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Northern Ireland Protocol: EU Negotiations

Volume 703: debated on Thursday 18 November 2021

As the House will be aware, I have previously exercised my discretion regarding the sub judice resolution to allow references to the Northern Ireland protocol on the grounds of national importance. Although there are relevant live legal proceedings, I am further exercising that discretion today in relation to the urgent question.

To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office if he will make a statement on the Northern Ireland protocol and negotiations with the European Union.

Let me begin by reaffirming the Government’s commitment to keeping both Houses of Parliament updated on the UK-EU relationship. We remain committed to doing just that. My right hon. and noble Friend Lord Frost gave the House of Lords an update on EU relations last Wednesday, 10 November, in the form of an oral statement. Unfortunately, as this honourable House was in recess at the time, it could not be repeated here on the same day. The timing of that update was unavoidable, led by external international business. However, I recognise the importance of keeping both Houses duly informed.

I think that that answer was more remarkable for what it did not say than for what it did, but I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question. It is a shame that it was necessary, and that the Government have not seen fit to offer the House a statement. At the very least, we would have liked to hear some commitment from the Government today that there would be no triggering of article 16 this side of Christmas. The disruption that that would cause would be catastrophic, but still we hear nothing from them. I hope that the Minister will address that point when he replies to my supplementary question.

Listening to the Minister today, and to his colleagues on the airwaves in recent weeks, one could almost believe that the terms of our agreement with the European Union and the Northern Ireland protocol were nothing to do with them: “it was a big boy that done it and ran away”. It is almost as if those matters were negotiated by someone else, and were voted through the House in the teeth of Conservative opposition. However, we know that the truth is very different.

Article 16 does not exist as a “get out of jail free card” for the Government when they do not like the deal that they have done. It is a mechanism that allows for the taking of unilateral “safeguard” measures if either the EU or the UK concludes that the deal is leading to serious practical problems or causing diversion of trade. To invoke it in the way of which Ministers speak would be seen as an act of bad faith on the part of the UK Government.

What people and businesses in Northern Ireland want and need is pragmatic solutions to be reached and implemented in good faith, not more posturing. Businesses in Northern Ireland are crying out for a sanitary and phytosanitary agreement which would remove at a stroke the vast majority of the disruption for people on either side of the Irish sea, and that is where the Government should be devoting their energy. Will the Minister please update the House on the negotiation of that and other agreements under the protocol? In respect of the question of the role of the European Court of Justice in supervising this agreement, can the Minister explain why the Government now identify that as a problem when it was clearly within the protocol when it was negotiated and signed?

The problems of which the Government now complain are all of their own making. They chose to take us out of the customs union and to put a border down the Irish sea. It was a remarkable choice for a supposedly Unionist party to make, but they made it, and we now have to live with it. This is the time for posturing to stop and for mature government to start. A recent Queens University survey found that 52% of people in Northern Ireland support the protocol; I am sure the Minister will agree that that is a significant figure. Will he now get on and make it work?

With regard to the latest on the UK-EU relationship, my noble Friend Lord Frost and Vice-President Šefčovič met in London on 12 November to consider the state of play in discussions relating to the Northern Ireland protocol. Lord Frost noted that there remain significant gaps to be bridged between the UK and EU positions. He noted that it remained the United Kingdom’s preference to find a consensual way forward, but I must say that article 16 safeguards were and are a legitimate part of the protocol’s provisions.

The noble Lord Frost also underlined the need to address the full range of issues that the United Kingdom had identified in the course of discussions if a comprehensive and durable solution was to be found that supported the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. That is in the best interests of Northern Ireland. In that context, although talks had so far been conducted in a constructive spirit, Lord Frost underlined that, to make progress, it was important to bring “new energy and impetus” to discussions. Accordingly, intensified talks are taking place this week between teams in Brussels on all issues, giving particular attention to medicines and customs issues.

This week, Lord Frost has also been in Belfast, talking to political, business and civil society leaders and will meet with Vice-President Šefčovič at the end of the week to consider progress. I will continue to keep Parliament informed.

With respect to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), who raised the urgent question, perhaps he does not know that, in line with what the Paymaster General was saying, Lord Frost appeared before the European Scrutiny Committee only a few weeks ago. We asked him questions about article 16 and the European Court of Justice and he answered them with great clarity.

It is quite clear that the EU has been intransigent. For example, it invoked article 16 with regard to the covid laws that it introduced some time ago, and disruption of trade has taken place. Regarding the European Court of Justice, we are more than entitled to ensure that we are not governed by it given the repeal in the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020.

I agree with my hon. Friend. We want a negotiated outcome, but we are willing to use article 16. There is no change in the position that my noble Friend Lord Frost gave to my hon. Friend’s Committee only a few days ago.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for tabling the UQ. It is simply unacceptable and quite insulting to the House that Lord Frost would wait for this place to have risen to make a statement in the other place and that the Government would have to be dragged to this place to be subject to proper and timely scrutiny.

I turn to Northern Ireland, which has become a key pressure point in UK-EU relations. I sincerely hope that the change in tone from Lord Frost may be a sign that progress can be made, because these are fractious, painful times for Northern Ireland and we are at an unsettling moment. Political disfunction has left power sharing in a fragile state. Trust in the UK Government in Northern Ireland—an essential foundation of peace—has fallen away across all communities. Trust is hard won and easy to lose.

I say to the Minister, in the sincere hope that he listens, that this is not the context in which any responsible Government would force another high stakes, divisive stand-off. With a cost of living crisis and growing instability, the last thing the country needs is a damaging trade dispute with our nearest trading partners. Does he agree that jobs, stability and livelihoods in Northern Ireland depend on the EU and UK finding a deal in the days and weeks ahead that lowers the barriers that the Prime Minister created? Does he agree that the evidence increasingly shows that communities want a solution, not a stand-off?

Labour has called all year for solutions that would lower the barriers down the Irish sea that the Prime Minister personally negotiated. That is precisely why we need a deal. Communities know that invoking article 16 would not solve the problems. It would not end the dispute; it would simply prolong it. Therefore, to find that agreement, the people of Northern Ireland must be brought in. Does the Minister agree that it is simply unsustainable for a Government whom few trust to be making huge decisions about the future while Northern Ireland is excluded entirely from the talks? Will he confirm today that the UK and the EU will bring Northern Ireland leaders and communities into the process to speak for themselves? That is the path to a sustainable solution.

The Minister should remember what is at stake in the days ahead, and remember that those who have the most to lose from another poisonous stand-off are the people and businesses of Northern Ireland. It is in those interests and the national interest that the Government should get a deal.

We did not wait. This House was in recess and a written ministerial statement was tabled yesterday.

On the hon. Lady’s substantive points, of course people are concerned about the cost of living, but the Northern Ireland protocol has real-life consequences for the cost of living. Businesses know that using article 16, should we have to do so, would alleviate pressure on the movement of goods. It is a safeguard mechanism to improve an unsatisfactory situation; it is there not to cause disruption but to do the exact opposite. It is a mechanism agreed to by both parties to the withdrawal agreement, and it is an active part of an agreement with multiple articles—it is one article among multiple others. Article 16 is perfectly valid and available to use. However, we want a negotiated outcome. Our policy remains the same: acting within the law at all times, we are willing to use article 16 should we need to do so.

My noble Friend Lord Frost was in Northern Ireland on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, and he met all sides. I am advised that he met representatives of the Social Democratic and Labour party, the Alliance party, the Democratic Unionist party, the Ulster Unionist party and Sinn Féin. He is, of course, keeping everyone fully informed, and he travels regularly to do so. The basis of our negotiations is contained in the July Command Paper, which this House has seen.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend reaffirm that the priority for Her Majesty’s Government remains upholding the Belfast agreement, even if the European Union appears to hold it so lightly? On the subject of bad faith, cited by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), what does my right hon. and learned Friend make of the fact that 20% of the European Union’s checks still occur in relation to goods going from GB to NI, despite Northern Ireland having the equivalent of 0.5% of the European Union’s population? Does he agree that the bad faith the European Union is exercising in this matter makes it absolutely essential that we continue to keep under consideration the rescinding of articles 5, 7, 8 and 10, as outlined by the July Command Paper?

My right hon. Friend is a former Northern Ireland Minister, so he speaks with authority in this House. He is right that it is of paramount importance, as I am sure all sides would agree, that the Belfast agreement is respected and protected. That is certainly the motivation of Her Majesty’s Government.

It is right to say that the Northern Ireland Executive estimate that, from January to March, about 20% of all EU checks were conducted in respect of Northern Ireland, even though Northern Ireland’s population is just 0.5% of the EU’s as a whole. That speaks for itself.

Notwithstanding recess dates, it took until 16 November even to get a written statement on this subject, and that turned out to be a copy-and-paste job from Lord Frost’s earlier statement. I am shocked and appalled that it has taken until today for a Minister to come to the House to do Members the courtesy of answering questions on behalf of the Government. I am sick and fed up of hearing excuses for why this Government allow others to hear the business of the Government and their thinking before they come here to explain it. How long can we be expected to tolerate this discourtesy?

We have yet another statement and yet another rattle of the sabre on article 16. Of course, the deployment of article 16 would simply invite an equal and opposite response from the European Union, and it would simply reconvene existing discussions in another forum. Whether or not Conservative Members want to hear it, the best way to eliminate friction from east-west trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is for Great Britain to come back into closer alignment with the single market and customs union. Will the Paymaster General assure the House that, whatever discussions lie ahead, the Government will not in any circumstances allow Northern Ireland to become subject to the same trade friction between north and south as they have allowed to creep into the relationship between Great Britain and the European Union?

The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong; the reality of the matter is that a written ministerial statement is informing the House, and it was laid yesterday. He makes a point about business. I think I am right in saying that in today’s Financial Times there is a report that Marks & Spencer says that the proposals by the EU would not cut red tape. It is important to bear in mind that negotiations are in progress; it is not the right forum, at this stage in delicate negotiations, to try to do that in this honourable House. What is right is that Lord Frost continues his discussions with vice-president Šefčovič, and that is exactly what he is doing.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on obtaining this important urgent question. May I take up a difference with him on one thing? Will my right hon. and learned Friend the Paymaster General confirm that the triggering of article 16 should be based on circumstances and not on any particular date?

If the triggering of article 16 needs to occur, there are defined circumstances that would need to be ascertained—in my view, those circumstances are ascertained.

There is a certain irony in Ministers telling France to respect the trade and co-operation agreement in full when it comes to fish while threatening to scrap the Northern Ireland protocol. I hope only that the change in tone that I think we detect in the past week or so is a sign that the Government realise that they need to step back from the brink—both sides do, because a trade war with the EU is in nobody’s interests.

The question I wish to put is about the European Court of Justice. We have heard what businesses in Northern Ireland have said about the impact of the protocol, but can the Minister tell us how many of them have raised with him the role of the ECJ, which of course the Government signed up to when they agreed the protocol in the first place?

The right hon. Gentleman should understand, and I am sure he does, that the activation of article 16 is not scrapping the protocol—it is a valid part of the agreement. He asks who has raised the issue of the Court of Justice of the European Union. What people raise regularly is the issue of sovereignty, and they say that they want their laws decided democratically by the people of this country. In my limited experience of the law, it is not normal, where there are two parties, for the courts of one party to resolve disputes between the two in an agreement. So this is not a normal situation. The European Union has shown, in the infraction proceedings that it has already brought—in my respectful submission, in a precipitate manner—when we had essential cause to take actions to protect food supply in Northern Ireland, that this is not just theoretical; this is something the EU is prepared to do, as it has shown. We therefore need to take sovereignty seriously. Those on our side of the House do take sovereignty seriously and will continue to do so.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for the answers he has given thus far. Lord Frost is clearly involved in delicate negotiations, but they are placing great strain on the Northern Ireland Executive and the various different sections of the community in Northern Ireland. So how long are we going to allow these negotiations to go on for before we take action? Can we set a timetable for completing these negotiations, so that people can get back to running their businesses and leading their normal lives?

I understand my hon. Friend’s desire to set a finite date but, as I am sure he will appreciate, that is not conducive to good diplomatic negotiations. I have no doubt that everything is being done as expeditiously as is reasonable.

A statement should have been made in this House at the earliest possible opportunity, but I welcome the point that has been made today as a result of this urgent question. Is the Paymaster General concerned that after the chiding the Government got for putting in place a protocol that has put a border down the Irish sea, we now appear to have a Joan of Arc-like stand-off, with the Opposition holding to the protocol as if it were something precious when it is destroying business and costing businesses in Northern Ireland £850 million? That is what is catastrophic: the friction of trade within the United Kingdom.

The Paymaster General mentioned sovereignty; I represent a constituency in the United Kingdom and so do all the Members in this House—we should not be doing Brussels’ work from these Benches. Brussels has destroyed part of the United Kingdom by insisting on the enforcement of a protocol in a disgraceful manner. I appeal to the Paymaster General, who knows that the Government’s Command Paper in July this year said that the conditions for invoking article 16 have been met: we are now in the jaws of December and those conditions remain met, so invoke article 16, and invoke it now. Stop dilly-dallying on this issue. Put businesses out of their misery in Northern Ireland.

I take this opportunity to apologise again for an oral statement not being made on Monday. I have mentioned that a written ministerial statement was made on Tuesday, but the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point on that issue.

On the hon. Gentleman’s substantive point, I agree that there is a major difficulty. The protocol is not delivering its core purpose and it is crucial that it has Unionist and nationalist party consent; otherwise, Northern Ireland cannot function, because of the power-sharing relationship with which the hon. Gentleman is extremely familiar. That is the foundation of the constitution and his point is understood.

On the business front, at least 200 companies in Great Britain no longer service the Northern Ireland market, so the hon. Gentleman’s point in that respect is perfectly valid. A significant number of medicines are still at risk of discontinuation. We saw recently in one of the national newspapers that even the trees for the Queen’s forthcoming platinum jubilee apparently cannot be supplied to Northern Ireland from Great Britain. There are problems with things that are, frankly, being shredded by the way the protocol is working.

Given that almost 100% of the roll-on roll-off lorry traffic from the EU to the Republic of Ireland goes through Great Britain—a lot of it past Kettering on the A14— would not a sensible negotiated agreement towards a comprehensive and durable settlement involve Her Majesty’s Government taking responsibility for the policing of goods that go across the Irish sea to the Republic, in return for the free passage of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland if those goods are to stay in Northern Ireland?

I shall resist the temptation to ask my hon. Friend to join the negotiating team but, as ever, he speaks powerfully for his constituency, which I think is the centre point of this country, geographically, and also a centre for the movement of goods. My hon. Friend speaks with some authority on the matter and I have noted what he said.

This was all so predictable when, just under a year ago, we in this House voted for the agreement. Is it not the case, first, that the people of Northern Ireland want a compromise, and secondly, that in reality the Government just threw Northern Ireland under the bus when they went into negotiations in the name of Brexit?

To give him credit, the Paymaster General read his brief very well, but he knows very little about the sentiments of the people in Northern Ireland. Yesterday, Lord Frost held a meeting, among other meetings, with a group of people representing trade unions and civil society. They were from both loyalist and nationalist traditions and they told him very clearly, “Get on with making the protocol work.” The game and the rhetoric in which this Government are engaged in Northern Ireland is very dangerous. The Paymaster General has a duty to go back to the Prime Minister and tell him to tone down that rhetoric. It could be so disastrous that we should not even be thinking of going there.

I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of the rhetoric. This is a negotiation. We want a settled solution. That is our preference and that is what the negotiations with Vice-President Šefčovič are currently doing, but we do have article 16 as a viable safeguard.

What assessment have the Government made of the damage to the UK economy as a whole and our standing in the world were the Government to trigger article 16 and it result in a trade war with the EU?

Article 16 is designed to alleviate problems, not cause them. It is a mechanism that was written in with the consent of both parties, so that it could alleviate and act as a safeguard. Threats that are emanating from other quarters about pulling out of the TCA and the like would, of course, do the exact opposite. They would cause disruption and that is not in the interests of the people of the province of Northern Ireland. It is this side that is seeking a negotiated preferential solution.

The Minister must know that the Tories are playing with fire. Threatening not to implement a deal signed 11 months ago would be outrageous. What does the Minister believe the people of Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK have to gain by showing the UK clearly to be an untrustworthy and dishonest negotiating partner while it simultaneously seeks to secure international trade deals?

We are not seeking to secure international trade deals; we are securing international trade deals. We have secured more than 60 of them so far with countries all around the world. We are a trading nation. We enjoy trading with others and we always have done. That is what we will continue to do. But I do need to repeat: article 16 is not a threat; it is a part of the agreement that was signed between the parties. It is available and ready to use.

In any negotiation, it is best to have all parties round the table, so will the Government consider bringing in the locally elected Members in order to have a meaningful negotiation which really matches the sentiment, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), on the ground in Northern Ireland?

I am pleased to be able to confirm that, as I have already mentioned, Lord Frost has already engaged with the interested parties and even on Tuesday and Wednesday this week did so in Northern Ireland. All parties are being duly kept informed, including this honourable House and the other place.

A consequence of Brexit was always that we needed to erect a trade border between Britain and the EU, and there are only two places where that could go—either in the Irish sea, or a land border on the island of Ireland. As the Government are now trying to reverse the agreement that puts the trade border in the Irish sea, what other option are they actively pursuing—a land border, or rejoining the single market for the whole of the UK, not just Northern Ireland?

Thank you, Mr Speaker. You are most kind. The good wine always comes last.

I thank the Paymaster General for his answers to the urgent question. Back in July, the Government published a paper in which they stated clearly that conditions to trigger article 16 had already been met. He referred to M&S, which has indicated this week that extra costs and extra bureaucracy on products crossing the border will cost it £9 million. Speaking as the MP for Strangford, who has got his feet clearly on the ground and knows what is happening and what the people are saying, I want to put it on the record that some businesses face going to the wall as a result. The Prime Minister repeated that assertion recently. He said that time was of the essence and that, if the current negotiations with the EU failed to arrive at an agreed outcome in a short period, the Government would move and must move immediately to take decisive action to remove the barriers to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I urge the Paymaster General to do just that: initiate article 16 and remove the barrier.

I like hearing from the hon. Gentleman, but his questions have to be shorter. If he wants to make speeches, I am sure that he will catch the eye of somebody in the Chair later.

The hon. Gentleman is right that Marks & Spencer makes a powerful point. Time is of the essence. Her Majesty’s Government will move to remove barriers if necessary. The article 16 application has already been met and we are alive to the time sensitivity involved.