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Northern Ireland Protocol

Volume 715: debated on Thursday 26 May 2022

7. What recent advice she has received on the legality of the Government’s plans to amend primary legislation to adjust elements of the Northern Ireland protocol. (900267)

I cannot comment specifically on any advice that I may or may not have received. It is not uncommon or inappropriate for Law Officers to seek advice, both from their officials and external specialist counsel. The Foreign Secretary’s statement to the House last week set out the Government’s proposals. She will be introducing primary legislation to address elements of the Northern Ireland protocol. I refer the hon. Member to that statement.

I thank the Attorney General and I appreciate the constraints within which she has to work on this matter. The Government are, of course, well within their rights to bring forward legislation to protect the integrity of the United Kingdom’s single economic market and protect the Union. Will the Attorney General take the opportunity today, from the Dispatch Box, to spell out to the misinformed US Congress delegation visiting Northern Ireland that defending, upholding and protecting the Union is consistent with the New Decade, New Approach agreement and consistent with the Belfast agreement? Will the Government move expeditiously—that is, before the summer recess—on bringing forward legislation?

The Bill that is proposed will take vital steps to protect the integrity of the United Kingdom, our precious Union, and protect peace, which is cemented by the Belfast agreement. It will include provisions which will ensure the security of the common travel area, the single electricity market and north-south co-operation. It will propose that goods moving and staying within the UK are freed of unnecessary bureaucracy through our new green channel, underpinned by data-sharing arrangements, including a trusted trader scheme, to provide the EU with real-time commercial data. All those measures are consistent with the Belfast agreement and consistent with Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. I urge all Members here and parliamentarians abroad to support them.

The Attorney General said again today that there is a long-standing convention that prevents her from discussing either the fact or the content of her legal advice on the Northern Ireland protocol, which makes it all the more remarkable that, on Wednesday 11 May, The Times newspaper and BBC “Newsnight” not only disclosed the fact of her legal advice, but actually quoted from its contents. Let me ask her a very straightforward question that requires only a yes or no answer: did she personally authorise the briefings to The Times and “Newsnight” regarding her advice on the protocol—yes or no?

I take the convention incredibly seriously; it is a running thread through the integrity, robustness and frankness with which Law Officers can provide advice. I do not comment on media speculation, and that is the Government’s line. [Interruption.] The measures proposed there are to protect peace in Northern Ireland, to protect the Belfast agreement and to protect our precious United Kingdom—[Interruption.]

Order. The question has been asked. It is simply not right for the—[Interruption.] The Attorney General is on her feet uttering words. If the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) is not happy with the answer, that is a different matter. It is not correct for her to sit there shouting. [Interruption.] No, that is it. The right hon. Lady has asked the question and the Attorney General is giving her response.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I take the Law Officers’ convention incredibly seriously and I do not comment on media speculation. That is a firm position of the Government. There are big differences between the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) and myself, and I am very disappointed at her line of attack. [Interruption.] I love the United Kingdom; the right hon. Lady is embarrassed by our flag. I am proud of the leadership that the United Kingdom has demonstrated; she wants us to be run by Brussels and wants to scrap Trident. My heroes are Churchill and Thatcher; hers are Lenin and Corbyn. [Interruption.] When it comes to UK leadership in the world, Labour does not have a clue—[Interruption.]

Order. We will stick to the specific subject of the question. If the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury is not satisfied with the answer, that is another matter. She will have to come back and ask it again another time.

The Attorney General’s advice to the Prime Minister was reported to have said that the Good Friday agreement takes “primordial significance” over the Northern Ireland protocol. Does she accept that the Good Friday agreement sits alongside other agreements, rather than takes precedence, and that it should not be used as a basis to walk away from the deal that the UK Government signed? Will she commit to publishing the legal advice in full?

I will not repeat my answer, but we do not comment on media speculation and I respect and take incredibly seriously the Law Officers’ convention. The Foreign Secretary has made it clear that the Government will publish a statement summarising their legal position shortly. We will not publish legal advice, if it has been given—the content or the fact of it—and our overriding responsibility is to the Belfast agreement and the peace process. The current arrangements with the EU are undermining this, which is why we have to act now.