May I start by putting on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), the former Minister?
The withdrawal agreement is the best way for Northern Ireland and the whole United Kingdom to ensure that we leave the European Union. It protects all the things that we value in Northern Ireland—the constitutional and economic integrity of the UK, and vital jobs and investment—and, for the people of Northern Ireland, it continues the progress that we have made over the past two decades under the Belfast agreement.
On Saturday 8 December, just five short days ago, the Secretary of State penned a letter to the people of Northern Ireland. The letter stated that the deal protects all the things that we value. As the Prime Minister is now desperately rushing around Europe to change that very deal, may I ask what the new letter will say this Saturday?
I stand by the comments that I made in the letter. This is the best deal to ensure that the United Kingdom leaves the European Union as one united kingdom. The Prime Minister, though, has recognised the concerns that there rightly are around the backstop, and she is seeking to address those concerns.
Will the Secretary of State tell us what aspect of this deal would require the Northern Ireland Assembly to be sitting? If the Government cannot get devolution in Northern Ireland back up and running, will they resort to direct rule to implement their deal?
We all want to see the Executive back up and running, and we want to see the institutions in place. The Good Friday agreement achieved so much for the people of Northern Ireland and those institutions are such an integral part of them. I know that the politicians in Northern Ireland do want to come back to do that. I think the hon. Lady is referring to the Stormont lock in paragraph 50 of the joint report, and the Government stand by that lock.
Will the Secretary of State confirm whether she has carried out any analysis on the exact economic and competitive advantages that Northern Ireland would have over the rest of the United Kingdom in the event of the backstop being activated? If she has, will she publish them? If she has not, will she commission some?
Article 5 of the Ireland-Northern Ireland protocol on the withdrawal agreement, which states that
“free movement for Union citizens and their family members, irrespective of their nationality, to, from and within Ireland”,
means that people will be able to move about as part of the common travel area. So with the end of free movement post Brexit, what additional checks will be imposed on people travelling to and from Northern Ireland from the UK mainland?
The hon. Gentleman does not understand the way that the common travel area works today and the fact there is free movement across the island of Ireland for all citizens and nationalities. Of course there is a good working relationship between the Border Force agencies in Northern Ireland and their equivalents in the Republic, so that we can ensure that those who do not have the right to be in the United Kingdom do not access the United Kingdom.
Throughout the debates on the EU, we were talking about the European arrest warrant. I give the Secretary of State another opportunity today to clarify why there has been in the withdrawal agreement little in the way of commitment on the European arrest warrant, which is key to policing in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right that the European arrest warrant is used in Northern Ireland more than anywhere else in the United Kingdom, and it is an incredibly important instrument. I hope that he has read the political declaration that accompanies the withdrawal agreement, which is clear that in the future security partnership we will have a deeper relationship with the European Union than any other third country, including on surrender of EU nationals.
The Prime Minister has told us that she is on a quest for “democratic legitimacy” for her agreement in respect of Northern Ireland. Is this not a curious term to use given that the one group of people who have been consistently ignored by the Government are the people of Northern Ireland, who voted not to leave the European Union?
The people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Nearly 17.5 million people in the United Kingdom, including people in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and mine, voted to leave the European Union. The people of Northern Ireland want to see this deal, because they want to see us leave the European Union in a managed way that is not chaotic and that works for Northern Ireland.
I have significant engagement with businesses across Northern Ireland, and I have found an absolutely consistent message, which is that those businesses, to protect jobs and to protect the progress that we have made since the Belfast agreement, want to see this deal so that Northern Ireland can leave the European Union, with the whole United Kingdom, in an orderly way. In fact, we were very pleased to welcome 12 business and civic society leaders to Westminster last week to express exactly that view.
Given the desire by all sides to avoid a hard border between the Republic and the north when we exit the European Union, why is that not, in a legally enforceable way, within the withdrawal agreement or the backstop agreement so that we use new technology for these purposes, not old and untried technology?
My hon. Friend will know that the backstop can be ended, if we go into it in the first place, by the future relationship or by alternative means, and that can of course mean new technology. But at this time there is no technology that deals with the issue of the border in a way that respects the rights of the people of Northern Ireland and respects the Belfast agreement and the way that it operates.
Does my right hon. Friend agree with the evidence presented to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee following our visit to Northern Ireland, published on Monday, saying that businesses and trade bodies in Northern Ireland are crying out for clarity and certainty as we leave the European Union?
I was delighted to find myself on the same aeroplane as the BEIS Committee on its visit to Northern Ireland, and am sure that it heard the same message I hear when I am in Northern Ireland, which is that businesses want certainty and clarity, and would like to see us implement this deal so that we can ensure that we leave the European Union in an orderly way.
As I have said, this is the best deal. This is the best way for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union as a whole in an orderly way, but the Prime Minister has recognised and listened to the concerns of the right hon. Gentleman, his colleagues and many others in the House about the backstop, and she is looking to assuage those concerns.
The Secretary of State cannot have it both ways. She is telling everybody that this is the best deal, it is a wonderful deal and everybody should accept it. However, the Prime Minister is telling everybody that nobody likes it, the Irish do not want it, Europe does not want it and the British Government do not want it. How does the Secretary of State explain the utter contradiction in those arguments?
I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman that there is a contradiction. I think he is talking about the backstop. We all agree that the backstop is a very uncomfortable thing that none of us wants to see introduced, just as we never want to see any insurance policy called upon, because the fact that it is called upon means that the worst has happened.
I welcome the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) back to the Government—although, with recent developments, it may be a short stint.
In recent weeks, the Secretary of State has publicly stated that the current backstop protocol puts Northern Ireland in an unrivalled position in the world as a destination for foreign direct investment. However, her Cabinet colleague the Scottish Secretary has said that any suggestion of an advantage for Northern Ireland is a wholly false argument. Who is right—the Scottish Secretary or her?
I trust that the hon. Gentleman is not trying to somehow use the unique situation in Northern Ireland and the success of Northern Ireland to try to impute a special status to Scotland. The fact is that Northern Ireland has a land border with Ireland and therefore will be in an unrivalled position, because it will be the only place that has both a land border with the European Union and access to trade deals through the independent trade policy of the United Kingdom. [Interruption.]
I do not wish to tempt fate, but at the moment, the Government Benches are a model of decorum. By contrast, there is a very large number of noisy private conversations taking place on the Opposition Benches, which I feel sure will now cease, as the Front Bench spokesperson comes in.
I welcome the Minister of State to his place. Paragraph 50 of the EU-UK joint report last December made it clear that there would be a guarantee, consistent with the 1998 agreement, that the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive would be consulted on any regulatory changes. Why did that guarantee disappear in the withdrawal agreement? Why did the Secretary of State allow it to disappear?
The hon. Gentleman refers to an important point. This withdrawal agreement is the only agreement that we can guarantee is consistent with the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. He refers to paragraph 50 of the joint report. The Government’s commitments under paragraph 50 still stand, but quite rightly, we do not want to negotiate our sovereign rights, which are a sovereign matter for the United Kingdom, with the European Union. We want to do it unilaterally.
Paragraph 50 was very clear about the role of the Assembly and the Executive. The Secretary of State’s words are not good enough. Why should Northern Ireland Members have confidence in this Government? Why should the people of Northern Ireland believe that this Government are committed to devolution, to the peace process and to the Good Friday agreement?
It is this Government who have inserted in the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration on the future relationship our absolute commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. It is this Government who are committed to abiding by all our commitments under paragraph 50 of the joint report, including the points about the Stormont lock and unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the market of Great Britain. We stand by those commitments.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Since the withdrawal agreement protects the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and the consent principle as guaranteed by the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, does the Secretary of State agree that it is unforgivable for the Labour party—the architects of the Good Friday agreement—to appear to have abandoned the Good Friday agreement by voting against the Brexit deal negotiated by the Prime Minister?