(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the UK’s commitment to its legal obligations under the Northern Ireland protocol.
We are fully committed to implementing the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol, and have already taken many practical steps to do so. The protocol was designed to maintain the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the gains of the peace process, and to protect the interests of all people in Northern Ireland, and that is what this Government will do and will continue to deliver on. Throughout the last year, as we have taken steps to comply with our obligations under the protocol, we have always sought to honour both our international obligations and our commitments to the people of Northern Ireland.
The protocol itself states that it should
“impact as little as possible on the everyday life of communities”
and it explicitly depends on the consent of the people of Northern Ireland for its continued existence. As we continue to implement the protocol, this overriding need must be kept in mind. The Government have consistently said that people and businesses in Northern Ireland will have unfettered access to the whole of the UK market. Our manifesto made a very clear commitment to that. The approach that we will take in this legislation builds on that commitment and on the specific commitment that we made in the “New Decade, New Approach” agreement, to legislate for unfettered access by the end of the year. This has been one of the most consistent asks from Northern Ireland businesses since the protocol was agreed, and we are now moving to provide certainty.
Our approach guarantees that we will be able to deliver the objectives that we set out for implementing the protocol in a way that protects the interests of the people and the economy of Northern Ireland. We are working hard to resolve any outstanding issues through the Joint Committee and will continue to approach those discussions in good faith, but we are taking limited and reasonable steps to create a safety net that ensures that the Government are always able to deliver on their commitments to the people of Northern Ireland and in line with the protocol.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.
This week starts a crucial period in our trade negotiations with the EU. Labour wants the Government to succeed—to secure a deal in the national interest and to protect the Good Friday agreement—so it is very welcome to hear the Secretary of State’s confirmation of their commitment to the protocol. But it has been deeply concerning ahead of these talks that the Prime Minister has appeared to undermine our legal obligations and his own deal. The resignation of the Government’s chief legal adviser this morning suggests that concern over the Government’s approach runs to the very top. It risks jeopardising the progress of the negotiation and the chance of securing a much-needed deal.
The protocol was not foisted on the Prime Minister by Brussels, by a previous Government or by Parliament. The Prime Minister personally renegotiated it, campaigned on it, legislated for it and ratified it in an international treaty. With these latest moves, some fear that the Prime Minister is once again using Northern Ireland as a political football to suit his wider political means. We cannot forget that at the heart of this are the people and businesses of Northern Ireland who risk paying the price. For them, this is not the latest episode in a Brexit drama but a profoundly worrying moment that will shape their livelihoods, their businesses and their future. It reopens the uncertainty that they hoped had been settled, takes us backwards in negotiations and undermines trust with the European Commission.
Ultimately, this is about trust. How can the people of Northern Ireland trust this Government with the careful progress made over the past two decades when they tell them that the protocol is necessary to protect it and then suggest that the protocol undermines it? How can the British people trust a Government who swore that they had an oven-ready deal only 10 months ago and now tell them that the deal was ambiguous and contradictory? How can our partners and allies around the world trust us to enter trade negotiations on multilateral arrangements?
Will the Secretary of State confirm whether the Treasury Solicitor resigned today in response to the Government’s plans to bring forward legislation that will undermine our legal obligations? Will he confirm whether a ministerial direction has been given on the internal market Bill? Will he further outline what legal advice he has seen and whether the ministerial code will be breached if MPs are asked next week to vote on provisions that will undermine those legal obligations?
There was no need for it to come to this. The elements of the protocol left to negotiate are not insignificant, but neither are they insurmountable. With trust, progress could easily have been secured. At the start of a new chapter for our United Kingdom, we cannot afford to be seen as a country that cannot be trusted. As Margaret Thatcher said,
“Britain does not renounce treaties. Indeed, to do so would damage our integrity as well as international relations.
In those interests and in the national interest, I urge the Government to stop the posturing, rediscover their responsibility and secure the deal that was promised to the people of this country.
The hon. Lady should wait until she sees the legislation tomorrow, because I hope she will then see that we are delivering on the very promises to which she just referred. She commented on the Prime Minister’s campaigning and our manifesto pledges, which I referred to in my opening remarks. The Bill, as she will see, will absolutely deliver on them.
The UK internal market legislation that we will bring forward this week delivers on our commitment to legislate for unfettered access, which Northern Ireland businesses have consistently asked us to do to ensure that we deliver certainty. The legislation will give the certainty that the people, businesses and economy of Northern Ireland have been asking for, and supports the delivery of the protocol in all circumstances, in line with the approach we set out in our Command Paper in May.
The safety net that we will implement, which we will outline this week, will deliver on the commitments made in the general election manifesto. Specifically, we will implement the provision in the protocol that Northern Ireland is fully part of the UK customs territory by ensuring that goods moving within the UK will never even inadvertently have to pay EU tariffs. We will ensure that businesses based in Northern Ireland have true unfettered access to the rest of the United Kingdom without paperwork, and we will ensure that there is no confusion about the fact that, while Northern Ireland will remain subject to the EU state aid regime for the duration of the protocol, Great Britain will not be subject to EU rules in that area.
Those steps are rightly part of the UK internal market Bill, the overriding aim of which is to ensure that the UK’s own internal market operates effectively, and I hope all Members will support that endeavour. The House will of course have an opportunity to debate these matters when it sees the details in full when considering the Bill. Further, the Bill will strengthen Northern Ireland’s place in the UK customs territory and ensure that the UK does take back control of its laws in an organised way after 31 December—exactly as we promised in the manifesto that won a resounding victory and mandate from the people of this country at last year’s election.
I cannot comment on the details of the Treasury Solicitor’s resignation because I have not seen his resignation letter, but we wish him well. We will continue to work at pace with the EU in the Joint Committee, and I stress to the hon. Lady that she should not presume what the outcome of the Joint Committee will be. We continue to work with the EU on that to ensure that we can reach a fair and positive outcome for Northern Ireland. That has always been and continues to be our priority.
The United Kingdom Government signed the withdrawal agreement with the Northern Ireland protocol. This Parliament voted that withdrawal agreement into UK legislation. The Government are now changing the operation of that agreement. Given that, how can the Government reassure future international partners that the UK can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations in the agreements it signs?
We have worked with the EU in a spirit of good faith, and both sides continue to work in that spirit to implement the arrangements that uphold the fundamental principles that lie behind the protocol. Of course, our first priority continues to be to secure agreement on the protocol on the Joint Committee and on the wider free trade agreement, but the withdrawal agreement and protocol are not like any other treaty. They were written on the assumption that subsequent agreements could be reached between us and the EU on the detail—that is the entire purpose of the specialised Joint Committee—and we continue to believe that that is possible, but as a responsible Government we cannot allow our businesses not to have certainty for January. The reality is that the UK internal market Bill and the Finance Bill are the last legislative opportunities we have to give the people and businesses of Northern Ireland the confidence and certainty that we will deliver what we agreed in the protocol, what we outlined in our manifesto and what we set out in the Command Paper.
The Prime Minister referred to Northern Ireland and said, “This is a good deal”, when he struck it last year. Now he seems to disagree with himself. There are U-turns everywhere, but this is something else. No wonder it is reported today that the head of the UK Government Legal Department has just quit because of the rowing back in respect of the withdrawal agreement and Northern Ireland. The internal market Bill is taking a wrecking ball to devolution. The Government are hellbent on a poor deal or no-deal Brexit—and hang the implications—but using the Bill to renege on parts of the withdrawal agreement is extraordinary and dangerous.
Can the Minister explain what discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues about the impact of these plans on Northern Irish businesses and the Good Friday agreement? What advance discussions did he have with the Northern Irish Executive? I suspect the answer is: precious few. We have all seen the Government’s wilful disregard for devolution and their own international reputation. Who will want to do business with a Government who cannot stick to an agreement with themselves, never mind anyone else, and who make it up as they go along, as we heard just now and as people in Scotland are only too aware?
The hon. Lady and I have a distinct difference of opinion, because whereas the SNP want to hand powers straight back to Brussels, we, the UK Government and the Conservative party, have been clear that we want to take back those powers for the residents and citizens of the United Kingdom, and indeed we will be devolving power to the devolved authorities, as we have outlined in our discussions with those authorities, including the First Minister of Scotland just this week. This is about taking back power from the EU, as people voted for, and giving it back to the people of the UK, including the Scottish Parliament. I am just sorry that the SNP does not share the desire to see democracy exercised here in the UK.
I wonder if my right hon. Friend recalls that in clause 38—the sovereignty clause—of the Act that gave effect to the withdrawal agreement the Government reserved to themselves the right to make clarifications. Given that, and given that when the protocol was signed, the Government recognised that state aid rules would apply to Northern Ireland, their extension to the rest of the Great Britain is an interpretation by the EU, and the Government are quite within their rights to dispute that interpretation and use clause 38 to explain that they do not agree with that and will not implement such an agreement.
My right hon. Friend has spoken about these issues over the last year or so and has been clear about his position, and he is absolutely right. The UK internal market Bill will make clear what will apply in January if we cannot reach a satisfactory and mutually suitable conclusions through the specialised Joint Committee and the wider free trade agreement. It is reasonable and sensible for the Government to give that certainty and clarity to businesses and people in Northern Ireland, which in itself will ensure that we abide by and deliver on the Good Friday agreement by ensuring that there will be no borders between east and west and north and south. He is also absolutely right that Great Britain will not be subject to EU rules in a state aid area while recognising the unique position of Northern Ireland.
I am afraid the Secretary of State’s protestations of innocence will not wash, because over the past two days—the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) addressed this question—the Government have given the impression that they may not be trusted to honour obligations they have freely entered into.
I wonder whether the Secretary of State can answer a very specific question relating to the Northern Ireland protocol, which he had some trouble answering in the summer when he appeared before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. Will goods moving from GB to Northern Ireland be required to complete export declarations, import declarations or entry summary declarations—yes or no?
As I assume the right hon. Gentleman knows, that forms part of the discussions that are going on in the specialist committee, between us and the EU, to deal with these issues. Our view is that the regime should be very flexible, as Michel Barnier has outlined, in terms of respecting the unique position of Northern Ireland, because those goods going from GB to Northern Ireland are, by definition, very low risk, and we must ensure that we do not end up in a situation where it is presumed that 100% of the goods going from GB to Northern Ireland are what the EU would refer to as “at-risk goods.” That would be inappropriate for Northern Ireland businesses, would drive up prices in Northern Ireland and would restrict supply to Northern Ireland. That does not fit with the protocol’s outline of Northern Ireland remaining an integral part of the UK customs territory and single market.
At the moment, for Northern Ireland, there appears to be no certainty for businesses, and no certainty for the long-term future of the Good Friday agreement, as clearly any transporting of goods between north and south will now need to be checked somewhere and somehow. Also, in echoing the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), there appears to be no certainty for the continuity of our country as a country that keeps its word and abides by the rule of law and international obligations. What certainty can my right hon. Friend give me that the Government understand the seriousness of these issues?
We, as a country, stand for international law and the order of the international system, and we always will. I think countries around the world are aware of that. They are equally aware that we are in these negotiations with the EU. Our focus is on concluding those in a satisfactory and suitable way in order to get a good outcome with a free trade deal, and good outcomes from the specialist committee that work for Northern Ireland. We must remember that delivering on the Good Friday agreement is not just about north-south; it is also about east-west and ensuring that there are no borders, north-south or east-west. That is why we have made the commitment on unfettered access, and that is what we will deliver through the UK internal market Bill.
There are those in this House who say that the protocol is the problem here, when in fact the protocol is a symptom of the problem, which is four years of terrible political decision making. It is now the law and the Government are obliged to implement it in full. A Member of the House told the BBC yesterday that his party had been engaged with the Government since January to achieve the change. Given that the Government are legally bound to rigorous impartiality, and given that they have cited the peace process among their motivations, I hope that they will indicate what engagement there has been with all the parties, and whether they value better the guidance of their top legal adviser or the DUP. May I caution the Secretary of State, please, not to use the threat of a border on the island of Ireland or the hard-won impartiality of the Good Friday agreement as a cat’s paw in this or any other negotiations?
In large part, I agree with what the hon. Lady just outlined. We had a letter from her party and others yesterday, outlining the issues around the Good Friday agreement. The point is that this is also about ensuring that we continue to deliver on all the gains of the peace process in Northern Ireland, and ensuring that we are able to give Northern Ireland businesses the certainty that, no matter what happens over the next couple of months, at the very least in January they can be assured of having the unfettered access that we have promised. That is what we will set out in the UK internal market Bill, to ensure that Northern Ireland remains an integral part of both the customs union and the single market union of the United Kingdom.
We shall continue to have conversations with Northern Ireland businesses and parties, as we did around the Command Paper earlier this year, as the hon. Lady knows from the conversation that I had with the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.
My party has voted against this withdrawal agreement. We have warned Ministers about not just the impact that the withdrawal agreement has on Northern Ireland but the foot in the door for the EU for the rest of the United Kingdom. I am pleased that we now have a Bill that—at least, according to reports—appears to deal with some of those issues. But I am disappointed to hear from the Secretary State today that we still do not know the depth and width of checks for goods coming into Northern Ireland and that we will still be left with state aid rules applying in Northern Ireland, which will stop us defending ourselves against predatory behaviour from the Irish Republic and other European countries. I want to emphasise to him that we will judge this Bill on whether it delivers on the issues that he and his Government have promised to address, in trying to undo the damage that the withdrawal agreement has caused. But ultimately, this agreement, which damages the whole of the United Kingdom—this Union splitting, economy destroying and border creating agreement—has to be changed and replaced. It can be replaced and should be replaced.
The right hon. Gentleman has had a strong, consistent view on these issues from the very beginning. I think that there is a huge opportunity for the whole United Kingdom and businesses in Northern Ireland as we leave the European Union. I think there are big opportunities for growth in the Northern Ireland economy, including in areas such as cyber. I believe that the EU will continue to act in good faith, as we are acting in good faith, in these trade negotiations and the specialist Joint Committee to get a good, mutually beneficial outcome for the EU and the United Kingdom. We are very focused on that. That is our priority and our desired outcome. If that does not succeed, we want to ensure, through the internal market Bill, that Northern Ireland businesses have confidence and clarity about what the situation will be in January. That is a reasonable, sensible step for the Government to take, and it will deliver unfettered access.
This Government were elected on a manifesto which guaranteed that Northern Ireland would truly remain in the UK customs territory and committed that EU law would not get in the way of other elements of essential Government business. Does my right hon. Friend agree that these changes are simply delivering on that landslide winning, red wall smashing manifesto commitment?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We outlined very clearly—I do not think anybody can be under any misapprehension about it—our position at the general election: that we would deliver unfettered access, that we would deliver for the people of Northern Ireland and that we would continue to deliver on the Good Friday agreement. That is exactly what we are still focused on doing. We are doing that through the negotiations, but we also want to ensure that we are taking reasonable steps to be prepared for January should we need to be. We will do that in the UK internal market Bill, delivering on that manifesto pledge.
Any unilateral change to the very necessary protocol risks undermining the Good Friday agreement, risks a hard border returning to the island of Ireland and places Northern Ireland businesses in a very uncertain legal position. Do the Government recognise that, in the event that they make unilateral changes to and, in particular, undermine the agreement, they will reduce the prospects of a future relationship with the European Union? In particular, there will be zero chance of negotiating a trade deal with the United States under a Biden Administration and with a Democrat-controlled Congress.
On the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, quite the opposite—we are focused on coming to an agreement through the trade negotiations and the specialist Joint Committee, to ensure that we are able to deal with the detailed issues that were always, as set out in the protocol, to be worked out by the Joint Committee. That is exactly what the Committee is there to do. All we will be doing in the UK internal market Bill is giving clarity to the businesses and people of Northern Ireland about what happens on 1 January if that does not come to a satisfactory conclusion. I say to him gently that that is the best way to give certainty to the people of Northern Ireland.
Given the sovereignty clause, the need for certainty and clarity for businesses and the timeframe involved, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely right for the Government to use domestic legislation—the UK internal market Bill—to ensure that Northern Ireland truly remains part of the UK customs territory after the end of the transition period?
Yes. My hon. Friend makes a hugely important point. We should be clear that the UK internal market Bill and the Finance Bill are the last two legislative opportunities for us to put into law what we will need to do if the Joint Committee and the negotiations do not come to a satisfactory conclusion. It is nothing more than that. It means that we have a sensible and reasonable position and can say to people in Northern Ireland, “If that is what happens, this is what the situation will be in January.” It gives confidence and certainty to businesses and people in Northern Ireland that we will deliver for them.
What authority do we have to criticise China for not keeping her side of the bargain under the joint declaration on Hong Kong if we are seen to approach our own treaty obligations to the European Union in this way?
As I said earlier, specific issues in the protocol were always designed to be worked out through the Joint Committee. It is right that the Government are taking reasonable, sensible and limited actions to make sure we have that certainty for people in January should the Joint Committee and the withdrawal agreement negotiations for the free trade agreement not come to a satisfactory conclusion.
The EU signed a withdrawal agreement and political declaration with two things at its core: it would respect the restoration of UK sovereignty, and it would work for a free trade, tariff-free agreement. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that if the EU kept its word on those two colossally important points, the problems it has created in Northern Ireland would disappear?
This is exactly why it is important that we are clear about our intentions to ensure that we are delivering for the people of Northern Ireland. As I say, I am sure that the EU negotiating team will continue to be negotiating in good faith. Michel Barnier has said that peace in Ireland is due
“thanks to the open border”,
and that this process
“should not and must not lead to the return of a hard border, neither on maps nor in minds.”
He is absolutely right on that and we are determined to ensure we deliver on it. I am sure that the negotiations will be able to get us to that point, but it is right that we are able to say to the people of Northern Ireland that should those not succeed, we will legislate in UK law to ensure that.
I did not hear an answer to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), so I will ask it again: can the Secretary of State explain whether a failure to uphold international legal commitments would breach the ministerial code?
I think I did outline earlier that, as a Minister, my focus is on ensuring that we are delivering for the people of the United Kingdom and, within that, the people of Northern Ireland. As Northern Ireland Secretary, my focus is on ensuring that we are delivering for the people of Northern Ireland, as we said we would both in the Command Paper and in our manifesto.
For the avoidance of any doubt, is it the case that if the EU negotiators, including those on the Joint Committee, are prepared to move forward to implement the existing agreement in a workable way, these provisions will not be necessary?
My right hon. Friend, as often, is absolutely right; these provisions will be in the Bill to take effect if other things do not come through. I think that with both parties acting in good faith we will get to a position where these provisions become, in effect, irrelevant, exactly as he has outlined.
Does the Secretary of State recognise that, as others have reminded him, there would be terrible future consequences for Britain if the Government fail to abide by an international treaty they have signed? Does he recognise that—yes or no?
As I said earlier, I absolutely recognise the importance of following international laws and the rule of law. We have a unique situation with this treaty. Listening to what some Members have been saying from a sedentary position, it seems that there is a fundamental misunderstanding here; there are items and issues in the protocol that were always designed to be worked through in the Joint Committee, because they were not able to be agreed and worked through at the time of the protocol. What we will be outlining in the UK internal market Bill is what the UK Government’s position will be if that does not succeed, in order to ensure that we are delivering for the people of Northern Ireland as part of the internal and integral market of the United Kingdom.
This Government have been clear that they will work flat out during September to agree our future relationship with the EU. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is no reason why these clarifications as to how the protocol is implemented should undermine our negotiations in any way whatsoever?
My hon. Friend is right on that. Those negotiations are ongoing—they are ongoing today, in fact. As I say, I am confident that our negotiating teams and the EU negotiating teams are all focused on getting a good outcome for both our friends and partners in the EU and us in the UK, and that they will come to a solid and good conclusion. We are simply taking reasonable, limited steps to outline what the position will be if that does not succeed, but I am with him in being confident that it will.
What assessment has the Secretary of State made of how the failure to implement the protocol in full will impact on the flow of Northern Irish goods exported to Great Britain necessarily through the Republic of Ireland and then through the port of Holyhead?
The purpose of the clauses we will be putting into the UK internal market Bill is to ensure that we continue to have good, free-flowing trade across the whole of the United Kingdom, including for Northern Ireland—I have mentioned the issue of unfettered access before. I hope that when the hon. Gentleman sees the clauses in the Bill that we will publish and introduce tomorrow he will see that that is a positive and sensible step.
What reassurance can my right hon. Friend give that the UK internal market Bill will provide the certainty needed in Northern Ireland to ensure that it remains within the UK customs territory, and that there is no reason whatsoever that the negotiations should be detracted from or undermined by such an Act?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The clauses we will put into the Bill are very clear about ensuring Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom customs territory and single market. The EU has recognised that that is important, and it is a key thing that we will be delivering. There is respect for that point. Acting in good faith by both parties will, I am sure, bring us to a good and sensible conclusion to the negotiations.
We know that people in No. 10 like to move fast and break things, but I do not think we knew that that extended to the Northern Ireland protocol, with the consequences that will have for the Good Friday agreement and the devolution settlement as a whole. Does the Secretary of State accept that these are not just bits of paper, but that they affect people’s lives and livelihoods? Who, once all this is broken, is going to pick up the pieces?
I suggest the hon. Gentleman waits until he has seen the detail of the text tomorrow so that he can support us, as this is about delivering on ensuring that people in Northern Ireland stay part of the United Kingdom, regardless of whether he wishes to or not.
Article 6 of the Act of Union provides, in essence, that no duties will be applied to goods passing between Great Britain and Ireland. Does my right hon. Friend agree that these are constitutional rights still enjoyed by the people of Northern Ireland, and that unless the protocol is clarified and adjusted, those rights may possibly be infringed?
My right hon. Friend makes an interesting point. He is right in the sense that Northern Ireland is and has been an integral part of the United Kingdom for almost 100 years—as we know, next year, we celebrate the centenary of Northern Ireland. It is an integral part of the United Kingdom. The negotiations have recognised that Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom customs territory and single market. The clauses we will put in the UK internal market Bill to be published tomorrow will confirm that, regardless of the outcome of those negotiations.
A little over two months ago, the Government in their Command Paper defined the Northern Ireland protocol as existing
“to ensure that the progress that the people of Northern Ireland have made in the 22 years since the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement is secured into the future.”
It went on to say:
“Whilst the Protocol is in force, both the UK and EU must respect and abide by the legal obligations it contains, as well as our other international law obligations.”
Does the Secretary of State stand by that commitment, and if not, why not?
Yes, and I suggest to the hon. Lady that paragraph 19 states:
“The Protocol is clear that nothing in it prevents Northern Ireland business enjoying unfettered access to the rest of the UK internal market. We will ensure this. As set out in New Decade, New Approach, we will legislate to guarantee unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the UK internal market”.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is no indication that the UK is at this stage seeking to leave the withdrawal agreement, and that it is right and legitimate that adjustments are made so that UK courts have jurisdiction in the UK and the Northern Irish economy is protected from otherwise punitive tariffs?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I said in my opening remarks, we are still determined to deliver on the withdrawal agreement and the protocol. We hope the negotiations come to a suitable and sensible conclusion. This is purely a set of clauses that we are putting in place so that, should that not happen, we are clear about what the position will be in January and so that there are legal structures in place to be able to deliver on those issues, including unfettered access.
On 20 May, the Government outlined their four key principles for supporting Northern Ireland through this process. They said that we would have unfettered access for businesses across the Irish sea, that there would be no tariffs on internal UK trade, that there would be no new customs infrastructure, and that Northern Ireland would benefit equally from the trade deals that are currently under negotiation. I hope the Secretary of State will agree that any customs arrangement that affects trade, or impacts in any way on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom in either direction, is unacceptable and must be stopped. Do this Government have the mettle, or do they have a tin foil spine when it comes to standing up to our detractors in Brussels and our debtors in the Republic of Ireland? Give the people and the businesses of Northern Ireland the certainty that they deserve and let us have certainty in those four key principles.
Our determination and desire is to be able to deliver that certainty through the free trade agreement negotiations and the Joint Committee work. What we will be outlining tomorrow in the Bill is how, if that does not succeed, we will be giving that certainty to Northern Ireland businesses about what the framework and the legal structures will be from January to ensure that we do deliver on unfettered access. Let me just say that we are continuing to deliver on the protocol. With the issues around live animals, with the agrifoods work that we have done, with the EU settled status scheme and with other such issues, we are delivering on what we have agreed. We will continue to do that, and we will do so in good faith.
The much hyped Financial Times story has caused understandable concern right across the island of Ireland and more widely, so can my right hon. Friend reassure the House that the measures being introduced tomorrow are solely a safety net to the work of the Joint Committee, do not in any way prevent the Government from complying with the Northern Ireland protocol in full, and do not compromise the Good Friday agreement?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are doing this in order to ensure that we can always deliver the wider objective of the protocol, which is to protect peace in Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Belfast agreement, and to do so as part of the protocol, outlining, as we did in the Command Paper, how we would deal with those issues that are still outstanding—if they are outstanding—at the end of December.
The truth is that, whatever reassurances the Secretary of State gives today, the people in Northern Ireland simply cannot trust a word that comes out of this Tory Government’s mouth. At every single turn, they have used us as a bargaining chip, as a useful tactic and as part of a cynical game. Rather than taking his steer from cosy chats with the Democratic Unionist party, will he once and for all accept that people in Northern Ireland—the majority voice in Northern Ireland—will accept nothing less than the full implementation of the protocol?
If the hon. Gentleman looks at what we have been doing on the protocol, such as the dedicated mechanism, the settled status scheme and the live animals and agrifoods work that we have done on sanitary and phytosanitary checks, he will see that we are delivering on the protocol and delivering on what we said we would do, as we did with the rules and regulations that we passed this year, not least on victims’ pensions. We have a good track record of delivering and doing exactly what we say we want to do. One thing that we said we would do, that we outlined we would do, and that we have a manifesto pledge and a mandate to do was to deliver unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses, and we will do that.
The Secretary of State has said that he and the Government are committed to the rule of law. Does he recognise that adherence to the rule of law is not negotiable? Against that background, will he assure us that nothing that is proposed in this legislation does, or potentially might, breach international legal obligations or international legal arrangements that we have entered into? Will he specifically answer the other point: was any ministerial direction given?
I would say to my hon. Friend that yes, this does break international law in a very specific and limited way. We are taking the power to disapply the EU law concept of direct effect, required by article 4, in certain very tightly defined circumstances. There are clear precedents of this for the UK and, indeed, other countries needing to consider their international obligations as circumstances change. I say to hon. Members here, many of whom would have been in this House when we passed the Finance Act 2013, that that Act contains an example of treaty override. It contains provisions that expressly disapply international tax treaties to the extent that these conflict with the general anti-abuse rule. I say to my hon. Friend that we are determined to ensure that we are delivering on the agreement that we have in the protocol, and our leading priority is to do that through the negotiations and through the Joint Committee work. The clauses that will be in the Bill tomorrow are specifically there should that fail, ensuring that we can deliver on our commitment to the people of Northern Ireland.
I am astounded that the Secretary of State has just conceded that he is proposing to break international law. Perhaps for the first time I agree with the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May). It is a question of trust when it comes to signing international treaties. We cannot condemn others for seemingly breaking the international rules-based order if we are prepared to do the same. It is incredibly damaging to our reputation if we are seeking to acquire trade treaties and the UK internal market Bill tomorrow seeks to disapply section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. That would be a clear breach of our international obligations, and for that reason should he not rule it out?
As I have said several times today, obviously our focus is on ensuring that none of these clauses is required because we are able to secure a free trade agreement through the negotiations, which are ongoing this very day in London, as well as through the work of the Joint Committee. These clauses will simply put in place reasonable and limited structures to ensure that, should those negotiations not come to a satisfactory conclusion, in January we are able to show that we are delivering unfettered access for the people of Northern Ireland and ensuring that Northern Ireland remains an integral part of the UK customs territory and single market.
The Prime Minister was clear yesterday that an agreement with our European friends must be made by 15 October if it is to be enforced by the end of the year. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that under no circumstances will we agree to any demands that would force us to give up our rights as an independent state?
Absolutely. That was very clear in the votes in 2016 and the past two general elections, arguably in 2017, as well as the overwhelming mandate in 2019, bearing in mind that people, even Labour voters, were at the time voting for a party that said it would deliver on leaving the EU. I appreciate that Labour has changed its position somewhat over the past year or so. There has been a regular, clear mandate from the people of the United Kingdom that we should get on and deliver on what they asked for: to leave the European Union, to bring back sovereignty to the UK Parliament, and, where we can—as we will be doing through the UK internal market Bill—to devolve more powers to the devolved authorities as part of the United Kingdom.
Adam Tomkins MSP described the proposed changes to the Northern Ireland protocol as being
“in breach of our international treaty obligations”.
Can the Secretary of State confirm that he agrees with his Tory colleague’s analysis, and does he accept that the UK internal market Bill demonstrates a complete failure of the negotiating strategy that gives Scotland a raw deal that it did not vote for?
I appreciate that the nationalist party in Scotland wishes to put a border between Scotland and England. The reality is that what we are looking to do is to take powers back from Brussels. We feel that people in Scotland can exercise them better than people in Brussels. That is what we will do through the UK internal market Bill.
Is not the right way forward to reach a free trade agreement of the kind that the EU proposed to us back in the spring of 2018 and of the kind that the Government want to reach, combine it with the border arrangements set out in Prosperity UK’s excellent report—arrangements of the kind that the DUP supported—and use that to supplant the protocol? Is not the key to doing that a spirit of good will that accepts that the whole UK is leaving and has left the European Union?
My hon. Friend, as ever, makes a really powerful point. The best way forward—this is what we are all focused on, and I am sure our partners and friends in the EU are, in good faith, as well—is to get the agreement on a free trade deal that delivers on all those issues in the right and appropriate way. I say to Members across the House that it would be wholly wrong for the UK Government not to take this approach to ensure that, should that fail, there is a safety net to ensure that in January businesses and people in Northern Ireland know that they have the confidence of a structure in place that delivers on our promises. He is absolutely right. Our focus remains on getting that positive agreement.
Hon. Members across the House have talked about the importance of trust and how this will damage the trust of our European Union partners in the trade negotiations that we are currently undertaking. The timing is strange, as we head towards the crunch point for those negotiations. Was it an intentional effect or an unintended consequence that we have put this torpedo into the confidence of the European Union just as we are heading towards that point, making it much more likely that we have destroyed its trust in us and that the no-deal scenario that so many Conservative Members want to achieve is actually achieved?
The hon. Gentleman may wish to look back in Hansard at what my hon. Friends and other hon. Members have said this afternoon and previously. Our desire, as I have outlined, is to get a free trade agreement, as the previous question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) specifically outlined. We are still working on that, but I have confidence that the negotiators of the UK and EU will be able to do that in the full knowledge that what we will outline in the UK internal market Bill tomorrow is a safety net should they not succeed. It is good practice for the Government to be ready for all scenarios. It would be inappropriate for us not to prepare the UK for all scenarios should those negotiations fail, but they are where our focus is and they are the way we want to go forward. I am confident that they will do so positively.
As a responsible Government, the internal market Bill is simply a necessary and precautionary step to ensure that good government is maintained in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Does the Secretary of State agree that the best way to avoid the need to implement those measures is for the EU to finally get a grip and negotiate a free trade agreement that will benefit all the people of the island of Ireland?
My hon. Friend makes a good point in that the best way forward is for us to agree that free trade agreement. I am confident that that is the EU’s overriding position and focus, and that that is why it is at the negotiations. I hope that we will be able to come to a positive conclusion that will be good for people across the United Kingdom and Europe—and, from my point of view as the Secretary of State, for the people of Northern Ireland.
The Conservative party manifesto described the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol as “a great new deal” that was “signed, sealed and ready.” It explicitly stated, “No more renegotiations.” It also promised to take our
“whole country out of the EU as one United Kingdom.”
Given that none of those things has proven to be true, and given that the Secretary of State has just conceded that the Government are proposing arrangements that would break international treaties, why should anyone at home or abroad trust a single word the Government say?
Apart from the fact that countries around the world will look at our wider position, as I said earlier, on international law and the rule of law, for which we are a beacon around the world, if the hon. Gentleman looks back at his question, he will see that it reinforces the reason we are taking this position, which is to ensure that we deliver on the points that we included in our manifesto, where we specifically outlined the issues that are in the Command Paper published in May this year, which businesses are supportive of—businesses asked for that certainty—and said:
“We will ensure that Northern Ireland’s businesses and producers enjoy unfettered access to the rest of the UK and that in the implementation of our Brexit deal, we maintain and strengthen the integrity and smooth operation of our internal market.”
That is exactly what we will be doing in the UK internal market Bill when we publish it tomorrow.
Does my right hon. Friend concur that this complex issue is ultimately about the good people of Northern Ireland and that any future protocols will be agreed with their best interests at heart?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That has to be at the core of what we do and at the heart of that is why the concept of consent is important. It is right that we remember that for the people of Northern Ireland.
Signing an international treaty is not a game; it is a commitment. Catherine Barnard is professor of European law at the University of Cambridge, and she warns that we agreed to a dispute resolution mechanism that could lead to heavy fines or further sanctions. What legal advice have the Government taken? If Ministers choose to ignore that advice, can the Minister spell out the consequences for those Ministers?
As I said in response to an earlier question, our focus is on ensuring that we are delivering on the protocol or delivering on securing a free trade agreement and the discussions in the Joint Committee. That is our priority and that will ensure that we go forward in a sensible and agreed manner with our partners and friends in the European Union. The hon. Gentleman should wait and see the clauses tomorrow, which will deliver, as I have outlined, on the promises that we have made to ensure that the people and businesses of Northern Ireland have the certainty that they need should that not succeed. I am confident that it will, but should it not, it is sensible and reasonable for the Government to have that safety net in place so that people have confidence in what the situation will be in January.
My constituents and I are clear that we want our obligations to Northern Ireland to be upheld and for there to be no delays or extensions. If a deal cannot be reached with Brussels by the middle of October to ensure that we are a truly independent country, we have no choice but to walk away from the table. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that under no circumstances will the country agree to any demand that does not give us sovereignty over our laws, land, sea and borders?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. When people voted to leave the European Union in 2016, they were giving us a very clear message that they wanted us to return powers and decision making to the UK Government, and that is what we are doing. We are also moving those processes closer to people directly in their everyday lives by then devolving powers, as we will outline through the process of the UK internal market Bill.
“Whatever form it takes, Brexit cannot be allowed to imperil the Good Friday Agreement, including the seamless border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland”.
That is a clear statement of intent from your counterpart in Capitol Hill, the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Given that they make it clear that the Secretary of State’s Government can rip up international agreements to suit their own version of Brexit or they can have a US-UK trade deal, but not both, what will it be?
I am not sure that I quite follow the logic of the hon. Gentleman’s question, bearing in mind that his party is arguing for a border between Scotland and England; it seems more than ironic. Our top priority will always be to preserve the huge gains from the peace process and the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We will not do anything or take any risk that may harm that. In fact, as we will be outlining in the Bill tomorrow, we are seeking to take actions through which, should the trade negotiations not come to a satisfactory and positive conclusion, we can ensure that we are delivering on the Good Friday agreement and keeping not just peace in Northern Ireland but prosperity and economic growth for the people of Northern Ireland as part of the internal structure of the United Kingdom.
It seems to me that these measures for contingency planning give clarity and make sense in the case that we do not get an agreement. It would make sense for officials north and south of the border to have something they can put their hands around in case it does not work out as we hope it might.
My hon. Friend succinctly makes an excellent point: this is about having a safety net and contingency planning. These measures will not prevent the Government from complying with our commitments. They will provide Ministers with the powers needed for the UK Government to comply with the Joint Committee’s agreed decisions. As he outlined, they will provide a safety net, so we avoid activating any harmful defaults, even inadvertently, that could jeopardise the peace process or create confusion, by giving certainty about the fact that we will deliver as we said we would on unfettered access and issues that protect Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.
With the UK at the foothills of a new era and a raft of trade negotiations ahead of us that will affect the lives of people in Putney and across the country, what message does the Secretary of State think it gives about our word that the UK is prepared to break international law at times, to override treaties and rewrite commitments that we signed up to only months ago?
I am sure that the hon. Lady will appreciate that, as I said earlier, there are some precedents in very specific, technical circumstances. Countries around the world, including some of those that we will be looking to and are working to secure trade deals with, vary their position on international laws, as I have outlined that we will be doing in this situation. As our trade negotiations start and are ongoing, countries around the world will be looking at the UK as a country that is outward-looking and global, that believes in free trade and that wants to deliver that for the benefit of economies around the world and for the United Kingdom. I want to make sure that Northern Ireland benefits from that. The clauses that we put in the Bill tomorrow will ensure that, regardless of anything else, Northern Ireland will benefit from those kinds of trade deals.
I thank the Secretary of State for his earlier answers to my colleagues, which have given me and my constituents in Newcastle-under-Lyme reassurance that, although we all want a deal, we will not compromise in the negotiations on the things that make our state independent. On Northern Ireland, does he agree that we need “flexible and imaginative solutions”? Those are not my words, but the words in the EU negotiation guidelines.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Those kinds of flexible outcomes are exactly what we need. I am sure that the negotiators on the EU side, as well as on our side, are determined to ensure that we deliver on that because that is how we get the right outcome for people across the United Kingdom. Importantly, it means that we can continue to deliver for the economy of Northern Ireland and to continue to protect the peace process.
The purpose of the protocol is to protect the Good Friday agreement. Will the Secretary of State outline what discussions he has had with parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly and with the Irish Government about the new clauses in the internal market Bill?
Obviously, I am having conversations with party leaders, party members and indeed the Irish Government all through, but the clauses in the Bill will not be published until tomorrow. We will be having ongoing conversations with partners and colleagues on that. However, I would just say to the hon. Lady that in order to ensure we can continue to deliver on the Good Friday agreement, it is important to ensure there are no borders, north-south or east-west. That is all part of ensuring that we deliver on the Good Friday agreement. We are determined to do that. We will do that. The clauses that will be in the UK internal market Bill are important in ensuring that, even if we do not come to an agreement on the free trade agreement, and even if the Joint Committee does not come to positive conclusions on how we manage the protocol, we, the UK Government, are able to show that we are delivering on that and there will be no borders.
In the technical note on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol earlier this year, the European Union suggested that its rules, quotas and tariffs might be imposed on fish landed from Northern Ireland vessels into Northern Ireland that was destined for Great Britain. That runs contrary to the Command Paper earlier this year, certainly, but does my right hon. Friend agree that it also drives a coach and horses through the Northern Ireland protocol itself?
My right hon. Friend makes a really important point and that is one of the key areas the Joint Committee is continuing to work on. It is important that it comes to a satisfactory, sensible and positive conclusion for both parties, to ensure that we can deliver on the protocol in a way that we can all agree on in a positive way. That is the perfect outcome. That is what we are focused on and want to see achieved.
The Secretary of State knows that the north-east has traditionally sent proportionately more of its young people into the armed forces than any other region. As a consequence, we have many veterans who served during the troubles. They, their loved ones and indeed all of us are proud of the hard-won peace. At the heart of the protocol is protecting the Good Friday agreement. Is he seriously contemplating using it as a bargaining chip in a trade deal?
If the hon. Lady looks through my answers throughout this afternoon, she will see that I have been absolutely clear that it is quite the opposite: we are determined to ensure that we have a structure and a situation for the United Kingdom and the people of Northern Ireland that continues to deliver on the Good Friday agreement. We are determined to ensure we do that. That is a peace that has been hard won and it must be protected and delivered in the future as well.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) worked tirelessly to get the Northern Ireland Assembly back up and running—something people said could not be done. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has taken out key members of the New IRA because of his commitment to peace and the hard work he is doing. He is also a very successful businessman who understands that business needs certainty moving forward. Does he agree that it is hubris in the extreme to doubt this Government’s commitment to the governance of Northern Ireland, the protection of Northern Ireland and the peace in Northern Ireland?
My right hon. Friend makes a very generous point about a number of my predecessors. They all worked hard—across this House, to be fair—in terms of the gains from the peace process. He is absolutely right that one message that consistently comes from Northern Ireland businesses across all sectors is the desire for certainty and understanding of what the situation will be for them in terms of trade, as Democratic Unionist party Members have outlined as well today, should we get to January and a free trade agreement has not been agreed. We have outlined the matter in the Command Paper and the guidance notes, which was positively received. The work we have done on the UK internal market Bill will go further to ensure that they have confidence in what the situation will be, even if we are not able to succeed in a positive outcome to those agreements and discussions of the Joint Committee.
Does the Secretary of State agree that what was used as a negotiating ploy over the first few years was the concept of a hard border on the island of Ireland, when most people should know—if they are in the real world—that it is inadvisable, unworkable and undoable? No one wants it to happen and no one is going to construct it. Will he ensure his colleagues know that we must not allow something that is not going to happen to impede the need to get something that must: a good deal?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very powerful point, and he is absolutely right that nobody wants to see, and there is no reason for there to be, a border either on the island of Ireland or between the island of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Great Britain. We are determined to deliver on that. As I have said, the clauses in the UK internal market Bill are there as a safety net to ensure that, even if we do not reach a satisfactory conclusion to the free trade agreements, although that is something that I am sure both parties, acting in good faith, will be able to do in the coming weeks and next few months.
May I ask a very simple question, in case anybody is still unclear? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is of paramount importance to protect the peace process and that, to do so, unfettered access is essential between Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
In the spirit in which the question was asked, yes.
Listening to the debate today, would I be right in summarising that the oven-ready deal we were promised by the Conservative party at the general election is missing a cooking apparatus?
I would say that the apparatus we are using is working through the Joint Committee on the free trade agreement deals and the UK internal market Bill. As anything, this is all part of a package of things that mean we are able to ensure that, when we finish the transition period at the end of December this year, companies, businesses and the people of Northern Ireland have confidence about what the situation will be in January, even if we are not able to conclude those negotiations satisfactorily.
We are now heading to Bob Blackman, who is about to land his question. [Laughter.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I welcome the statements made by my right hon. Friend. Clearly, we hope that there will be a comprehensive free trade deal with our friends from the European Union, negotiated in good faith. But does he agree that it would be wholly irresponsible of the Government not to take measures to ensure the integrity of the United Kingdom and to preserve the ability of Northern Ireland businesses to trade with the rest of the United Kingdom by publishing this draft Bill tomorrow, and that the Government will ensure that we preserve that integrity while always preserving the sanctity of the Good Friday agreement?
My hon. Friend has put the situation absolutely perfectly. The Bill, as we will publish it tomorrow, as colleagues and Members across this House will see, will set out how we ensure the integrity of the United Kingdom trading markets—that customs union and the single market that has been so much a part of the United Kingdom for hundreds of years, in reality. It will ensure we are delivering on our determination to ensure we continue to see the benefits of the peace process, we deliver on the Good Friday agreement and we deliver on our promises to ensure that there are no borders, that we have unfettered access to Northern Ireland businesses, and that we deliver on exactly what we said in our Command Paper and in our manifesto.
In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.