would be this: approval has not been given, and checks would therefore have to be stopped. You will appreciate that I cannot comment on the legal advice that Minister Poots has received. We will wait to see what paper, if any, is provided to the Executive. Ultimately, we will deal with the matter when it arises.

Mr Lunn: Thanks for that, Gary, but does it really matter what the legal advice is, given from where it has come? My understanding is that the matter cannot be discussed at the Executive. Before he left, Declan said that it was his understanding. It cannot be discussed at the Executive, and the Executive therefore cannot endorse a decision. On the basis of what Edwin Poots has said, it is a cross-cutting matter on which a decision can be taken only if it is discussed at and approved through the Executive. Where are we at with that? We are getting two stories here.

Mr Middleton: There is not going to be political agreement between Declan and me, between the DUP and Sinn Féin for that matter or, indeed, across the five parties on the Executive. The point that I believe is being discussed is around the fact that, because it is a cross-cutting issue, it requires Executive approval. If there were an attempt to prevent that Executive approval from happening by not allowing the issue to be put on the agenda, the case could be made that there has not been approval given and therefore the checks cannot continue. Again, I have not seen any legal advice, so I cannot comment any further on what the Agriculture Minister will do, other than to repeat what has been said publicly. At this time, I have not seen any papers that have been put to the Executive.

Mr Lunn: There are an enormous number of precedents for when quite desirable items were not allowed to be put on the Executive agenda. I think of one recent item on welfare mitigations and universal credit that was blocked by the DUP over 40 times. I think that it was finally allowed on the agenda the forty-second time. This is ridiculous stuff, and it proves my point that this cannot proceed. Edwin Poots has no power to do anything about this unless he has Executive approval, and it cannot go on the agenda without the approval of the deputy First Minister.

Mr Middleton: Trevor, without getting into other Departments' areas and reasons that particular issues cannot be agreed, I will say that the way in which I work is that I try to come at these things in a spirit of cooperation. I come at them by trying to get items agreed in such a way that there is consensus. That is how it works. When you talk about the specific blocking of issues, that is a term that you would use to say that it is almost disruptive. In a lot of cases, for an item to be brought to the Executive, one will find that Ministers will try to get consensus or try to get to a position in which parties can agree and get the issue over the line. Otherwise, as I said, it will be stuck anyway when it comes to trying to get a decision. We will wait and see what the Department of Agriculture brings forward, if anything, in the near future.

Mr Lunn: I will not press the matter, Gary. You mentioned the need for consensus. That would be a marvellous thing to have in this country at present.

I will go back briefly to the question of medicines. The EU has made a generous offer to extend the present non-action until the end of this year, unless something can be agreed in the meantime. To me, that is generous, but the response from the British Government has been downright surly. Before Declan left, he said that we do not know what the British proposal is, but we do. The British proposal is to leave things exactly as they have always been, with, to use the commonly used term, unfettered access between the mainland and Northern Ireland. I go back to what was offered way back in this process, which seems to have been discounted or forgotten about. It is the question of medicines and medical products that could be sent here on an unfettered basis from the UK, provided that they were labelled "For use only in Northern Ireland and not to be resold". Is that still a sticking point for one side of the Executive Office?

Mr Middleton: It is a sticking point for the UK and EU Governments, which are taking part in the negotiations. We highlighted earlier what the EU non-paper said on medicines. When we engage with our own officials, and as they try to assess and analyse what specifically it would mean for Northern Ireland, they tell us that the proposal from the EU will require it to amend its legislation to include where there will be no requirement for manufacturing authorisation, import licences or, indeed, separate packaging. The main concern brought to us is that this is such a complex area and not been enough detail has been provided. We are talking about the EU introducing legislation on which we would have no say. We have not seen any of that, so it is very difficult to analyse what it would mean. I know that others have raised in the past what it would mean for medicines coming from GB into Northern Ireland. Whether the pharmaceutical companies would buy into it is another question, but, until we see the detail, we do not know. I know that particular political opinion has been expressed that the EU has somehow been so flexible in all of this, but I argue that it is not that the EU is being flexible. I think that it has been brought to the point at which it has to take action, because the impact has been so great that there is no other option but to take action to try to address the issues before us.

Mr Lunn: Yes, but on the specific point about labelling products as being for use and resale only in Northern Ireland, is that such a big sticking point as it sometimes sounds? I am not talking particularly about the DUP, so I should rephrase that: it is a UK objection. You now seem to be blaming the pharmaceutical companies. Presumably, there would be another cost to them from sticking a small label on every product. I do not see it that way, and I think that the EU has been far more flexible than the British Government have been on this and many other topics. On this particular issue, however, it seems to have offered so much and got so little response.

Mr Middleton: With respect, Trevor, you may not see it as an issue, but I am sure that the pharmaceutical companies do. We know that they have raised issues about costs. Unless you can tell me a figure, I certainly cannot. I cannot put a figure on what it will mean for them, because we do not know. The non-paper and the Command Paper were bases for discussion, and, until we see a resolution or form of agreement, we cannot say with any certainty what the impact would be on those businesses or whether they would even take the proposal on board.

As a unionist, I want to see no difference in access to medication for somebody living in England and somebody living in Northern Ireland, because there should not be a difference. We therefore come at it from the basis that any agreement or decision made needs to ensure that there is equitable treatment. Why should somebody with cancer in Northern Ireland be treated any differently from somebody with cancer in GB? It is therefore not as simple as boiling it down to simply an issue of labelling on a package. It is clear that the proposals from the EU in its non-paper will require legislation. We will not have a say in that, because we do not have a democratic say in what legislation the EU brings forward. We have not seen it, so we cannot give a definitive answer as to what it will entail.

Mr Lunn: I will not pursue it, but I cannot see how there is a difference in the treatment of somebody with cancer in the UK and somebody with cancer in Northern Ireland if the only difference is a small label, which probably costs a fraction of a penny, on a product.

Mr Middleton: The difference, Trevor, is with access to the medicine. If medicines are approved quicker in the United Kingdom than they are in the EU, there will be a difference when it comes to access. It is not specifically about a label but about to access to medicines that will possibly be pushed through the United Kingdom health assessment processes quicker than through those in the EU.

Mr Delargy: I start by wishing everyone a happy 2022. I was particularly delighted to start my 2022 by hearing Gary mention that he opposes British borders. We have been opposing a British border in Ireland for 100 years, so perhaps we have more in common than we think.

In recent days, the Agriculture Minister, Edwin Poots, has been preparing a paper on checks at ports to bring to the Executive. I have met a number of businesses in Derry, as, I am sure, have you. They have been telling us, time and time again, that they need certainty and stability in order to support their businesses. Do you not agree that the rationale behind this creates more uncertainty and impacts on local businesses at an already difficult time for them? Should we not be in a position to shore up businesses and see what we can do to help and support them?

Mr Middleton: It was remiss of me not to wish everybody a happy new year. Pádraig, I am glad that you took comfort in my comments., although you may have interpreted them slightly differently from how I conveyed them.

Again, I cannot get into the specifics of what the Agriculture Minister's intentions might be. I can say, however, that we came at this from the point of view of wanting to see ease of access for businesses. We plan to take any action that we can to reduce checks, to do away with checks and to ensure that there is ease of access of supply from GB. We argue that that is about ensuring certainty for businesses. You are right: businesses raise with us, and, I am sure, with you the fact that issues continue to exist with the Northern Ireland protocol. I recognise that there are other businesses that do not have any issues, but we have to deal with the reality that a lot of businesses are suffering, and hence the reason that we believe that a negotiation between the UK and the EU needs to be favourable and checks needs to be reduced. In fact, checks need to be done away with, albeit reduction is a starting point.

You say that you want stability for Northern Ireland businesses. So do I.

However, to get that we need to do away with the existing checks, east-west and west-east, and ensure unfettered access, which, of course, you, I and everyone around the table signed up to in New Decade, New Approach.

Mr Delargy: I have met with quite a few businesses, particularly over Christmas and into January. They are saying that it will just create further uncertainty and, in the short, medium and long term, will not create any stability for them. It will just create a pattern of instability and more uncertainty for them, Gary. It would be useful for you to have those conversations with businesses in Derry — I am very happy to put you in touch with them — so that they can relay their concerns to you. Not one business has said to me that the proposed action will create any more stability or in any way benefit their businesses. So, I have to disagree with you, based on the evidence that I have collated throughout our shared constituency.

Mr Middleton: I do not doubt what you are saying about the particular businesses that you have spoken to. In relation to the businesses that say that the impact on them has been minimal, I find that it is not the case that they are in favour of the protocol; they are just trying to live with it. That is not a position that I am content to live with for the constituency that we represent. Of course, I am speaking on behalf of the Executive Office, which operates on a Northern Ireland-wide basis so maybe I get a perspective that is wider than just one particular constituency, but I hear that day and daily. I used the example of access to ink for tattoo artists. That is not something that will particularly affect me but it does affect businesses. Whether it is the medicine issue, pet passports or animals, we are dealing with a situation where we have grace periods in place. Whilst some businesses are living with the reality of what we are dealing with due to the protocol, if there is no agreement or an agreement that is not satisfactory and continues in the current fashion, that will not be sustainable in the long term. If we had taken the initial advice of some political parties that were quite content to implement the protocol radically and rigorously, we would not be in the position now where the EU is saying, "Let us do away with 80% of the checks in one fell swoop." We have managed to bring the UK Government and the EU back to the table against all the odds, and they are now listening. Let us hope that they can turn words into action. I hope that that can be done in the very near future, because we do not need to drag this on endlessly.

Mr Delargy: I have one final point on that. Are you in agreement with me — I picked up from your comments that you might be — that the majority of businesses in our Derry constituency are opposed to Edwin Poots's proposals.

Mr Middleton: No. We have heard discussions in the media on what Edwin Poots's proposals are, but people have not come to me specifically with concerns about doing away with checks. I do not see why any business would advocate for more checks. I do not see how that is sustainable. The majority of businesses will recognise that whatever can be done to make life easier for them to ensure that they have access to the supply chains that the rest of the United Kingdom have access to is a positive and good thing. I speak with businesses day in, day out, and they do not like political or economic instability. Also, many people in our society are annoyed about what is happening to them personally, such as when they go to access certain products. Those issues need to be dealt with. The issues that people raise with me relate to their concern about how we will address the particular issues that affect stability. The onus is on all of us to try to get a resolution, and that is what we are working towards, but if that does not happen, of course, other action will have to be taken.

Mr Delargy: Do you think that Jeffrey Donaldson's comments in his recent media appearances have promoted stability?

Mr Middleton: They have ensured that the UK Government and the EU recognise the position of lot of people in Northern Ireland. When it comes to unionism in the Assembly, not one elected unionist representative supports the current position with the protocol. So, it has, I suppose, woken up the United Kingdom Government and the European Union, and we have seen movement on some of the issues, but it has not been enough. We have been saying that we want devolution to work. After your party brought the Assembly down, we, for three years, called for its restoration: I wanted to be in there, and I still do, because I recognise that Northern Ireland is best served by locally elected representatives.

That said, it is not a sustainable position — certainly not for me, as a unionist politician — to allow a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Even putting aside the constitutional question, there is the fact that it will discriminate against people, whether that is through decisions on energy prices or an inability to access medication that has been approved in the rest of GB. We cannot stand over those issues, and I do not think that any political party or elected representative should advocate that we do.

The Chairperson (Ms McLaughlin): Sorry, Pádraig, I have to cut you off there. I now bring in Alex Easton.

Mr Easton: Hi, Gary. Thank you for your presentation. I want to touch on a point that Trevor brought up: he asked most of my questions, but I will ask you this one anyway. We are talking about the AERA Minister bringing a document to the Executive and them refusing to hear it. In that scenario, if the AERA Minister says that the border checks are illegal and that he has received legal advice to support that, will the Executive still get to see the legal advice?

Mr Middleton: I am reluctant to speak on behalf of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Alex, although I know that you are not asking me to. I have not seen any such legal advice, but I expect that, if and when the Department brings a paper to the Northern Ireland Executive, we will see a clear outline of the reasons for it being brought forward. If a Minister brings such a paper forward, it is fair to assume that they will have sought legal guidance on why such a decision from the Executive is necessary and on what it will mean if a decision is not taken. The point about what blocking the paper from getting to the Executive table will mean has already been raised. Will that mean that the decision has not been taken, thereby halting any previous decision that was taken without that approval?

Unfortunately that is as far as I can go, Alex. As I said, I have not seen any such paper, but if one was brought forward, I would expect it to contain detail on why it needed to be brought forward in the first place.

Mr Easton: Thank you for that answer. If the legal advice was that the law is being broken, do you agree that you would expect every party that is part of the Executive to obey the law?

Mr Middleton: Absolutely. I expect every party, MLA, elected representative and Minister to obey the law. We are law-abiding citizens — that is what we do — so of course we need to obey the law. If anything was brought forward to say that we were breaking the law or that we needed to take a particular action to ensure that we were following the law, there is, of course, an expectation that we would address that.

Mr Easton: I was interested in some of the members' comments. Some of them seem to be quite keen on bringing up the results of opinion polls. I could bring up the results of opinion polls about the Northern Ireland protocol: I have seen opinion polls that show that a small minority of the people of Northern Ireland are opposed to the protocol. Like me, does your mind boggle at the fact that some members seem to find it quite easy to trash our east-west trade at the expense of everything else? They are willing to see a lack of medicines coming in, less trade and damage to businesses and they just do not seem to care less about somebody else's opinion or unionist opinion. Does that not disturb you?

Mr Middleton: As a unionist, I am not afraid of North/South trade. I do not see why anybody would want to see harm to east-west or west-east trade. I do not see how that is a sustainable position. Of course, there are those in the public domain who say that people are quite happy for our trade to be diverted from GB towards other markets. It is about ensuring that our businesses in Northern Ireland have equal and fair treatment and access to the GB market as is the case for constituents of any other devolved Administration in the United Kingdom. That has always been my aim. My aim has never been to try to disrupt trade North/South. My aim, and that of the Executive, must be to ensure that, whilst we recognise the need for the protection of North/South trade, the same weight is be given to the protection of the internal market of the United Kingdom and unfettered access within that market. Of course, at times I am dismayed when I hear people almost playing down our trade with the rest of the United Kingdom. That is something I do not agree with, and it is something that we would not tolerate. Hence we have been trying to take the position that everything needs to be done to deal with the checks that are currently in place.

Mr Easton: OK, thank you very much, Gary.

The Chairperson (Ms McLaughlin): Thank you, Gary, for your answers today and for doing that bit of a solo run towards the end.

I am going to come back on one issue, and it is in relation to business organisations. You suggested that there might be a narrower focus in Derry. We have correspondence in our packs from the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry. It has a substantial report on Brexit and the protocol one year on. It is quite remarkable and indicates lots of negatives about Brexit and the damage that the UK leaving the EU has done. Obviously, Northern Ireland was a net recipient of European funding, as Emma indicated, so there have been particular consequences for us in that respect. We have real issues around that, and we want to fix the issues with the protocol. Every member of the Committee realises that we do not want to inhibit any of our businesses that are doing business either North/South or east-west. We are engaged in trying to fix areas of the protocol, but we must realise its benefits too and get on with delivering them in an economic development sense for the whole of Northern Ireland. Whatever your political opinion, our business community deserves that from all elected representatives. That is important to say. I do not want a picture being painted that there are members of the Committee who want to see businesses suffering. I do not think that that is true, regardless of your opinion around the political table.

Anyway, thank you so much for everything today, Gary. You have been very patient with us. Thank you.

Mr Middleton: Thank you.

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