(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union if he will make a statement on the Government’s proposals for checks and customs arrangements on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to replace the current backstop.
We are committed to finding a solution to the north-south border that protects the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We can best meet those commitments if we explore solutions other than the backstop. The backstop risks weakening the delicate balance embodied in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which was grounded in agreement, consent and respect for minorities. Removing control of the commercial and economic life of Northern Ireland to an external body over which the people of Northern Ireland have no control risks undermining that balance. Any deal on Brexit on 31 October must avoid the whole or just part—that is, Northern Ireland—being trapped in an arrangement where it is a rule taker.
The Government intend to set out more detail on our position on an alternative to the backstop in the coming days. In the meantime, I assure the House that under no circumstance will the UK place infrastructure, checks or controls at the border. Both sides have always been clear that the arrangements for the border must recognise the unique circumstance of the island of Ireland and, reflecting that, be creative and flexible.
The Prime Minister’s European Union sherpa, David Frost, is leading a cross-Government team in these detailed negotiations with taskforce 50. We have shared in written form a series of confidential technical non-papers, which reflect the ideas the United Kingdom has been putting forward. Those papers are not the Government setting out their formal position. These meetings and our sharing of confidential technical non-papers show that we are serious about getting a deal—one that must involve the removal of the backstop.
I am grateful to the Minister for his reply, but we are not much the wiser. Today, there are no border posts or checks on goods crossing the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and the backstop is there to ensure that remains the case after Brexit. That is what the joint declaration of December 2017 committed to. The Government’s position now, however, is that the reality of Brexit will require customs checks on the island of Ireland. That is the inexorable logic of the Prime Minister’s statement this morning that a
“sovereign united country must have a single customs territory.”
Whatever proposals have in fact been put to the EU taskforce, the Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, has described them as a “non-starter”, an Irish Government spokesman says the taskforce has indicated that the UK’s non-papers
“fall well short of the agreed aims and objectives of the backstop”,
and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has told the BBC that
“it’s not possible to put anything like a customs facility in Newry, Fermanagh or many other locations away from the border”.
I have the following questions to put to the Minister. Are the Government proposing customs clearance sites or zones anywhere in Northern Ireland? Does the Minister understand the risks that any such sites would create for the peace brought by the Good Friday agreement, and have the Government taken legal advice on the compatibility of their proposals with that agreement? Do the Government’s proposals comply with section 10(2)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which rules out regulations that
“create or facilitate border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after exit day which feature physical infrastructure, including border posts, or checks and controls, that did not exist before exit day”?
Are the Government proposing to track lorries cleared at any such sites using GPS? How can an alternative to the backstop be built on systems and technology that are not currently in place? Finally, when exactly will the Government share with this House and with the people of Northern Ireland their proposals for a replacement to the backstop? I ask because it is unacceptable for us to be kept in the dark about what is being proposed in our name on such an important matter.
There were eight or nine questions there, and I will try to cover them all, but if I do not, perhaps we will pick them up in questions. I think it is completely reasonable that the Government can use non-papers to have those technical discussions. The Government are seeking to have a good discussion with the Commission, rather than disguising anything. The previous Government shared more, and actually it led to proposals being rubbished before they were properly worked through. These technical papers are not even our final proposals to the Commission—they are very much working documents—but we will be giving proposals to the Commission shortly.
Clearly, the Government will want to comply with subsection (2)(b). The right hon. Gentleman asked about legal advice. I think he will understand that I am not going to get into whether legal advice has been taken, or what legal advice has been given; for normal reasons, those things are not shared with the House. He asked about the impact of physical checks. There is no intention to have physical checks at the border. I am not choosing my words carefully there; there are no plans to do that, I can reassure him. Perhaps he was thinking about some of the reports in the Northern Ireland press suggesting there might be checks near the border. That is not the intention. Those reports simply are incorrect. The right hon. Gentleman also referred to GPS and technology. I am afraid I cannot get into the detail of the proposals at that level now, because they are subject to ongoing negotiations and discussions at the Commission.
In his discussions with businesses, is the Minister finding the same as I am, which is that the real challenge businesses are facing is the prolonged uncertainty of kicking the can down the road? Of course, all businesses would rather leave with a deal, but when faced with the choice of leaving at the end of October with no deal or prolonging the agony for many months to come, businesses simply want this done and for us to leave at the end of October.
I thank my hon. Friend for that, and he makes a very good point. The British public do want us to get on with this, and the best way we can get a deal is continuing serious discussions, through use of these technical papers, with the EU and coming forward with more concrete proposals shortly.
Let us return to the question of the Irish border, because it matters. The Good Friday agreement was a guarantor that we had moved beyond the period of conflict. What we are risking now is not only a dangerous time in the history of this country, but our relationships across the island of Ireland and the world. We are 70 days into the premiership of Prime Minister Johnson and there are 30 days until the Brexit date. It is now time that the House had clarity from this Minister or from other Ministers about what the Government intend to do to deliver on the Irish border.
Everybody in the House knows that the backstop was there to guarantee that there would be no hard border across the island of Ireland. That is fundamental to delivering on the Good Friday agreement. We all know that while the European Union has said that it is prepared to negotiate around the words of the backstop, it is not prepared to compromise on the spirit of it—that Northern Ireland should be part of the customs union and the single market regulatory standards of the European Union. When the Prime Minister says that “the reality” of Brexit is that there will need to be customs checks on the island of Ireland, it is in stark contrast to the words of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland this morning that there would be no checks five or 10 miles into Ireland. That would be in breach of the joint declaration of 2017, and importantly, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) pointed out, would be in breach of section 10 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which made it clear that any arrangements for Northern Ireland after exit day that featured border posts or customs controls would not be acceptable.
The Minister has to come clean to the House about what the future holds for us. The Good Friday agreement is far too important for us to put it at risk by fooling around. If this were just farce, we might all laugh at the high-wire tricks of the Prime Minister, but this is dangerous. It puts the Good Friday agreement and its hard-won gains in jeopardy. It is not just Northern Ireland and Ireland that deserve better, as the Irish Foreign Minister said, but this House and the whole country. The Minister has got to do better.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman: the Good Friday/ Belfast agreement is essential. Where we differ is on where we feel conflicts may be brought about on that agreement. He feels they will be brought about by removing the backstop; I think there is a greater risk of leaving the backstop there and ending up in a situation in which Northern Ireland is part of the customs union in perpetuity and takes a different direction. I think that is the greater risk, and I remind him that the alternative arrangements are not a solution to the backstop. The alternative arrangements would always have to be there. What we are doing is putting a date on when we will get that sorted out, rather than leaving an indefinite period.
The country is facing no deal precisely because the Government have not published a Brexit plan, yet. The key protagonists who sold Britain Brexit are now in charge, and all we are asking is for them to get on with it and tell us what the plan is to deliver what they promised. Back in April 2016, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—now Secretary of State for the Environment—said:
“There is no reason why we have to change the border arrangements in the event of a Brexit”.
Clearly, what is being discussed now is something very different from what voters were told during the referendum campaign. The House is simply asking what the plan is to deliver what was promised. I do not understand why the Government will not just get on with it and tell us what their plan is.
The Government are actively getting on with it, and that is what the negotiations are about. I would gently say that revealing the detail of our negotiating position—the technical papers and emerging proposals—would actually deliver what the right hon. Lady and I do not want. We do not want no deal: we want a deal—
The future of peace and normality on the island of Ireland will critically depend on the actions of the Prime Minister over the next few weeks, and I for one am deeply concerned that he shows every sign of not understanding or not caring, or both, about the potential implications of the course that he is following.
What discussions have the Government had with the Government of our co-guarantors of the peace process, the Government of Ireland, before lodging this non-plan? What discussions did the Government have with the political parties that represent a significant majority opinion in Northern Ireland before lodging this non-plan? Is the Minister even mildly concerned that the director of the CBI in Northern Ireland has said that the proposals suggest that the
“U.K. govt doesn’t take NI’s economy or peace process seriously”?
Does that comment cause any concern to the Government?
Through various Ministers at the Dispatch Box, the Government have sworn blind that they are negotiating hard for a better deal, but the Minister let the cat out of the bag—there is not even a detailed proposal on which to negotiate. Will the Government now own up to the fact that there is no detailed proposal, there have been no proper negotiations and the Government’s strategy is to look for a no-deal Brexit while blaming everyone but themselves for the problem?
Will the Minister unequivocally repeat the comments of the previous Prime Minister that there will be no customs controls at the border or anywhere else, as required by the Good Friday agreement? Given that this Prime Minister has unilaterally reneged on a promise that he personally signed up to as Foreign Secretary in December 2017, is it any wonder that this side of the House, the other side—increasingly—and an increasing number of Governments in the European Union are coming to the conclusion that he simply cannot be trusted?
Northern Ireland is key to the Government and the Prime Minister. In fact, it is the principal discussion point with the Commission. The Prime Minister has said that we want to get rid of the backstop and this is “the most important thing”. Far from Northern Ireland being on the side as part of the negotiations, it is at the centre of them.
The hon. Gentleman asks about discussions: clearly, extensive discussions have been had with the Irish Government and other entities in Northern Ireland. He says that I have let the cat out of the bag by saying there are no proposals: there are technical papers in the non-papers, and the final proposal will come shortly. It is very much actively being discussed with the Commission on a daily basis. He asked me to confirm on behalf of the Government that there will be no customs control at the border, and I am happy to say that that remains unchanged.
Will the Minister confirm that it is the Government’s position that they want to leave with a deal if possible? Will he also confirm that should the European Commission and European leaders decide not to accept the proposals, the Government will leave with no deal? My constituents voted 63% to leave. They have been waiting three years for Brexit. Will the Minister tell the Prime Minister that they are behind him and to make sure that we get on and deliver Brexit on 31 October?
I thank my hon. Friend and his constituents who overwhelmingly supported Brexit. I can confirm that plan A is to get a deal, and that is what we are working towards and why there is so much focus on the proposal that will come shortly. It makes no sense to share the detail of the negotiation with the House if it makes getting a deal done less likely. Collectively, the House wants a deal and the strategy that we are taking forward makes it more likely that we get a deal while being fully prepared for no deal.
As a Member who lives in the non-customs zone that has not been discussed, and given that we will, I hope, get definitive proposals in the next few days, can the Minister at least draw a little comfort among the negativity that has pervaded the EU that they are no longer talking about no reopening of the withdrawal agreement, that it is sacrosanct and there is no possibility of ever going back to it? At least now there is a glimmer of light.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question because it gives me the opportunity to say how things have changed. There was a time when Michel Barnier was saying, “No more negotiations”, and that he did not have a mandate to negotiate on issues that are important in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom. Now the Prime Minister’s sherpa is regularly in Brussels and there are regular discussions at prime ministerial level and between the Secretary of State and Michel Barnier.
Many people speak on behalf of the communities affected in Northern Ireland, but what have the Government done to speak directly to those communities on what ideas they have for alternative arrangements that would be acceptable to them?
Specifically on alternative arrangements, there is an architecture that supports these discussions. There is a technical-level group, which is chaired by the Secretary of State, and which includes industry experts, and there is also a business consultative group working towards alternative arrangements under a deal that will come after exit day.
The hon. Gentleman says he does not believe it. I chaired the group last time, along with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. There is constructive agreement and frank discussion within that group, and that happens outside the consultative group forum as well—I have set up several bilateral meetings with businesses since.
Section 10(2)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, on the Irish border, says there can be no hard border that undermines the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which enacted the Good Friday agreement. It also makes illegal an agreement that creates or facilitates border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic that feature physical infrastructure that was not there before. Can the Minister explain how on earth what we learned overnight is compatible with the law?
I am unclear what the hon. Lady means by “what we learned overnight”. If she means the press report on RTÉ in Ireland, I can tell her that it simply is not true. I can categorically say to her that there are no plans and never have been any plans for any physical checks. This is not a right to reply, but I will be more than happy to take that up with her in more detail, in relation to the Act and more generally, particularly when everything else has come out in the wash.
Does the Minister agree that this whole Northern Ireland-Republic border issue is confected nonsense designed to derail Brexit? Has he considered the Jameson lorry that goes from the south to the north and the Bushmills lorry that goes from the north to the south—different currencies, different excise duties and different tax rates? These are trusted traders. They are trusted now and will be in the future. Does he consider that the current VAT system of Intrastat returns and quarterly accounting could form the basis upon which a proper border arrangement can be easily made?
There are different people in this Chamber: some have a legitimate desire for Brexit not to happen; equally, some Members have genuine concerns and recognise the legitimate decision of the general public and the need to get on with Brexit. It is unhelpful to conflate the two. My hon. Friend refers to a specific solution. There are many solutions being considered that were in the non-papers, but I do not want to comment on those until the proposal is formally made to the Commission.
On the “Today” programme this morning, the Prime Minister said that he would like to “veil” the Government’s proposals on the Irish border in “decent obscurity”? Can the Minister explain how individuals and businesses are supposed to prepare for Brexit if it is veiled in decent obscurity? For clarification, could he say how much he expects these proposals will cost small and medium-sized enterprises in Northern Ireland and how many of those businesses he expects to fail as a result of the Government’s proposals? Will he finally admit that there is no version of Brexit that works for Northern Ireland?
The point of the business consultative group that met in Belfast a few weeks ago was to share ideas in confidence so that the UK Government could develop their position and feed that into the consultative papers, so there is structurally a process in place to involve businesses. Under the terms of reference, that is purely to look at deal relationships. In many ways, deal and no deal could be similar in terms of the crossover of systems that could be used, but those discussions are very much ongoing.
Given that we cannot know what is needed to make the Irish border work until we have sketched the outline of our future relationship, and regardless of the shortcomings of the backstop, is not this fixation on trying to find an alternative permanent solution to the border now a complete waste of time, energy, money and, ultimately, political capital?
We need to find a solution to the border issue, and the original withdrawal agreement gives us extra time beyond exit date to do so. We are trying to bring forward those issues, work on them closely now and get more of the work done before a deal and exit day in order to avoid ending up in a long-term and complicated situation that causes problems in Northern Ireland, for the integrity of the UK and for our relationship with the EU.
I want to take the Minister back to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) about the Government’s obligations to obey the law and abide by legislation passed by the House. Section 10 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 says that Ministers must
“have due regard to the joint report from the negotiators…during phase 1”—
in December 2017—and that nothing in the Act
“authorises regulations which…create or facilitate border arrangements…which feature physical infrastructure, including border posts, or checks and controls, that did not exist before exit day”.
He has told us to discount reports from RTÉ overnight that suggest that the Government were planning infrastructure a few miles from the border. Would he regard such physical infrastructure a few miles back from the border as incompatible with the legislation this House has passed?
I am tempted to give a simple answer to a straight question, but, because it relies on detail, I will write to the right hon. Gentleman and confirm what I think is the bleeding obvious. Given what he says, it seems to me that there is an obvious answer—[Hon. Members: “Give it!”] I have said I will give him a good answer and make sure it is proper in relation to that Act.
The British Government are not going to build a hard border in Northern Ireland, the Irish Government say they will not allow a hard border in Northern Ireland, and the EU cannot build a hard border in Northern Ireland, so who is going to build this hard border?
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland told BBC Radio Ulster this morning:
“I’m clear that we can’t have customs facilities in the places mentioned in the reports”
overnight, but Parliament needs to know; we need clarity. The people deserve to know what the Government’s plans are. Can the Minister tell us who is speaking for the Government on these matters—the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State?
Will my hon. Friend, with his customary good grace, take this opportunity at the Dispatch Box to confirm the seriousness with which the Government are seeking to respect the Good Friday agreement, in contrast to the unworthy characterisation by the Labour Front Bench that this is part of some great big game? Secondly, can he alert the House to whether there are existing procedures in the north and south of Ireland by which companies import and export to countries outside the EU using existing customs clearances and checks?
The answer to the second part of my right hon. Friend’s question is that there are established systems that can also be used.
The issue of Northern Ireland is incredibly important. It is central to the delivery of a deal on Brexit. One of the first things that I asked to be able to do was visit the border. It is sometimes difficult to get down to the border: there is a certain resistance to allowing Ministers out of Whitehall, or, if they do get into Northern Ireland, allowing them out of Belfast. However, I went down to Newry and insisted—although I think that some people were not too keen—on visiting the border and criss-crossing and talking to people about the issues. I think that that is the responsible thing to do, to understand the problems at least broadly, so that we can develop solutions as much as possible.
A significant proportion of the exports of the Northern Ireland food industry, particularly ready meals, goes through the Republic, through Holyhead and then on to the UK home market. What assessment has the Minister made of the effects of Government policy on the border—whatever that is—on the viability of the Northern Ireland food trade, on the supply for the home market, and, critically for me, on the economic prospects of Holyhead?
We are prioritising free flow across the border rather than customs revenue in the case of no deal, but we want as much free flow as possible in either scenario. There is detailed thinking on the ports at a thematic level, and also specific thinking port by port.
As the Minister will know, in a deal or a no-deal Brexit, the use of the transit convention will mean that there will be no need for any infrastructure checks or controls at the Dover border. Could that not be applied to Northern Ireland as well? May I also ask whether the Minister agrees that all that the House really needs to know is what discussions Members of the House who are not members of the Government have been having with the European Union?
I thank my hon. Friend for all his work on the short straits. I understand that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has visited both the Dover and the Calais sites, and I thank my hon. Friend for the support that he has been giving to the Cabinet Office, particularly in looking at no deal. I think that Dover was ahead of the game; other ports can learn from that, and have indeed done so, as has the Department.
As for my hon. Friend’s second question, I do not really want to get into the weeds when it comes to how people took advice on other Bills in the House. I will limit myself to the nature of the question asked by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn).
Does the Minister accept that any new infrastructure or surveillance at or near the border carries serious risks? The Northern Ireland journalist Dearbhail McDonald has said:
“It’s hard to explain to those who have not lived through a conflict that claimed more than 3,500 lives, in a region with a smaller population than most large UK cities, how the border permeated every aspect of our lives.”
Should the Government spend a bit more time talking to those communities?
As I have said, I went to the border. It does not take long to feel the pain, the fear and the uncertainty. That is part of daily life, separate from Brexit in many ways, and I take it incredibly seriously. I discussed it while I was there, and reflected on it throughout the day and subsequently.
May I add, on a more light-hearted note, that the hon. Lady has still not taken me up on the kind offer that I made when responding to my last urgent question? I look forward to having a cup of tea with her.
During my time in the Cabinet Office, some colleagues and I produced a paper based on customs collaboration, which meant using existing ports and airports and enabling EU and UK customs officials to work together in undertaking checks to ensure that there was no border infrastructure. It also involved leveraging existing VAT and cross-border accounting systems, again to ensure that there was no requirement for a border. Can my hon. Friend give us any more details of the current proposals, and tell us whether they run along similar lines?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for all the work that he is doing. There are themes in which I have seen him very much engaged. I am not sure that I have seen the specific paper that he has mentioned, but I would welcome a briefing from him—with officials—so that it can be fed into the Government’s thinking.
Ministers regularly refer to their commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. Even the Prime Minister trots out the words that he is “committed to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement”, but I wonder whether he has any idea of what that actually means. It means the Prime Minister standing up and defending the agreement, not only in his words but in his actions. Will the Minister take the opportunity to rule out the suggestion, contained in a UK Government document, that there will be a string of border posts, not at the border but some miles from it? That would represent a physical infrastructure, which this Government must know is contrary to both the spirit and the letter of the Good Friday agreement. Will the Minister accept and confirm that?
Obviously I recognise the importance of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. As for the specific terminology “a string of border posts” being in a Government document, I have certainly not seen it. I can say to the hon. Lady that I do not think it is in any Government documents, and that I can refute the contents of the RTÉ article. If she wants to pick out bits of the article, or any document that she thinks it refers to, I shall be more than happy to look at them, but that is not Government policy, that is not what we are doing, that is not the intent, and as far as I am aware, the report is incorrect.
Given that 95% of cross-border trade on the island of Ireland is engaged in by trusted traders who want to comply with whatever the new arrangements will be, and given that the Republic of Ireland’s own no-deal planning assumes controls away from the border even at the point of destination, what is the problem?
It is a complex situation, but one to which we think we can find an answer. A category of “trusted traders” is certainly something that any competent Government would be looking into, but I do not want to go into the details of the proposals, for reasons that I have already given.
Let us try again. Can the Minister simply confirm that any new physical checks or infrastructure, whether at the border or away from it, would be illegal under the Good Friday agreement and the withdrawal Act passed by the House last year?
Does my hon. Friend agree that at this stage of the negotiations, it is not unreasonable to be able to share proposals before they are definitive and to be able to probe a response, and does he agree that the best course—before we reach the stage at which a formal submission is made—is for the confidentiality on both sides to be reflected, to provide the maximum space for the progress that is required?
I recognise that as a potential way forward. I think it would limit the Government’s negotiating capacity, and there will clearly be opportunities for the House to interact in that way at some point in the future, but I will reflect on my right hon. Friend’s comments and discuss them with the Secretary of State.
The House is being asked to take it on trust that the Government have credible proposals for alternatives to the backstop, so let me put the Minister to the test in a slightly different way. Is he confident that this border that is not going to be a border will be fully developed and ready for operation, and in compliance with the Good Friday agreement, at one minute past midnight on Friday 1 November 2019?
That is certainly our intention. While on my feet, may I take the opportunity to say that I think I misheard the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) and may have answered the question that I thought he asked rather than the question he actually asked? I apologise. I will look at Hansard and get back to him properly.
Anyone with any business experience knows that complex and sensitive negotiations are not best conducted in public or with the input of those who may want an entirely different outcome to the purpose of those negotiations. Anyone claiming otherwise is in my view motivated by a desire to undermine Brexit rather than a desire for greater detail.
I know it to be true because, before my hon. Friend came to this House, I had to negotiate the cost of my printing requirements at elections, and I know that he is a very canny negotiator who knows all the tricks. I listen to him carefully when he says what happens in business negotiations. I have great respect for his position.
The right hon. Gentleman is right in his first statement. I am entirely trying to reassure the House on behalf of the Government of the first point. I had the pleasure while getting changed this morning of listening to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on Radio 4. I did not have the pleasure of tuning into Radio Ulster, but I will hot foot my way back to the Department and ask for a transcript of what I presume the right hon. Friend is referring to.
Is it not the case that whatever is put forward as the solution to the Irish border will not be sufficient for some in this Chamber; it will not be good enough for those who want to revoke and remain; and it will not be good enough for those who want more dither and delay? May I urge my hon. Friend to press on with his determination and with his clarity and to ensure that, come what may, we leave on 31 October?
Governments are notorious for getting IT projects wrong in terms of both cost and time for implementation. Can the Minister confirm that one of these non-papers states that this mythical off-the-shelf technological solution that could be implemented in the event of a no-deal will be able to be adapted to any future arrangements and will answer the question posed by Michel Barnier about how a virtual solution can check cows?
May I remind everybody that this Government are creating a new customs border because they want to leave the European customs union and they do not want to accept the backstop. Customs checks are primarily there not for loads that are compliant and have the right documentation, but for goods that enter a country illegally. How do the Government intend to deal with non-compliant cargo and stop widespread illegal activity?
That is clearly a very important issue. It is one of the issues that I looked at when I was on the border.
I am not sure that I used exactly the right words in the House. I should have said that the Government will never put in place infrastructure checks or controls at the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Just to be very clear, that is what I meant to say.
First, I have not said what is or is not in the non-papers. As a Minister, I see all the papers I need to see. I am not going to list papers that I have seen, papers that I have read, papers that I have had input into, drafts or versions. I am not going to get into that.
Despite the fact that border checks or infrastructure are not mentioned in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, this Government have committed to avoiding a hard border, which this party agrees with. The Minister will be aware of the surprise and dismay among many in Northern Ireland at this leaked RTÉ proposal. What engagement does the Minister intend to undertake with businesses, which are particularly impacted by this? Will he repeat to them what he has said here today—that this is not Government policy, and nor will it ever be Government policy, because such a proposal would for many constitute a hard border?
I thank the hon. Lady. It is important that, as well as my saying it, Government communications rebut the inaccuracy. I will make sure that that happens rapidly and in the right forums across Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. I thank her for that. I will do that. It is not something I was immediately going to do, having said it in the House, but it is certainly something I should do, and it is a helpful suggestion.
Can we just be clear here? The Minister said earlier that there would be no customs checks at the border, which obviously suggests that they will be done elsewhere, yet he suggests that what RTÉ is reporting is untrue. He has now just had to correct himself. The Prime Minister said that there would be customs checks in Ireland. So who are we to believe in this process? None of those things are compatible and none of them appear to be compatible with section 10(2)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, let alone the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
There has been much talk of a 10-mile buffer zone on the border. Can the Minister outline the stage that discussions are at as they pertain to where the Republic of Ireland intends to carry out its checks and in what form? The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has said clearly that it will not put up any border controls at all, so how ironic is it that, in the event of a no deal, it will be the Republic of Ireland and the Taoiseach that will have to erect and man hard border controls?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his continued support and thoughts on this issue. He and other colleagues feeding into the process have added great value, and I hope that we will continue those discussions as we move through the process, as the Commission are given proposals and the House debates these issues more fully.
I crossed the border several times this weekend, and what was remarkable about the crossing was that it was utterly unremarkable. So it should remain. To me, there are three options available to us. There is a border in the Irish Sea; there is a hard border on the island of Ireland—which of course puts at jeopardy the Good Friday agreement—or we all remain in the customs union. The Minister has said that remaining in the customs union is a greater risk than jeopardising the peace brought about by the Good Friday agreement. Can he explain why?
Unlike the hon. Lady, I do not want to put a border in Northern Ireland or in Scotland. I believe full-heartedly in the Union. It creates a risk in terms of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement because it puts Northern Ireland into a different position if alternative arrangements are not dealt with, and that is unacceptable. The Government believe that that would cause problems in relation to the Good Friday agreement.
The Minister will know that the Good Friday agreement provides for a referendum for the people of Northern and southern Ireland on reunification if they so want. He will also know that 58% of the people in Northern Ireland voted to remain. Given that we have this problem with an open border with open migration, and with a closed border in breach of the Good Friday agreement, would it not be best for the Prime Minister to come forward with his agreement, which I assume will be the backstop within Ireland itself, and put it to the people in a public vote so that we can get Brexit done by finding once and for all whether we want this Brexit mess or not—as opposed to his divided kingdom?
The hon. Gentleman accused me of dividing the kingdom, but he asked specifically in the same sentence for a vote on parting the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom, as one—the Union—has voted, and it voted for Brexit. That is what we are going to deliver.
In order to make a proposed border solution work, there will have to be an element of Northern Ireland Executive control over the implementation of any putative agreement. With no extant Northern Ireland Executive, the only solution for that would be imposition on the people of Northern Ireland through direct rule. One does not seek to address democratic issues on one part of these islands by taking democracy away from another, so will the Minister tell the House what his Government are doing to address this democratic outrage?
I do not want to get into the detail of the actual proposal, but I will say that while there are not cameras across the whole of the border, there are cameras on parts of the border. However, the hon. Gentleman should not infer anything from that; I do not want to get dragged into the detail, but clearly it would have been one of the options that were looked at.
Over the last 15 minutes, the Minister has been at pains to stress the distinction between technical non- papers and final papers which are forthcoming. On the basis of that distinction, may I therefore ask him a simple question: without going into the detail, can he give the House an assurance that any final proposals that relate to the Irish border will not row back in any way from any of the solemn commitments signed up to in December 2017 in the joint report between the UK and the EU?
First, may I thank the hon. Gentleman genuinely for his service on the Front Bench? When I took over this role, my predecessor said how much he respected the full team, and now that he is on the Back Benches, perhaps we can have a fuller and more honest discussion than we might have had when we were both Front Benchers.
The Prime Minister has said that there will be checks, so whether at a border or a non-border, that does create a border. Whether in a non-paper or a paper, the reality is that there will be checks if the leader of our country has said so. However, the European Commission has said that it has not received any proposals from the UK that meet all the objectives of the backstop, as we have been reiterating and demanding. When will the EU see these proposals?
So far, we have had nonsense and non-answers on these non-papers, so can we have a clear answer on this question? Can the Minister rule out direct rule being imposed to implement any of these alternative arrangements on the border?
I thank the Minister for acknowledging that the Belfast agreement is not a one-dimensional document—that it is concerned not solely with north-south relations, but with east-west relations as well. Given the noises that we have heard from Dublin last night and this morning, will he reflect on the comments made by Shane Ross, the Irish Transport Minister, in the summer, who talked of border checks and customs checks in the Irish Republic until he was told that it was politically inconvenient to talk about that, or even those made by the European Commission, which at the start of September recognised, and spelt out very clearly, that it would require customs checks on the Irish side?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question because it gives me the opportunity to note how much work has already been done. That which was unacceptable and unresolvable, we are now discussing actively and moving forward on. We are at a snapshot between now and next Friday, with those proposals being delivered to the Commission. So we really are moving forward.
It was always going to be the case that some of the negotiations happened nearer the end of the time limit, but progress has been made consistently, from what was quite an entrenched position, which was particularly disappointing given the sensitivities around Ireland and Northern Ireland and the border and the Good Friday agreement. It would have been nice to have done this in a slightly more deliberative way, and earlier; but we are trying to set up the negotiations in such a way that we will get the best possible result for the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, and that is getting a deal.