Brexit: NI leaders at odds on Irish sea border meeting

A meeting of the EU-UK body overseeing the NI Brexit deal aimed at resolving issues with the Irish Sea border was “hugely disappointing”, First Minister Arlene Foster has said.

But Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the meeting had been “constructive and pragmatic”.

No breakthrough was reached on requests by the UK to extend grace periods.

The grace periods mean checks and controls on goods going from GB to NI are not yet fully implemented.

The first of the grace periods, which covers food and parcels, is due to end in April.

The UK government, with the support of business groups, has asked the EU for an extension until 2023.

DUP leader Mrs Foster, along with Sinn Féin vice-president Ms O’Neill, attended the joint committee, which is chaired by Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove and European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic.

Following the meeting, Mrs Foster told BBC Newsline she was not surprised that agreement had not been reached, and accused the EU of being “tone-deaf” to concerns of unionists.

She said the EU’s solution was “more protocol, not less”.

But speaking to the same programme, Ms O’Neill said the meeting had allowed both sides to focus on finding solutions, adding that another meeting of the committee would take place before the end of March.

In a joint statement, Mr Sefcovic and Mr Gove said they “reiterated their full commitment to the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all its dimensions” and “to the proper implementation of the Protocol”.

It continued that the UK “noted that it would provide a new operational plan with respect to supermarkets and their suppliers, alongside additional investment in digital solutions for traders in accordance with the Protocol”.

The Joint Committee meeting has not delivered the extension to the grace periods that NI businesses would like.

But a careful reading of the statement released by the EU and UK suggest that door is not closed.

It refers to a ‘new operational plan’ for supermarkets and their suppliers which is understood to be a grace period by another name.

But further discussions on phasing and choreography will be required before anything is confirmed.

Both parties agreed to hold a further joint committee and to engage “with business groups and other stakeholders in Northern Ireland”.

Northern Ireland has remained part of the EU’s single market for goods and continues to enforce EU customs rules at its ports.

That means EU import rules have applied to goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain since 1 January.

However, the grace periods mean that all the EU’s procedures do not yet apply.

Some food businesses, particularly major retailers, do not need to comply with all the EU’s usual certification requirements.

Additionally, parcels carrying goods valued at £135 or below do not need customs declarations.

In the aftermath of the Article 16 controversy, Mr Gove wrote to the EU asking for longer grace periods.

He also asked the EU to examine its decision to ban the importation into Northern Ireland of some items like seed potatoes and to ease the rules for pets being taken across the Irish Sea.

In response, the EU did not rule out longer grace periods but it is unlikely to agree to the long extension requested by Mr Gove.

On Monday, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said the EU was prepared to be “flexible” and “generous” in easing the effect on Northern Ireland businesses but the UK had to follow through on its commitments to the EU last December.

These included a promise to give EU observers real-time access to UK customs data and to provide data on goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain.

Mr Coveney said there could be easier trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland under the Northern Ireland Protocol if the UK agreed to align more closely to EU food safety and animal and plant health standards.

On Wednesday, MLAs were told how customs officials were working on a new IT system to deal with express delivery problems across the Irish Sea border.

Details were outlined to Stormont’s Economy Committee by Seamus Leheny from the freight trade body Logistics UK.

He said it was hoped it would make it easier for express carriers to get their parcels from Great Britain to Northern Ireland but he added that it would not be ready until later this year.

US central bank payment system down for hours

The system the US central bank uses to process more than $3tn (£2.1tn) each day crashed on Wednesday.

The Federal Reserve said the disruption was caused by an “operational error”. It started restoring services within hours.

The Fed handled over 184 million transactions last year, from bank transfers to electronic payroll deposits.

The crash adds to pressure the bank is facing to keep up with tech disruptors.

“Let’s work together to ensure we have a faster, more reliable way to send payments,” Senator Cynthia Lummis wrote on Twitter.

At hearings in Washington this week, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell was also pressed on the bank’s plans to explore digital currencies, pointing to steps by central banks in China and elsewhere, as well as Bitcoin and other private payment systems.

The project is “vital to American competitiveness”, Congressman Patrick McHenry said.

Mr Powell said the bank planned to spend this year doing extensive research and public outreach about the idea of a digital dollar, describing it as a “high priority project”.

But he added that the bank was also wary of doing anything that might have unintended negative consequences for the existing system.

“We have a responsibility to do this right,” he said. “We don’t have to be the first.”

The Fed said Wednesday’s crash started at about 11:00 Eastern time. Services started to be restored about three hours later, but some continued to remain dark, including its Fedwire Funds system.

On social media, cryptocurrency advocates were quick to highlight the problems.

They have been on the defensive amid warnings from regulators around the world, including US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, a former Fed chair, who this week called Bitcoin an “extremely inefficient” way to conduct transactions.

“The legacy financial system is horrible,” Yan Pritzker, co-founder of Bitcoin-buying site Swan Bitcoin wrote on Twitter.

Vauxhall: Crunch talks to save Ellesmere Port plant continue

Talks to secure the future of Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port plant will continue after no firm decision was taken on Wednesday.

A board meeting of Vauxhall’s parent company ended without agreement on its fate, although an announcement is expected within 48 hours.

Over 1,000 people work at the plant, with many more in the supply chain.

The Business Secretary has met the management of parent company Stellantis three times in the last six months.

The most recent meeting took place on Monday night, with talks involving government officials along with company management and representatives of the local authority.

The BBC understands that there are three main options on the table for the Cheshire plant:

While number three is obviously the outcome the government and unions would prefer, it requires confidence that the UK will be able to build the necessary battery production facilities to service this and other UK car plants.

Currently, the only viable battery plant is in the North East, which works exclusively with its former owner Nissan.

Under the terms of the Brexit trade deal, it is possible for batteries made in the European Union (EU) to be installed in UK-assembled vehicles for export back to the EU (where most are sold). But industry experts say the economics don’t make sense as the batteries are heavy and hard to transport as they are not currently permitted through the Channel Tunnel for safety reasons.

Doubts about the long-term future of the factory intensified after recent comments from the chief executive of the parent company Stellantis – the new name for the merged PSA and Fiat Chrysler.

Carlos Tavares referred to the “brutal” decision for the UK government to bring forward the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars to 2030 and said it might make more sense to move future electric production closer to its biggest market in the EU.

Government officials are aware that the future of car production in the UK depends on a rapid scaling up of battery production and it is widely hoped Chancellor Rishi Sunak will address the issue in his Budget speech next Wednesday, which is coincidentally the same day that Stellantis announce their annual results and operating review.

Brit Awards change rules thanks to pop star Rina Sawayama

A pop star who was told she was “not British enough” to enter The Brits and the Mercury Prize has won a reversal in the awards’ eligibility rules.

Rina Sawayama was told she could not compete for the prizes last year, because she was not a British citizen.

The singer, who has lived in the UK for 26 years, has now won the right to compete, after meeting award bosses.

Under new rules, artists who have been resident in the UK for more than five years will now be eligible.

Sawayama holds indefinite leave to remain in the UK, but retains a Japanese passport to maintain ties with her family, including her father, who live in her country of birth.

As Japan does not allow dual citizenship, she cannot have a British passport. That meant her critically-acclaimed debut album was ruled ineligible for last year’s Mercury Prize.

“It was so heartbreaking,” Sawayama told Vice last year. “I rarely get upset to the level where I cry. And I cried.”

“All I remember is living here,” she continued. “I’ve just lived here all my life. I went to summer school in Japan, and that’s literally it. But I feel like I’ve contributed to the UK in a way that I think is worthy of being celebrated, or at least being eligible to be celebrated.”

The hashtag #SawayamaIsBritish trended in the UK shortly after her interview with Vice was published.

The singer subsequently met with the BPI, which organises both the Brits and the Mercury Prize, and convinced them to review their criteria.

“I’m over the moon to share the news that, following a number of conversations, the BPI has decided to change the rules,” Sawayama posted on Instagram on Wednesday.

“Starting this year, artists (like me) will be eligible for nomination even without British citizenship.”

The Brit Awards confirmed the change to the BBC, saying it would apply to all its award categories, as well as the Mercury Prize.

Artists will now have to meet one of three criteria to be eligible:

The change means Sawayama will be eligible for this year’s Rising Star award. However, she will not be able to compete in the main categories – including best British female and best album – as her record did not chart in the Top 75.

Sawayama has previously benefitted from funding from the BPI Music Export Growth Scheme, a grant that supports and celebrates British musicians, and her album is littered with references about growing up in London.

The record, which skilfully blends millennial pop and R&B with elements of nu-metal, was one of the best-reviewed new releases of 2020, with an average score of 89% on the review aggregation site Metacritic.

Many publications, including the Guardian and the NME, named it among their best albums of the year; and it took 11th place in the BBC’s “poll of polls”, which combined the year-end lists from 35 influential newspapers, magazines and blogs.

Brexit: Irish Sea border meeting hugely disappointing

A meeting of the EU-UK body overseeing the NI Brexit deal aimed at resolving issues with the Irish Sea border was “hugely disappointing”, First Minister Arlene Foster has said.

But Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the meeting had been “constructive and pragmatic”.

No breakthrough was reached on requests by the UK to extend grace periods.

The grace periods mean checks and controls on goods going from GB to NI are not yet fully implemented.

The first of the grace periods, which covers food and parcels, is due to end in April.

The UK government, with the support of business groups, has asked the EU for an extension until 2023.

DUP leader and First Minister Mrs Foster, along with Deputy First Minister and Sinn Féin vice-president Ms O’Neill, attended the joint committee, which is chaired by Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove and European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic.

Following the meeting, Mrs Foster told BBC Newsline she was not surprised that agreement had not been reached, and accused the EU of being “tone-deaf” to concerns of unionists.

She said the EU’s solution was “more protocol, not less”.

But speaking to the same programme, Ms O’Neill said the meeting had allowed both sides to focus on finding solutions, adding that another meeting of the committee would take place before the end of March.

Northern Ireland has remained part of the EU’s single market for goods and continues to enforce EU customs rules at its ports.

That means EU import rules have applied to goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain since 1 January.

However, the grace periods mean that all the EU’s procedures do not yet apply.

Some food businesses, particularly major retailers, do not need to comply with all the EU’s usual certification requirements.

Additionally, parcels carrying goods valued at £135 or below do not need customs declarations.

In the aftermath of the Article 16 controversy, Mr Gove wrote to the EU asking for longer grace periods.

He also asked the EU to examine its decision to ban the importation into Northern Ireland of some items like seed potatoes and to ease the rules for pets being taken across the Irish Sea.

In response, the EU did not rule out longer grace periods but it is unlikely to agree to the long extension requested by Mr Gove.

On Monday, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said the EU was prepared to be “flexible” and “generous” in easing the effect on Northern Ireland businesses but the UK had to follow through on its commitments to the EU last December.

These included a promise to give EU observers real-time access to UK customs data and to provide data on goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain.

Mr Coveney said there could be easier trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland under the Northern Ireland Protocol if the UK agreed to align more closely to EU food safety and animal and plant health standards.

On Wednesday, MLAs were told how customs officials were working on a new IT system to deal with express delivery problems across the Irish Sea border.

Details were outlined to Stormont’s Economy Committee by Seamus Leheny from the freight trade body Logistics UK.

He said it was hoped it would make it easier for express carriers to get their parcels from Great Britain to Northern Ireland but he added that it would not be ready until later this year.

Post-Brexit trade: Boris Johnson calls for eat British fish campaign

Boris Johnson believes a campaign to encourage people to eat British-caught fish could help the industry combat post-Brexit disruption.

The prime minister backed calls for a campaign in a video conference with Conservative MPs from coastal areas.

He also promised to do more to address concerns about quotas and the ban on shellfish exports to the EU.

Labour said it also wanted people to eat more British fish – but that in itself would not save the industry.

Industry leaders have accused the government of being “in denial” about the scale of the problems facing it.

Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisation, said fishing communities were “very disappointed” with the post-Brexit trade deal signed by Mr Johnson.

This gave “free access” to EU fleets to fish in UK waters, he added, but without “securing revised quota shares that would reflect the UK’s new status as an independent coastal state”.

He did, however, welcome the idea of a buy British campaign.

His organisation was getting a lot of emails from members of the public asking where they could buy British fish, he told BBC News.

The problem, he added, was that the UK has a taste for foreign species, and tended to export most fish caught in its own waters.

The UK is a net importer of cod and tuna, for example, while hake, which is plentiful in UK waters, is exported to countries like Spain.

The UK fleet catches more mackerel than any other species, although 60% of that is landed abroad, according to official figures.

There was “enormous scope” for a campaign to change the public’s addiction to “bland” white fish from abroad, said Mr Deas, perhaps “getting celebrity chefs involved in advocating British fish”.

Sheryll Murray, Conservative MP for South-East Cornwall, who organised the call with coastal MPs, said Boris Johnson himself could front a campaign to promote previously obscure British-caught fish.

“I think he comes into his own, the prime minister, with his PR, and if anybody can sell to the British public ‘buy red mullet, buy John Dory, buy grey mullet’, then I think he will have a darn good go,” she told BBC South West political editor Martyn Oates.

In his call to MPs, Mr Johnson promised an “action plan” to deal with export problems.

Great Grimsby MP Lia Nici told BBC political reporter Sarah Sanderson: “We discussed short-term measures how to make sure that businesses can stay viable with the problems they’re having – but also longer term legislation and what the UK can do in order to grow the industry in the future.”

The PM is also understood to have urged coastal communities to invest in infrastructure to prepare for larger catches, as boats are allowed to land more from UK waters over the next five years.

But Barrie Deas said the expanded quotas would “not provide the level of additional fishing opportunities necessary to underpin the regeneration of our coastal communities”.

“In addition, EU fleets can continue to fish within our 6-12 mile limits,” he added.

And Labour’s shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard said “no amount of top spin from the prime minister” would make the structural problems facing the industry go away.

He wanted people to eat more British fish, he added, but “this in itself will not save the fishing industry from going under because of the poor deal that’s been achieved over our exit from the European Union”.

Cladding: MPs fail in bid to change fire safety payment rules

A group of Tory MPs has lost a House of Commons bid to protect leaseholders living in flats from “financial ruin” due to the cost of safety improvements.

The Fire Safety Bill – to strengthen regulations following the Grenfell Tower fire – comes after financial help was granted to install better cladding.

But flat owners say they still face costs of up to £50,000 for other works and insurance premiums.

More than 30 Conservative MPs support an amendment to the England-only bill.

But there was not time in the Commons on Wednesday for the move – opposed by the government, which said it was preparing fuller plans to help those with large costs – to go to a vote.

Labour accused ministers of insulting “people across the country”.

But another amendment – calling for a ban on freeholders passing fire safety improvement costs on to leaseholders – did go to a vote, and was beaten by 340 to 225.

The bill now goes to the House of Lords, which has previously disagreed with the Commons on several changes to it.

The Grenfell Tower fire of 2017 killed 72 people, with the west London building later revealed to have been covered in combustible cladding.

Inspectors subsequently found many other blocks were unsafe and thousands of flat owners have since faced large bills for safety improvements, such as changes to emergency exits.

In the Commons, Conservative MP Royston Smith said the housing market was at risk of partial “collapse”, with many leaseholders unable to sell.

He urged MPs to “think very carefully before they abandon thousands of constituents”, warning: “They will not forget and they will not forgive.”

But Home Office minister Kit Malthouse said the Fire Safety Bill was “not the correct place for remediation costs to be addressed”, as the legislation’s only job was to “clarify” that fire safety orders apply to cladding and flat entrances.

He added that the Building Safety Bill, set to be introduced in the spring, would contain “detailed and complex” measures on payments.

Earlier this month, the government announced it was putting £3.5bn towards removing unsafe cladding from buildings more than 18m high – on top of £1.6bn for cladding removal announced last year.

The government also said flat owners in lower-rise blocks would be able to access loans to cover repair work, and they would not have to pay back more than £50 a month.

Labour called on the government to “do the right thing”.

Shadow fire minister Sarah Jones said: “It is shameful that they have voted against implementing vital fire safety measures called for by the Grenfell Inquiry, and it is an insult to people across the country that this government voted down protections for leaseholders from fire safety costs that they did not cause.”

Biden orders 100-day review amid supply chain strains

US President Joe Biden has ordered officials to find ways to bolster supply chains as a shortage of computer chips hits carmakers around the world.

It comes after the pandemic has strained many producers and forced the US to scramble for medical gear.

The initial review is focused on computer chips, pharmaceuticals, rare earth minerals and large batteries, such as those used in electric cars.

China is a key supplier for many of those items.

US officials said the review was not targeted at China, which like the US imports most of its computer chips and has been trying to boost domestic production.

They said the administration was interested in increasing some production in the US and expected to work with other countries for items that could not be made domestically.

Reliance on “strategic competitor nations” is expected to be part of the analysis, they added.

“While we cannot predict what crisis will hit us, we should have the capacity to respond quickly in the face of challenges,” the White House said in a statement announcing the study, which will start with a 100-day focused review, before widening its scope.

“The United States must ensure that production shortages, trade disruptions, natural disasters and potential actions by foreign competitors and adversaries never leave the United States vulnerable again.”

The president, who will formally sign the executive order on Wednesday, has come under pressure as firms such as General Motors and Ford have cut production and announced lay-offs due to the shortage of chips – key components for many electronic products, which have been in high demand due to the pandemic.

Republicans have also pushed Mr Biden to do more to address reliance on China, while business and technology lobby groups have also called on the administration to introduce investment tax credits to encourage the building of more US semiconductor manufacturing plants, where the chips are produced.

“While the governments of our global competitors have invested heavily to attract new semiconductor manufacturing and research facilities, the absence of US incentives has made our country uncompetitive and America’s share of global semiconductor manufacturing has steadily declined,” the groups wrote in a recent letter, signed by the US Chamber of Commerce, the Semiconductor Industry Association and the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, among others.

“To be competitive and strengthen the resilience of critical supply chains, we believe the US needs to incentivize the construction of new and modernized semiconductor manufacturing facilities and invest in research capabilities.”

US semiconductor firms currently account for 47% of global chip sales, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association. However, just 12% of chips are made in the US, down from 37% in 1990.

Under former President Donald Trump, the US adopted a protectionist approach, increasing border taxes and in some cases forbidding US firms from doing business with Chinese competitors in an effort to boost US producers.

Amid the changes, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), the world’s largest contract chipmaker, last May announced plans to build a $12bn (£8.5bn) factory in the US.

Manchester Arena attack: Ambulance service warned medical delays would cost lives

The ambulance service warned a year before the Manchester Arena bombing that lives would be lost if specialist medical help was delayed during a terror attack, an inquiry heard.

It took more than two hours to deploy triage teams in a 2016 terror training exercise, a public inquiry was told.

Retired Greater Manchester Police (GMP) Inspector June Roby said lessons should have been learned.

One paramedic was at the scene in the first 40 minutes after the 2017 bomb.

Twenty-two people were killed and hundreds more injured when Salman Abedi detonated a bomb at the end of an Ariana Grande concert on 22 May 2017.

The inquiry was told that, during the counter-terror training exercise at the Trafford Centre in May 2016, there was a two-hour delay in treating casualties because of serious command and communication problems with the police.

A debrief by the North West Ambulance Service (NWAS) after the drill said there was a “huge delay in deployment……this would have unequivocally resulted in unnecessary loss of life.”

Retired inspector June Roby, who was responsible for devising part of the exercise, said she was not aware at the time “that there was such a big delay” but she agreed “entirely” with the NWAS statement.

Pete Weatherby QC, representing some of the bereaved families, asked Ms Roby, if the Winchester Accord went “catastrophically wrong in terms of the multi-agency response”.

She replied, “It would appear so, yes.”

Ms Roby said that, while she was not responsible for how the force responded on the night of the bombing, she accepted that lessons should have been learned.

“It’s a real concern that [fire and ambulance services] weren’t contacted when they should have been,” she said.

Before 2017, there were widespread concerns that the Force Duty Officer (FDO), who co-ordinates the initial emergency response to an attack, could be a “major point of failure”.

Ms Roby said she was aware that a better plan was needed but sorting it out was “way above my pay grade”.

The hearing has previously been told that the FDO on the night of the arena bombing quickly became overwhelmed.

Amid erroneous reports of gunfire and an active shooter on the loose he declared Operation Plato, the police response to a marauding terrorist firearms attack.

But he failed to inform the fire service and ambulance service, who could not contact him as his telephone line was swamped, the hearing heard.

Fire crews with specialist equipment and training were kept away from the City Room, the first fire engine arrived on scene more than two hours later and only one paramedic was at the City Room in the first 40 minutes after the blast.

The Chair of the Inquiry, Sir John Saunders asked Ms Roby if the FDO role was ever fully tested.

She said, “Not to its fullest extent, no.”

John Cooper QC, who also represents some of the victims’ families, asked Ms Roby if the planning policies were “inadequate”.

Ms Roby said: “I disagree….I started every single exercise with ‘this is not a case of if this happens, for me it’s a case of when this happens.

“There is so much going on in the world that Greater Manchester cannot remain in this little bubble where nothing happens. We are going to get something at some point.'”

The inquiry continues.

Bruce Springsteen fined $500 over drinking charge

Bruce Springsteen has been fined $500 (£355) after pleading guilty to consuming alcohol in a New Jersey national park where drinking is banned.

The 71-year-old rock star admitted drinking two shots of tequila on Sandy Hook beach in his home state.

But prosecutors dropped drink-driving and reckless driving charges against the star, who had initially pleaded not guilty to all three charges.

The singer was arrested in November and must also pay $40 (£28) in costs.

At an online hearing on Wednesday, he admitted drinking at the beach, which is just south of New York City and is part of the National Park Service’s Gateway National Recreation Area.

Prosecutors said the government was dropping the driving while intoxicated and reckless driving charges because it did not believe it could meet its burden of proving them in court.

News of the singer’s arrest on 14 November came to light earlier this month. It followed his appearance in an advert for car company Jeep that was played during the Super Bowl on 7 February.

Jeep said it would not show the commercial until the facts surrounding Springsteen’s arrest had been established.

Springsteen, aka “The Boss”, has made music for more than five decades and recently released his 20th studio album.

In January, he was seen performing in Washington DC in Celebrating America, a TV special aired after President Joe Biden’s inauguration.