Thursday, 17 December 2020
Brexit Readiness for the End of the Transition Period: Statements
I acknowledge the significant amount of work that has been done on Brexit and Brexit preparation and readiness by the Government and by officials. Over the years, the amount of hours that have been put in is something that we in this House can all be proud of. I know that work will continue. I also thank the negotiating team, led by Mr. Michel Barnier, for its work and for its incredible patience and perseverance throughout this process. It is something that we, as European, should all take pride in.
Several Deputies, the Minister and the Minister of State referred to the spirit of cross-party co-operation on Brexit which should be acknowledged. It was in that spirit of cross-party co-operation that there was a request from myself and several other Opposition Deputies for a question and answer session rather than statements on Brexit readiness. It is regrettable that the Government declined the request made by the Opposition. There has already been good cross-party co-operation on this. There was much to be gained by having a question and answer session on Brexit readiness and preparation. We will not have an opportunity to do that again in advance of Brexit.
Why have we not had a national audit on Brexit readiness? The UK has had one. It is a good process which independently looks at the state of readiness and preparations, identifying gaps and weaknesses. One advantage of an independent assessment as to how the preparations are going is that it would be useful, especially for Brexit which is a significant challenge for us. It is true that it is not possible for us to mitigate against every risk or to prepare for every eventuality. It is also true, however, that we must do everything we can to identify each risk, any shortcomings in preparations and plug them at this point. It is remiss of the Government not to have carried out such an audit or independent assessment. It was a mistake and I do not understand why the Government did not take that approach. To me, it would have been a prudent approach for us to take.
I have some concerns about the UK land bridge. We saw today huge queues at Holyhead and at other ports in the UK. This is before Brexit even comes in. There are reports and predictions that there could be delays of up to two days at the UK and French border. We have been told in the past several weeks that the French lack technical capacity in terms of green laning Irish trucks. We have already seen the severe impact the delay in the delivery of goods is having, especially as we see stockpiling taking place. There have been stark warnings from the Irish Road Haulage Association which is involved every day in this in terms of logistics. I am not convinced that there has been enough engagement with the association on its proposals.
As part of Brexit, custom entry forms will increase from 1.5 million to 20 million a year. Thousands of businesses at this stage still have not signed up for a customs registration number, despite it being a relatively straightforward online process. Despite the work done on this, there is potentially a communications gap in this area. What is the Government going to do over these next few weeks to address that communications gap and get it sorted?
An area I am particularly concerned about is the impact on households and the cost of household goods from Brexit. Even in the event of a deal, the ESRI estimated there could be increases in household goods prices of up to €900 per year per household due to costs from delays, as well as increased customs and bureaucracy. Has the Government carried out a recent assessment of the potential cost of Brexit on household goods? If not, when will such an assessment take place and will it be monitored closely in the new year? What measures will the Government take to help support households, particularly low-income households, if this emerges as a significant problem? The Government has quite rightly outlined many of the supports and emphasis it wants to have in supporting businesses. While I support that, low-income households, in particular, also need to be part of the equation. I have not heard the Government being vocal on that in terms of preparations or readiness.
It is worth noting that the UK all along wanted fisheries to be one of the last items negotiated and agreed upon. The EU had wanted fisheries to be agreed upon long before this stage. It is important for us to understand what is being done to make sure that Irish fishing interests remain core at this point in the process. There has been contact between the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, outside of the official negotiations process on Brexit. Has fisheries been discussed between the two of them? If so, what was the nature of those discussions?
I have concerns about the operational capacity of our Naval Service. As the Minister is aware, the navy is operating below its operational capacity level. The latest figures I was given are that we have 887 posts out of 1,094 filled. It is critical to know what the Government is doing to address this deficiency in our navy's operational capacity.