[3rd Allocated Day]
Further considered in Committee
[Relevant document: Oral evidence taken before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on 29 June 2022, on Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol, HC 285.]
[Dame Eleanor Laing in the Chair]
Implementation, application, supervision and enforcement of the Protocol
I beg to move amendment 38, page 7, line 27, leave out “the Minister considers appropriate” and insert “is necessary”.
This amendment changes the threshold for giving a Minister power to make regulations under this Clause. The threshold is amended to make it objective rather than subjective.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Clause stand part.
Amendment 39, in clause 14, page 8, line 22, leave out “the Minister considers appropriate” and insert “is necessary”.
This amendment changes the threshold for giving a Minister power to make regulations under this Clause. The threshold is amended to make it objective rather than subjective.
Clause 14 stand part.
Amendment 12, in clause 18, page 10, line 9, leave out subsection (1).
This amendment would remove the Minister’s power to engage in any conduct in relation to any matter dealt with in the Northern Ireland Protocol, not otherwise authorised by this Act, if the Minister considers it appropriate to do so.
Amendment 42, page 10, line 11, leave out
“the Minister of the Crown considers it appropriate”
and insert “it is necessary”.
This amendment changes the threshold for giving a Minister power to make regulations under this Clause. The threshold is amended to make it objective rather than subjective.
Amendment 48, page 10, line 12, after “this Act” insert
“and a motion approving the conduct has been passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly.”
This amendment would subject the exercise of the Minister’s power to engage in conduct in relation to any matter dealt with in the Northern Ireland Protocol that is not otherwise authorised by the Act to a motion approving the conduct in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Amendment 49, page 10, line 15, at end insert—
“(3) Each Minister of the Crown must have due regard for the principle that the Belfast Agreement, including its subsequent implementation agreements and arrangements, should be protected in all its parts.”
This amendment is based on the fourth point in the Preamble to Northern Ireland Protocol.
Clause 18 stand part.
Amendment 46, in clause 20, page 10, line 32, at end insert—
“But this section may not be brought into force unless it has previously been approved by a resolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly.”
This amendment would prevent the Bill’s proposed departure from the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol, or from any related provision of the EU withdrawal agreement, in respect of the previously agreed role of the European Court (CJEU) unless clause 20 had first been approved by the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Amendment 13, page 10, line 37, leave out subsection (2)(b).
This amendment would remove the prohibition on a court or tribunal referring any matter to the European Court, where the matter relates to the Northern Ireland Protocol or any related provision of the EU Withdrawal Agreement, or domestic law relating to the Northern Ireland Protocol or any related provision of the EU Withdrawal Agreement, given that subsection (4) would give ministers the power to make regulations regarding references on a question of interpretation of EU law to be made by Courts and Tribunals.
Amendment 43, page 10, line 38, leave out “the Minister considers appropriate” and insert “is necessary”.
Clause 20 stand part.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair today, Dame Eleanor, as we enter the third day of Committee on the Bill. As we do so, it is evident that instead of working to fix the genuine challenges that the protocol poses, the Government continue to push forward with a Bill that disregards the UK’s international legal obligations and threatens to throw Britain’s global reputation into disrepute, and which also—we shall discuss this today—gives them sweeping powers without restriction. Tearing up binding agreements, threatening to break international law and walking away from the table are not the composites of a good negotiating strategy; they are the hallmarks of a zombie Government, out of steam—a Government who have constantly put their own party squabbles and obsessions before the interests of the people of the UK, and indeed the people of Northern Ireland.
Tragically, they also risk dividing the UK and the European Union when we should be standing shoulder to shoulder in opposing Putin’s barbaric war in Ukraine, and in finding ways to make Brexit work in a spirit of trust and co-operation. This is not how a responsible Government should behave, and many Members across the House know that. What we need is cool heads, statesmanlike behaviour and a search for long-term solutions.
On the Opposition Benches, we feel that the Bill is counterproductive, but that solutions are there if the Government are prepared to seek them. That requires compromise, hard work, and flexibility on all sides, including of course the EU, not knee-jerk reactions. I have listened to the very many genuine concerns that have been voiced about the functioning of the protocol. I have the pleasure of being a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly in addition to my shadow Front Bench role. I have listened to businesses. I have been in Dublin and Belfast. I have listened to people on all sides and have heard genuine concerns, including from those in the Unionist community.
For months, Labour has called on the Government to do the responsible thing—get back around the table to do what we have always done, and what any Government worth its salt would do, which is to negotiate, in the interests of finding workable, practical and technocratic solutions that command the consent and support of all communities in Northern Ireland, and have the means to bring back power sharing in a meaningful and lasting way. In that spirit, we have offered amendments to the Bill today in good faith, to begin to correct the issues that are manifest across this legislation—starting today with the Henry VIII clauses that we have heard about, and which the amendment that we have tabled in this group address.
As the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), set out during Second Reading, 15 of the 26 clauses included in the Bill confer powers directly on UK Ministers. Those include the power to use secondary legislation to amend or modify Acts of Parliament—Acts that have been subject to the full scrutiny of this House. As the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law sets out, the Henry VIII powers given to Ministers in the Bill
“are numerous, extensive and subject to very low hurdles before those powers may be exercised.”
Indeed, Professor Catherine Barnard of Cambridge University has called these powers “eye wateringly broad”. The Hansard Society, deeply respected on both sides of the House, describes them as “breath-taking”. And we should not just take their word for it. The Chair of the Justice Select Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), last week put it perfectly when he said,
“there are Henry VIII powers and Henry VIII powers; and this is Henry VIII, the six wives, Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell all thrown in together.”
He went on to describe the Henry VIII powers as
“almost Shakespearean or Wagnerian in their scope and breadth.”—[Official Report, 13 July 2022; Vol. 718, c. 370.]
Awarding Ministers these enormous powers is not a strategy, and the people of Northern Ireland will see it for what it is—a blatant power grab.
The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst identified one of the key problems with these powers when he explained that the test that Ministers must meet before using these powers is “extraordinarily low”. I agree. As the Bill currently stands, in many cases Ministers may use these powers merely if they consider it “appropriate” to do so. That is simply not good enough. Not only is that a woefully low threshold, but it lacks any kind of objectivity. We cannot have a situation where Ministers can make sweeping changes that are not necessarily in the interests of all communities of Northern Ireland, and without proper scrutiny and process; and those of us on the Opposition Benches are extremely concerned about what Ministers may deem appropriate in the future.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. I have just one point to add. Does he agree that there is a certain irony in the fact that probably large numbers of the 52% who voted for Brexit voted to strengthen, solidify and consolidate parliamentary sovereignty, but these Henry VIII powers are strengthening the hand of Government and weakening the hand of Parliament? Does not that seem to run directly counter to what many people who voted for Brexit were voting for?
Further to that point, I do not understand why the official Opposition don’t get it. There is a democratic deficit as a result of the Northern Ireland protocol. The hon. Member bemoans the fact that Parliament might lose some powers to the Government, but in Northern Ireland we today are faced with the imposition of regulations—hundreds and hundreds of them—over which neither Parliament nor the Government have any say, nor the Northern Ireland Assembly or Executive, yet I hear nothing from the Opposition Benches about that democratic deficit. At least the Government are attempting to address it. What do the official Opposition intend to do about it?
I always listen with great respect to the right hon. Gentleman. He talks about a democratic deficit. The Government, of course, negotiated the protocol. He has been consistent in his criticisms of it. The Government knew that when they negotiated it. They knew there were issues that needed to be addressed. It seems to me very odd that the Government are proposing to take a huge amount of powers that would have no scrutiny in this place and no scrutiny in Northern Ireland.
We hear a lot about the egregious use of powers and regulations being imposed, but we hear very little about what specific powers people do not want to have. I think they are about the volume of lawnmowers and other such crucial things. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is more damaging to democracy to withhold the Northern Ireland Assembly, in which elected Members are supposed to address wider issues around health, education, the economy and everyday issues for Northern Ireland? The Assembly being withheld creates a far wider democratic deficit.
Indeed. The point I have made is that the powers the Government are taking remove responsibilities from the Northern Ireland Assembly. We want all communities to have a say on matters that affect them going forward. I am sure we will come on to a number of those amendments in due course.
In the same vein, we would support amendment 12, which relates to clause 18, tabled in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), were he to press it to a Division. As the Hansard Society points out, clause 18 would give Ministers the power to “engage in conduct” relevant to the Northern Ireland protocol if they consider it—again this word—“appropriate” in connection with one or more of the purposes of the Bill. However, the Bill provides no elaboration on what type of activities that “conduct” could involve. Nor have the Government given a justification for why the additional power is needed. Indeed, the former head of the Government Legal Service, Sir Jonathan Jones QC, someone who has said a lot about the legality of the Bill, described this as a
“do whatever you like power”.
Given that the Government can provide no assurances on what types of “conduct” the power will be restricted to and that we have no justification for why it is even needed, this is not something we can support. That is why we support amendment 12, tabled by my right hon. Friend. The Government are in no position to expand their powers to such a degree, particularly in areas so sensitive. Not only are they a gross overreach of power, but they are also disrespectful to the constitutional role of this House.
I turn to some of the amendments that have been tabled. Labour has been clear, since the Bill was first introduced, that the way to solve the problems before us is to negotiate, and to do so in good faith. We recognise that the operation of the protocol has created genuine tensions that need to be addressed, but that is best done by all sides listening to each other and acting in good faith, and with the Belfast/Good Friday agreement at the heart of those discussions. I contend that the Bill simply does not do that. It is not an act of good faith for Westminster to unilaterally impose a solution, not least across Northern Ireland, and nor, tragically, will the solution proposed achieve its ultimate objectives. Only an agreement which delivers for the people and businesses of Northern Ireland, and respects the wishes of those on all sides and all communities, will provide a long-term and sustainable solution to this problem. That is why we support amendment 49, which references the fourth point in the protocol and the importance of protecting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its parts, if it were to be pressed to a Division. Unilateralism is not the way forward on matters of such sensitivity.
I do not want to detain the Committee further at this stage. We have many amendments to get through today. To conclude, Labour’s amendments will prevent handing the Government overreaching powers that they are simply not fit to hold. Our amendments will protect the much-valued scrutinising and functioning of this House, and give a voice in this hugely delicate and important process to the people of Northern Ireland.
Allow me, Dame Eleanor, for I think the penultimate time, to thank hon. Members who have spoken in Committee. I would like to turn to the clauses under discussion in this debate. With the leave of the Committee, I will deal with some of the amendments very briefly.
Clause 13 outlines the exclusions that seek to redress the feeling that there is a democratic deficit created by the arrangements for the implementation and enforcement of the protocol. The present role of the Court of Justice of the European Union clearly causes Unionists to feel less connected to, and part of, the United Kingdom. That was reflected in the September 2021 joint statement by all Unionist parties on the protocol. Clause 13 provides that any provision of the protocol that confers jurisdiction on the CJEU over arrangements in Northern Ireland is excluded provision. That means that CJEU decisions, including infractions, will no longer have effect in domestic law across the entire protocol.
I confirm to the Committee that the Bill does not disapply the withdrawal agreement’s arbitration process, which would be convened at the international level in the event of a dispute. It simply affirms that the arbitration provisions in the withdrawal agreement do not have effect in our domestic law, and that is normal for international treaties. It then helps to restore the UK Government’s sole oversight of arrangements on the ground in Northern Ireland, providing that the provisions relating to the powers and presence of EU representatives are excluded. Finally, via subsections (4) and (5), clause 13 allows for the establishment of new arrangements for co-operation with EU authorities to monitor the trade boundary regime, and enables us to implement robust data sharing on the operation of the trusted trader scheme and on all goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That will support assurance processes to uphold our commitment to protect both the UK internal market and the EU’s single market.
Clause 14 supports the coherent functioning of the Bill by fully insulating any excluded provision from being brought back into our domestic law as a result of obligations arising from other provisions of the protocol and withdrawal agreement. If needs be, regulations under subsection (4) can be used to make appropriate provision in connection with any provision of the protocol or withdrawal agreement to which this clause relates. The clause provides important clarity on the interaction between excluded provision and any wider provisions in the protocol or withdrawal agreement related to it.
Clause 18 provides a power for a Minister to engage in non-legislative conduct where they consider it appropriate in connection with one or more of the purposes in the Bill. The clause also clarifies the relationship between powers to make secondary legislation under the Bill and those arising by virtue of the royal prerogative. The clause will ensure that actions not requiring legislation, such as issuing guidance to industry or providing direction to officials, can be taken in a timely manner by a Minister of the Crown. It is not, as I think has been misconstrued in some quarters, an extraordinary power. It simply makes clear, as would normally be taken for granted, that Ministers will be acting lawfully when they go about their ministerial duties in support of this legislation.
Clause 20 allows for the proper functioning of domestic court proceedings following the removal of the domestic effect of CJEU jurisdiction. That means that domestic courts would no longer be bound by CJEU principles or decisions when considering matters relating to the protocol. The clause provides a power to make related new provision. Regulations made under the power could, for example, provide for a procedure to refer questions of interpretation of EU law to the CJEU if a domestic court considered it necessary to conclude its proceedings.
If the hon. Member would not mind, I will give way to him when I come on to his amendment specifically. I would be very grateful if he would give me that indulgence.
Clause 20 is important to the functioning of the Bill to allow domestic courts to consider proceedings relating to the protocol without being subject to CJEU jurisdiction, in line with the general principles of the Bill.
I now move on to the amendments in order. Some, with the leave of the House, I can deal with very briefly. Amendments 38, 39, 42 and 43, in the name of the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), would, as has previously been explained regarding similar amendments, in our view wrongly apply a necessity test for the use of such powers. Parliament has previously determined, for example in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, that “appropriateness” is the appropriate word. That is my response to that series of amendments.
Amendment 12 in the name of the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) would remove the power for Ministers to engage in conduct in relation to the protocol which is normally within the Executive’s competence but not otherwise authorised by the Bill. As I explained a short while ago, this provision simply makes it clear that, as would normally be taken for granted, Ministers of the Crown would be acting lawfully when they go about their ministerial duties—for example providing instruction to civil servants or guidance to industry—in support of this legislation. It is not an extraordinary power, but rather it provides certainty that the Government can implement our proposals. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.
Amendment 48 from the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) would be unworkable. It would require the Assembly—which is of course not sitting, which is part of the whole essence of this Bill—to pass a prohibitive number of votes to enable swift implementation of the solutions delivered by the Bill, so I ask him to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 49 also from the hon. Gentleman would require Ministers to have due regard for the principle that the Belfast/Good Friday agreement should be protected in all its parts. The hon. Member states this amendment is based on the fourth point in the preamble to the protocol which sets out the United Kingdom and the European Union’s affirmation of their commitment to do just that. The Government’s overriding commitment—I emphasise this as strongly as I can—is to protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions. That commitment is absolute, but the balance within that agreement, and which was critical to its negotiation, must be maintained, and it is for that very reason that the Government have introduced this Bill. Although I welcome and endorse the sentiment underlying the amendment, it is, for the same reason, unnecessary, and I urge the hon. Member to withdraw it.
Amendment 46 from the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) would require the Assembly to approve clause 20. That is inappropriate under the devolution settlements because it would prevent the Bill from making important changes that go to the heart of the current democratic deficit. Does the hon. Gentleman wish me to give way now?
Yes, I am grateful to the Minister, and I assure him this is only a probing amendment and I will not be putting it to a vote. In terms of the Government’s position of removing the ultimate jurisdiction of the ECJ, do they recognise that in doing so they will in effect unpick Northern Ireland’s access to the single market for goods in that we would not be fully in line with the required EU law for that to take effect?
I do not accept that characterisation. This is very important to the whole community in Northern Ireland and it is very important that we have cross-community consensus in the working of these operations. I do not accept the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s point.
Does the Minister accept that in fact this Bill makes all the provision necessary for firms in Northern Ireland that wish to access the single market to be able to do so by opting for dual regulation? Dual regulation is what gives them access to the single market, not oversight by the ECJ.
Will the Minister please clarify? I am struggling to understand. He repeatedly refers to the need for cross-community consent. Does he understand and has he noted the letter from a majority of MLAs—[Interruption.] Does he acknowledge that all MLAs representing others and representing nationalists reject this Bill in the strongest possible terms, and can he outline how these recommendations and powers have cross-community consent if they are rejected by two of the three traditions in Northern Ireland?
As I think the hon. Lady knows, this cannot be about majoritarianism, and by the way I note a poll in December 2021 that indicated there was 78% agreement in Northern Ireland that the protocol needed to change. There is a requirement that there is cross-community consensus and—
Order. The hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) knows she cannot shout like that while she is sitting down. If she wishes to intervene again she can try to intervene; I will not have this shouting.
Thank you, Dame Eleanor.
I simply reiterate to the hon. Lady and the whole Committee that our overriding priority is preserving peace and stability in Northern Ireland, and I make no apology for repeating that. The situation as it stands is undermining the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and it is undermining power-sharing, as proven by the very fact that we do not have an operating Northern Ireland Assembly—surely that is proof positive.
Does the Minister share my bafflement at the intervention that he has just had to respond to? On the one hand, SDLP amendment 49 requires the Government to ensure
“the principle that the Belfast Agreement, including its subsequent implementation agreements and arrangements, should be protected in all its parts”,
yet at the same time we are being told that a majority in the Assembly—which does not include one Unionist: a key principle of the Belfast agreement—should override any of the views being expressed by Unionists on these Benches today.
The hon. Gentleman is being mischievous in the best possible sense of that word; he is very familiar with the agreement and does not need me to cite the passages in question. I am sure all sides would agree that what is most important is the preservation of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement; that surely is irrefutable.
Amendment 13, tabled by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central, would bind domestic courts into the existing CJEU reference procedure without any choice as to what the new arrangements are. In the Government’s view, that would not resolve the current democratic deficit.
I have given the position of Her Majesty’s Government on the amendments; I hope I have outlined that in sufficient detail. I therefore recommend that these clauses all stand part of the Bill.
I am happy to follow the Minister. Reference has been made to the oversight of the European Court of Justice. Although our primary concern about the protocol is in respect of trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, we do have a concern about the role of the European Court of Justice in respect of oversight, where there is a dispute between the United Kingdom and the European Union on matters pertaining to the protocol. We believe it is unfair and unreasonable that the European Court of Justice should be the final arbiter on such matters.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that in no other trade agreement would one side be able to adjudicate on whether the terms were to be accepted? However, in this case, the EU, which has skin in the game, would be the final arbiter in any dispute. That is totally unfair, totally unwarranted and totally unprecedented.
Indeed, and that speaks to the issue that I raised about the democratic deficit. The Government are endeavouring, through the Bill, to correct the flaws that were evident in the protocol. Although some in the House will point out that the Government signed up to the protocol, I welcome the fact that the Government recognise that the protocol is not working, that it is harmful to Northern Ireland and that changes need to be made. That is very important.
We believe that the democratic deficit needs to be addressed. The European Union has so far shown an unwillingness to introduce proposals that would meet the United Kingdom’s concerns in that regard. We do not yet know whether there will be a change of heart, but in the absence of that, we are with the Government on this: we want a fair and reasonable system.
I repeat what I have said throughout the Committee: if we set aside the process of how we got here and examine the detail of the Government’s proposals as a framework to provide solutions to the problems, I believe that that framework is fair. It respects the integrity of the EU single market and its right to protect that market. However, for us, it also fundamentally recognises and respects the United Kingdom’s right to protect the integrity of and to regulate its internal market. The protocol prevents the Government from doing that for the whole United Kingdom. Northern Ireland is currently subject to regulations that are introduced by the EU in a manner over which we have no say.
Other Members have raised the fact that, at the moment, we do not have a fully functioning Assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland, yet I still do not see or hear an understanding from them of how that situation has arisen. It was with great reluctance that we took the decision to withdraw the First Minister back in February. It only happened after much delay; I stood on the green outside this building and was mocked by the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) for not having followed through on the warning that I had given to withdraw the First Minister. He goaded us, saying that we had not followed through, and he sits on these Benches now and attacks us for taking the decision that we warned we would have to take if progress was not made towards addressing the issues related to the protocol.
I have also said, and reiterated during these debates, that as we make progress and as decisive action is taken by the Government in implementing this legislation, we will of course restore those political institutions, because we want them to work and function in the way that they were intended to. The hon. Members for Foyle and for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) seemed to suggest from a sedentary position that the concept of power sharing and consensus was not a fundamental principle of the Belfast agreement. I have to differ from them on that: I believe that power sharing is at the heart of the Belfast agreement and in the principle that, in a divided society such as Northern Ireland, we cannot have one side with all the power and others excluded from power. Therefore, the concept of power sharing was embraced by the political parties in Northern Ireland and has been the basis on which those political institutions have operated. However, if power sharing is to work, it requires cross-community consensus.
I hear this new language from the SDLP, in particular, and also the Alliance party, who constantly talk about a “majority” of this and a “majority” of that. When Unionists had the majority, however, we were told that majority rule was anathema to the Alliance party and the SDLP—that we could not have a Unionist majority governing in Northern Ireland and there had to be cross-community consensus. However, when Unionists have concerns and issues and say that the cross-community consensus does not exist, our concerns are almost dismissed. Lip service is paid to them but, at every opportunity, there is opposition to reasonable change that would address Unionists’ concerns.
I have not heard from the likes of the SDLP what the solution is, beyond saying, “Let’s have negotiations with the EU”. But negotiations have been tried—there have been 300 hours of negotiations. If the EU is prepared to come back to the table, change its negotiating mandate and act in good faith to get a solution that restores the cross-community consensus in Northern Ireland, bravo. But we see no inclination from the EU that it will do that.
So what do we do? Do we sit back, rub our hands, say, “It’s all too difficult” and wait for the day when, hopefully, the EU will come riding over the hill and rescue the political stability in Northern Ireland, rescue the Belfast agreement and rescue the concept of power sharing on the basis of a cross-community consensus? That has not happened, despite the EU’s bold claims that the protocol was designed to protect the Good Friday agreement and the political institutions. Those institutions are not functioning precisely because there is not a cross-community consensus in support of the protocol.
We need arrangements that reinstate and restore Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market, which respects the outcome of article 1 of the agreement—that Northern Ireland remains an integral part of the United Kingdom—as was recognised by the Irish Government and by the people of the Republic of Ireland, who voted in a referendum to change its constitution to recognise that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. I am afraid that the protocol has disrespected that constitutional settlement—that recognition that, for the time being, that is the settled will of the people of Northern Ireland. These issues are fundamentally important, and addressing the democratic deficit is important.
Despite what the right hon. Member has been saying, I am very grateful to him for giving way. I know that he is a new convert to supporting the Good Friday agreement; in fact, he left the talks before they were concluded and then opposed the Good Friday agreement from the outset. That is fine—that is his right—but I wonder whether he can explain what version of Brexit can get this mythical cross-community consensus. The word “consensus”, in that sense, is not in the Good Friday agreement.
I am not going to delve back into the history of Northern Ireland and leave the Committee bemused by an exchange on the Opposition Benches about the wherefores and merits of the Good Friday agreement in 1998. Yes, I did vote against the agreement in 1998, because I was opposed to what I regarded as deep flaws in it—not least its abject failure to address the needs of the innocent victims of the troubles, which were trampled over in the initial format of the agreement.
We are now trying to deal with the legacy not just of 30 years of violence, but of almost 25 years of an agreement that failed to address the issue in the first instance. I happen to believe that an important part of it that ought to have been dealt with in 1998 was not dealt with. I voted against the agreement on that basis, but, to be clear, at no stage did I ever oppose it on the basis that I opposed power sharing or that I believed that the only way forward was anything other than cross-community consensus. I have argued consistently as a Unionist that in a divided society, cross-community consensus has to be the way forward.
If I am a relatively recent convert to the agreement, my conversion—if it be that—was at St Andrews, when we got the changes that we needed so that its flaws could be addressed in a proper way. I would rather have experienced that than pedal in the opposite direction, saying, “We are moving towards majority rule. Those Unionists should get back in their corner; they may have their concerns, but we don’t want to hear about them.”
Yes, nationalist concerns need to be heard. I believe that the proposals that the Government have made address the concerns on both sides of the community. They address the need to protect the integrity of the European Union and the need to protect the integrity of the United Kingdom.
Do you know what? In 1998, when the referendum was held on the Good Friday agreement, I voted against it—but on the day the result was announced, I stood outside at Balmoral, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Belfast South, and declared that I accepted the result and would continue to work to change the agreement in a way that would benefit all the people of Northern Ireland. I would love to hear some day from SDLP Members that they finally accept the result of the largest democratic vote ever held in this United Kingdom, in which the people of this nation voted to leave the European Union. If they do not like what has happened, they should work to change the arrangements, as we are trying to do, rather than going back to 2016 and saying, “It’s all too difficult, it’s all terrible and therefore we can’t do anything about it.” The essence of democracy and the essence of good politics is that when you do not like something, you seek to change it.
Can my right hon. Friend understand why nationalists will not accept this Bill? I cannot, because first, it will ensure their primary consideration, which is that there be no border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic in terms of infrastructure. Secondly, it will address their concerns about the EU single market and ensure that their friends in the EU are protected, because goods going into the Republic will be examined as they come through Northern Ireland and companies in Northern Ireland will be required to abide by EU rules. Thirdly, courts in Northern Ireland will ensure through heavy sanctions that those who try to break the regulations will be punished. At the same time, the Bill will address Unionist concerns about the democratic deficit and ensure that goods can move freely into Northern Ireland from elsewhere in the UK and are not impeded in any way. Does my right hon. Friend agree that both sides can find something in the Bill?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I believe that if we examine the proposals that the Government are making, we can see that they are fair and balanced. Despite the criticism that some have made that my party supported Brexit, at no stage in the process have we argued for a hard border on the island of Ireland. That is because we recognise the sensitivities of nationalists—it is precisely because as Unionists we are alive to and aware of the sensitivities of nationalists about having infrastructure on the border. We have therefore sought to encourage a solution that respects and acknowledges their concerns, but it would be nice to have a bit of reciprocation from the nationalist side for a change, and a recognition of our concerns that a border in the Irish sea is offensive to us in the same way that a hard border on the island of Ireland is offensive to nationalists.
There are reasonable solutions that can ensure that we avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and that we avoid a border in the Irish sea for goods moving within the United Kingdom. That is what this Bill does. That is precisely the outcome that it seeks to achieve, and in that respect it is, I think, balanced and fair.
Can the right hon. Gentleman explain why, in the case of all the Bills that preceded Britain’s exit from the European Union, he repeatedly voted against all the SDLP’s amendments to design in consent for the people of Northern Ireland? Where was this regard for the delicacies of the Good Friday agreement then?
I am a democrat, and I accepted the outcome of the referendum. The British people had voted for Brexit, and I was not going to go along with the SDLP’s desire to hold the United Kingdom within the European Union and its proposals to keep us in the single market and the customs union, because I believed that that was contrary to what the British people had voted for. We therefore sought a solution.
At the time, in 2016, the former First Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster—Dame Arlene Foster—wrote to the then Prime Minister and to the Irish Prime Minister, the Taoiseach, making it clear that we needed a solution for Northern Ireland that took account of the distinct situation that pertained. We always recognised that arrangements in respect of Northern Ireland would take account of the sensitivities, but that should and must include the sensitivities and concerns of Unionists as well as nationalists. The solution provided for in the Bill, I believe, does that. It avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland, meeting the needs and the sensitivities of nationalists—of the constituents, in particular, of the hon. Member for Foyle: I acknowledge that many of them cross the border every day. I do not want impediments to be put in their way, but nor do I want impediments to be put in the way of my constituents, because trade with the rest of the United Kingdom is the lifeblood of their business, or of the consumers who live in my constituency, who simply want to buy British products from British companies in England, Scotland and Wales in the way that they have always enjoyed. For all those reasons, we will oppose the amendments. On balance, we believe that the Government’s proposed framework for the solutions that will flow in the form of regulations will protect Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom.
Let me say this to the Government. I said it yesterday, I repeat it now, and we will come to it again later today. I know that the Government are currently consulting on what schemes they want to introduce to give effect to the Bill. It is important that there is consultation with business and with the political parties, that we have an input, and that the regulations are published as soon as possible so that we can all see that they do not pose the threat that some suggest they do, but instead offer us the solution that we need.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson). I oppose all the amendments and I support all the clauses standing part of the Bill, and the reason I do so is that, as we have heard repeatedly in the Chamber over the past days, the Northern Ireland protocol is causing unacceptable disruption and friction to the UK’s internal market. So radical is the impact of the protocol that we have seen the astonishing court ruling that, in voting through the protocol, this Parliament has partly suspended article 6 of the Acts of Union, one of its foundational statutes.
The EU’s insistence that the protocol requires full compliance with its regime for food and goods, which is applied in a one-size-fits-all way to countries around the world with far lower standards than ours, is simply unreasonable. Northern Ireland’s chief veterinary officer has estimated that if the current grace periods were removed, the number of food certificates required in Northern Ireland could soon almost match the total number processed in the entire EU, so 50% of all food-related EU certificates would be issued in relation to trade between Britain and Northern Ireland. That is not just unreasonable; it is disproportionate, and arguably violates the fundamental international trade principle that border-related checks and controls need to be based on evidence and risk. The millions of checks being asked of us by the EU are in no way proportionate to the risk posed by GB food to the internal market of the European Union.
I noted the comments of the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), about what he perceived as some kind of democratic deficit in relation to the delegated legislation clauses, but I think the democratic deficit is far more serious, in that we are asking the people of Northern Ireland to live indefinitely under rules made in the European Union over which they and their elected representatives have no say whatsoever. That is not sustainable. I believe that the protocol arguably violates a core principle of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, because it has altered the status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom without the consent of its people, and the one-off majoritarian vote every few years provided for by the protocol is just not sufficient to signify consent or to deliver political stability under the Good Friday agreement.
There can be no doubt that the protocol is the root cause not only of the practical disruption but of the political instability we have witnessed in Northern Ireland over the last few months. We cannot ignore the fact that every single one of the recently elected Unionist Assembly Members is against the protocol, and we cannot stand by while Northern Ireland is deprived of its power sharing agreement.
I genuinely share the right hon. Lady’s concern that all the elected Unionist Members oppose the protocol. It is not a desirable situation, which is why I poured six years of my life into preventing it at the time. Will she also acknowledge that every single other Member of the Assembly is against this Bill? Could she also please outline what aspects of societal disruption she is referring to and which products are not available in Northern Ireland?
What I want to emphasise is that this Bill, once it is adopted, will deliver a system that will deal with the worst aspects of the friction and disruption that have been occurring. I also believe that it is important to build support for the Bill among all sides of the community in Northern Ireland. It is not in the interests of one side for other side to be alienated, as it is at present.
On the disruption being caused, the hon. Lady will be aware that it is partially mitigated at the moment by the grace periods that are in place. However, if we were to have the full panoply of EU rules on food, it would mean huge disruption to food being transferred between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and it is essential that that is dealt with.
As everyone here knows, I represent my constituency of Strangford, but I have had representations from people in the South Down and Belfast West constituencies—people with different political aspirations and different religious viewpoints—who have asked me to make sure that this Northern Ireland Protocol Bill goes through because it will advantage them as well. So it is wrong for some people in this Chamber to adopt the attitude that this is all to the advantage of Unionists. It is more than that; all the people of Northern Ireland will gain the advantage if this Bill goes through. The right hon. Lady knows that—[Interruption]—unlike this yapping person on my right-hand side.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The reason I am supporting this Bill is that I believe it is in the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland. On the disruption, whether it is related to food, to the movement of pets and assistance dogs or to the soil and trees for planting as part of the Queen’s green canopy for the jubilee, these are disruptions that need to be addressed. What also needs to be addressed is the fact that, for the moment, Northern Ireland is subjected to laws made in Europe that it does not influence. For all those reasons, we need this Bill.
We cannot stand by while Northern Ireland is deprived of its power sharing Government and its devolved institutions because of the intransigent attitude of the European Union. We have heard from the Opposition spokesman that we should give more time for negotiations, but after 18 months of fruitless negotiations, the UK Government are right to act to remedy the worst of the practical problems caused by the protocol. We simply cannot carry on as we are, with the EU refusing to consider changes to its negotiating mandate to allow constructive talks that might resolve this issue.
The Bill will deliver pragmatic changes. It does not rip up the protocol or violate international law. It is in line with the protocol’s provisions that acknowledge its potential replacement by alternative arrangements. The protocol itself also recognises the primacy of the Good Friday agreement.
The system envisaged by the Bill will continue to safeguard the integrity of the EU single market without requiring new infrastructure or checks on the north-south border. The creation of a “super green” channel should take a significant proportion of businesses and trade out of the protocol rules and compliance requirements. The Bill involves awkward compromises—I can accept that there will be some complexity with dual regulation, for example—but, let us face it, the same can be said of many laws, statutes and agreements that have been crucial in moving Northern Ireland forward and in safeguarding political stability in the 24 years since the Good Friday agreement. Of course, the door remains open to the European Union for a negotiated solution.
I close by commending the Foreign Secretary for introducing the Bill. I appreciate that it must have been immensely hard to get it through the machinery of government. No doubt the opposition in the other place will be ferocious, but I urge Ministers to stick with the Bill and to reject all the amendments before us today and those that will be tabled in their hundreds in their lordships’ House.
The stakes are high. It is not just the integrity and stability of our UK internal market that is at stake; it is the integrity and stability of our Union of four nations, the most successful political union in history. We jeopardise it at our peril and we must strive to ensure that Northern Ireland can continue to enjoy all the benefits that our Union offers.
Brexit undoubtably casts a heavy shadow over this debate. The point raised by the right hon. Members for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) and for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on the democratic deficit is fairly made, although almost all the laws under which Northern Ireland is currently operating apply in the United Kingdom because of retained EU law. We must not get this entirely out of perspective because the Government chose, at the moment of withdrawal, to take EU law, move it across and stick it into UK legislation.
Although the right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point about EU law being retained for the rest of the United Kingdom, the vital difference is that the 82 pages of EU law contained in the protocol can be changed. Those changes apply to Northern Ireland, which is where the democratic deficit comes in.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and I understand it entirely. I am talking about the situation as it is today. We should, therefore, be calm and reasonable in describing it.
Let us not forget that Northern Ireland is in a unique and favourable position compared with my constituents, precisely because it has access to both the market of the United Kingdom and the market of the European Union, which is why the polling indicates that businesses in Northern Ireland are very much in favour of having this privileged access, which other parts of the United Kingdom would greatly like.
The right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet correctly made a point about the grace period. I do not understand why the Government did not just continue negotiating within the grace period. [Interruption.] The Minister for the Cabinet Office raises his eyebrows, but we have now been in the grace period for 18 months. I believe there is a problem with the checks that needs to be sorted out, as I have said on the record many times. In my conversations with European colleagues, I have asked them to give me one example of how the integrity, safety and security of the single market has been compromised during the grace period. I have yet to receive an answer that a problem has actually arisen. The longer that goes on—perhaps that would have been the better approach for the Government—the more difficult it becomes for the EU to argue, “There is a fundamental difficulty here, which is why we need the whole panoply”. In the end, we are going to have to identify where the real risks are, and it is a relatively limited number of products. For the rest, particularly those goods that come to supermarkets and businesses in Northern Ireland that are not going anywhere else, a completely different solution could be required, although the Government are going to have a job on their hands to differentiate between the two.
I wish to speak in support of my amendment 12, which I hope might be voted on later, my amendment 13 and other amendments. I said last week that the Bill as a whole was egregious, but clause 18(1), to which amendment 12 refers, is particularly so, because it states:
“A Minister of the Crown may engage in conduct in relation to any matter dealt with in the Northern Ireland Protocol…if the Minister of the Crown considers it appropriate”.
Basically, that is asking the House to legislate to give Ministers a power to do whatever they feel like, provided, in their opinion, that they think it is appropriate. We should listen to what Sir Jonathan Jones, the former Treasury Solicitor has had to say. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), who is on our Front Bench, mentioned, Sir Jonathan described this power as “extraordinary” and said it is a “do whatever you like” power, and no wonder. He also said in the article he wrote that the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, which led to his resignation, was bad enough, but this Bill is of a “wholly different order”. The Hansard Society has criticised the clause as not being subject to any parliamentary scrutiny whatsoever, a criticism also made by the House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which said:
“There is no definition of ‘conduct’ in the Bill itself. And there is nothing on the face of clause 18 that would prevent it from creating legally binding rules of general application.”
The Committee has previously criticised what it calls “disguised legislation,” by which it means
“instruments that are legislative in effect but often not subject to parliamentary oversight. Examples include guidance, determinations, arrangements, codes of practice and public notices. Clause 18 appears to allow all these things to be done, without any parliamentary procedure and in a way that is binding on the general public.”
So the question the Committee reasonably ask of the Minister is: what is this power and what do Ministers want it for? If I heard the Minister correctly, he said that the clause was there merely to ensure that Ministers acted lawfully. What is this “conduct”? I ask because “engage in conduct” is, as the very helpful House of Commons Library note says,
“an unusual form of words for a statutory power.”
If we turn to the Bill’s explanatory notes for some enlightenment, we see that they state that clause 18(1) authorises “sub-legislative activity”. I have been in the House for a few years and I have never come across the concept of “sub-legislative activity”, whatever that is. The only example given in the explanatory notes is guidance. If the Government’s aim is to have a power to issue guidance on matters that they have not thought of in the rest of the Bill or might think of at some point in the future, why does the clause not say, “The Minister will have the power to issue guidance”? It does not say that.
The other example the Minister gave left me even more perplexed. He said that this was to enable Ministers to issue instructions to civil servants. I was a Minister for nine years and I am not aware that I had to refer to a bit of legislation to give instructions to civil servants. I find the explanation wholly incredible, so it begs the question, and ought to beg the question for the Committee, whether one supports the principle of the Bill or not: what are the Government actually seeking to do? The Hansard Society, in its excellent note, makes it clear that that is not a narrow, obscure point. It is about ensuring that relevant legal provisions are drafted and treated consistently with other legislation. That is why the Hansard Society says:
“It also ensures that law-making does not circumvent the publication requirements that accompany, and the parliamentary scrutiny that is afforded to, primary and delegated legislation.”
In this case, the Government have given no explanation of why they believe that the powers are needed—apart from in relation to guidance and instructing civil servants, as we have just heard from the Minister—or why they believe that the powers are administrative rather than legislative. We need to hear from the Minister in his further contribution precisely what conduct is covered by cause 18(1). If he has a list of things in mind, will he please amend the Bill and put them in one by one so that we can see what they are? Secondly, will he give a categorical assurance that this provision will not permit legally binding obligations to be made as a result of that conduct? I raise that issue because the Government have not included clause 18(1) in the Bill’s delegated powers memorandum, which is quite a significant point.
The clause is also indicative of the Government’s wider ambitions for, and the problems they are having with, the Bill. What they really want to do—the Minister has been absolutely open about this, to his great credit—is give themselves the power to do whatever they want in relation to the protocol. They want to be able to turn things on, turn them off and even turn them back on again whenever they feel like it. The fundamental problem, which has become evident over the last two days in Committee, is that, in fairness, Ministers are not entirely clear how some of their proposals—for example, a red customs lane and a green customs lane, or the dual regulatory regime, which we discussed at some length yesterday—will work in practice.
To take the example of the dual regulatory regime, when pressed on whether firms would be required to choose whether to follow EU or UK rules, the Minister said yesterday:
“clause 7 makes it clear that businesses will have a choice which regulatory route to follow when supplying goods to the market in Northern Ireland.”
However, later he said that clause 11 would
“allow a Minister to prescribe a single regulatory route for specific sectors, including a UK-only route with no application of EU law”—[Official Report, 19 July 2022; Vol. 718, c. 877-79.]
In other words, businesses will be absolutely free to choose which system they want to use, unless and until the Government tell them which one they must use.
There is a confusion and a contradiction here. Why would Ministers want to take such a power if they are confident that they have already worked out how a dual regulatory system will work? I do not think they are confident, because they do not know the answer. That is why so many of these Henry VIII powers are dotted throughout the Bill to give the Government the cover they require. For me that goes to the heart of why clause 18(1) is so objectionable and why it has been more widely criticised—apart from the Bill itself—than any other clause: the Government are trying to give themselves a sweeping power and a sweeping-up power. That is why this provision should be removed.
Let me turn briefly to my amendment 13. To be frank, I tabled it as a probing amendment because I was trying to understand the Government’s intention in allowing courts or tribunals in the UK to refer matters to the European Court. There is a bit of a contradiction between clause 20(2), which would prevent any UK court from referring a matter to the European Court, and clause 20(4), which would allow the Government to lay down in regulations a procedure under which courts could refer matters of interpretation of EU law to the European Court. To put it simply, if the Government are planning regulations to allow referrals—if they are not planning that, why does subsection (4) exist—why take a blanket power two subsections earlier to prevent any referrals whatever. The thinking does not seem clear.
Finally, given what I have said about the inappropriate use of the word “appropriate” in the Bill, I support the Opposition amendments, including new clauses 11 and 12, which would change the word “appropriate” to “necessary”. It seems to me that that would provide a better and a higher test for the exercise of ministerial discretion rather than the wide latitude allowed for in the Bill, which has rightly led to so much criticism from so many quarters.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, as we discuss the Bill this afternoon.
I wish to say at the outset that I am speaking very much in support of the Government’s position on the Bill. It seems to me that we are dealing with a very complex, sensitive and fluid situation. I recognise that we have heard from everybody, from the former Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, right through to business organisations on the ground, all of whom recognise that there is no clear right or wrong to this situation at the moment, that we need to take forward this debate in a constructive way, and that we need to reach solutions that continue to support stability and the economic development of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.
My attention was particularly drawn i to amendment 51, because of the points that it illustrates about referring disputed matters to the UK-EU Joint Committee, which is envisaged as part of the withdrawal agreement. That highlights that there remains a number of avenues still to explore, and it is with a sense of optimism that I look at those avenues. It is clear that the political situation that we face today, with the departure of one Prime Minister and a new Prime Minister to be elected, creates an opportunity for a reset in the relationships and the negotiations that are taking place with the European Union on this issue. It was clear from the Dispatch Box when we first debated the Bill that it remained the Government’s preferred outcome that negotiations would result in changes that would address fully the issues of concern to all communities across Northern Ireland and, indeed, to those in my own constituency, whose businesses are involved in trade with the UK single market and the European single market. They are watching closely at what the outcomes of this will be because of the implications for other parts of our international trade in future.
The success that we have seen in Northern Ireland—in particular its ability to attract inward investment to drive that economic growth, to be the other region of the United Kingdom, outside of London, that is really bouncing back strongly—demonstrates the strength that there is in that economy and that community, and that it deserves the support and attention of this House to a greater degree perhaps than it has enjoyed in the past. The reality is that the protocol that we are discussing today is clearly our Prime Minister’s protocol, and we now have an opportunity to revisit those negotiations and find a new way forward.
I wish to address the point that was made strongly by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) in his eloquent contribution around the issue of a democratic deficit. There was one thing that piqued my attention. I have served as a member of the Committee of the Regions, alongside cross-party members from Northern Ireland, such as Jonathan Bell, Arnold Hatch, Stewart Dickson—all of whom were part of a process that was set up, as an EU member state, whereby the elected politicians from different parts of the European Union undertook a supervisory and oversight role on the operations of the European Union and the single market.
I spent a good part of my life in the Centre Borschette in Brussels—the conference centre in which the European Union undertook its negotiations and discussions about the development of the single market. I was there to talk about education. I was sharing that building with people who were there to deal with anything from veterinary products, to agriculture and to any other conceivable economic area of interest. It is clear that, now that we have left the European Union, we need to make sure that we are putting in place an equivalent degree of oversight so that everybody involved in the community has the opportunity to play an appropriate part in the development of these markets. It is clear from the eloquent contributions that we have heard from a number of Members on the Benches opposite that there remains a very live concern in Northern Ireland about whether the arrangements currently in place allow for that to happen.
Even with the results of the recent election, where I recognise that the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted for parties that were in favour of the protocol, it is clear that the essence of the peace and stability that supports that economic development is that everybody has the opportunity to be part of that discussion. We know that that has not always been done as fully as it should have been in the past, and as we debate the Bill in this Committee we have the opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to ensuring that that does happen in future.
It is also important to recognise, when we look at the important progress that Northern Ireland is making in its economic development and in bouncing back from the covid pandemic, that the European Union is making a reasonable point about the need to ensure that we carry out the relevant checks on goods and products that are traded in and out of that single market—a point that we have an equivalence for in our own United Kingdom single market. There is a lot of history to that. The United Kingdom has historically been notorious, as a member of the single market, for not carrying out the checks on goods and services that we were committed to carrying out as part of that single market.
Indeed, the United Kingdom was significantly fined for having failed to carry out those checks. I know that there are businesses in my constituency trading in goods and services that have seen their ability to do so undercut when the integrity of that single market has been damaged by our failure to carry out those checks. That failure means that we have, for example, counterfeit car parts being brought into the United Kingdom and traded—not only putting people’s lives and wellbeing at risk, but damaging the economic prospects of those businesses.
As we take those negotiations forward in a constructive spirit, while we are rightly determined to protect the integrity of the UK, it is absolutely right that we also recognise that the United Kingdom has not always been as good at this as we should have been. The constructive partnership with the European Union means that we must recognise that and show our commitment to ensuring that those checks and standards will be carried out in future in a way that we have not always done in the past. It may well be that the joint committee referred to in amendment 51 will play some role in ensuring that, as negotiations progress and those matters are taken to a lower level, there will be an opportunity to drive forward to reach agreements.
I will finish where I started. The opportunity of a change of leadership is that it creates some scope for a reset in the relationship that has been clearly described at the Dispatch Box as the Government’s preferred route for achieving a better outcome. I entirely support the Government in that objective. We have already heard intimations from some of our partners across the European Union that, regardless of what they think about the merits of any individual, that reset is the chance for a fresh start.
I hope the outcome will be that we reach that negotiation without any of the powers that have been referred to at the Dispatch Box and that are causing concern ever having to come into play, exactly as we saw with the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020. The priority for this Committee, for Members and for my constituents whose trading interests are strongly affected by this Bill is that we ensure that we respect the complexity of the politics of Northern Ireland, to which we have often paid far too little attention in this House. We must support all our colleagues in achieving a deal that they can live with, one that will continue to support the stability and economic development of both the Republic of Ireland, our ally, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.
This afternoon’s amendments focus on the disapplication of the protocol and the extravagant powers that the Government hope to grant themselves. Our amendments, consistent with our amendments tabled on other days—I think we are on day 712 of this Bill—seek to balance and, where necessary, curtail those powers, to ensure that Ministers have due regard for the views and the needs of all the people in Northern Ireland and their elected representatives.
Through amendment 49, we also propose to formalise the safeguarding of the Good Friday agreement. It is referenced just once in this Bill, where I believe it is being used as an amulet to defend against repudiation of an international treaty. We are told repeatedly, although it does not reflect the understanding of the agreement that many of us have, that this Bill is about protection of the Good Friday agreement, so it is difficult to see why codifying that is being so forcefully rejected. As a lifelong and committed follower of John Hume, I am always very pleased when his ideas get a new airing and a new audience. However, it is frustrating when the concepts and ideas he spent his life developing and persuading Northern Ireland to adopt—many people took a lot longer than others to finally adopt those views, while we all seemed to happily operate in this framework—are misrepresented and distorted, as they have been at some stages of this debate. John Hume argued and finally persuaded, through the Good Friday agreement, which has enormous consent in Northern Ireland and is sovereign in Northern Ireland, that consent should rest on the will of the majority of people in Northern Ireland. Crucially, he framed that within the architecture and the institutions of the three-stranded approach in the agreement, which explicitly saw Ireland’s and the UK’s joint membership of the EU as underpinning that, and underpinning the relationships east-west and north-south, regardless of Northern Ireland’s constitutional settlement.
There is, though, a clear distinction between the principle of consent, which relates to the ultimate question of Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom, or constitutional change affecting our place in the United Kingdom, and the principle of consensus, which applies to the operation of the political institutions. My point throughout this debate has not focused primarily on the principle of consent, although that is important, but relates to power-sharing on the principle of consensus. Without Unionist support, there is not a consensus, and that is simply the reality.
I am glad the hon. Member brought up that point, because I am sure that all the Members in the Chamber have read the Good Friday agreement and will know that in the original 1998 document, the only—only—aspect that required parallel consent, other than the potential petitioning of motions, was the joint nomination of the First Ministers. Would Members like to hazard a guess as to which party disapplied that one use of parallel consent in the Good Friday agreement? It was the DUP, at St Andrews, that ruled it out. The principle of consent, as codified very clearly in the Good Friday agreement and in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, is about the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and about the consent of the majority of the people. Those are the facts, and, as people are disappearing up their own contradictions to try to justify support for this damaging Bill, those remain the facts.
I am afraid that I must disagree with the hon. Lady. Parallel consent does not apply on only one issue. In strand 1 of the agreement, the requirement for cross-community consensus applies to matters that are controversial, so the idea that consensus applies only on the constitutional issue is simply not true. The power-sharing institutions operate on the basis of consensus. If cross-community consensus was not required for power-sharing, then why on earth have we no power-sharing Executive fully functioning today in the absence of Unionist support? The facts speak for themselves: Unionists absent, no consensus, no power-sharing. For the hon. Lady to try to suggest that consensus is not required for power-sharing frankly leaves me bemused, because it is at the heart of the Belfast agreement.
This is the problem we had in the stop-start 25 years of devolution: an obsession with and an addiction to veto by the DUP, and others. Some of these points would have more coherence and would be less hypocritical if that party had not correctly—correctly—bemoaned Sinn Féin holding the institutions to ransom, which was undemocratic when it did it between 2017 and 2020. The Member was not slow in pointing that out, rightly, and his words now would have a little bit more credibility if that had not been the case. There is a difference between consent and consensus. Again, it would be a little bit more credible if he was not repeatedly ignoring the fact that a democratic majority of people in Northern Ireland oppose Brexit, particularly the hard form of Brexit that is being applied without any form of consent. I say respectfully that his words do not have credibility on this. In fact, Hume developed the notions of complementary consent, north and south, for any agreement produced by negotiations for future constitutional change in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday agreement was mandated on that basis, and while I appreciate—I was a teenager at the time, so I do not recall the press conference—that the right hon. Member said on that day that he accepted the result of the referendum, it is a matter of record that his party spent many years doing everything they could to thwart its implementation.
This debate is not about history, but at the time I was actually a member of the Ulster Unionist party, not the Democratic Unionist party—a small fact. As a member of the Ulster Unionist party at the time, even though I voted against the agreement, I said I accepted the democratic outcome. Subsequently, when I joined the Democratic Unionist party, I worked with my party to bring about the change required democratically to ensure that the flaws in the agreement were addressed. I am simply saying to the hon. Lady that that is what we are engaged in now in respect of the protocol. Let us get the change that works for everyone in Northern Ireland, rebuilds the consensus on a cross-community basis and gets us back to doing what we need to do for Northern Ireland.
I desperately hope with every fibre of my being that the position the right hon. Gentleman sets out in his final words is the one we reach at the end of this process. The people of Northern Ireland want more than anything in this world to not hear this situation being played out aggressively in a toxic fashion day after day, as it has for the last six years, but they do not believe it will happen unilaterally through this Bill. Anybody who legitimately and thoroughly supports the Good Friday agreement and the teachings of John Hume will know that this Bill is a world of logic, decency and reality away from what he outlined about consensus and power sharing.
We have tabled amendment 49 to give an opportunity to protect fully and truly the Good Friday agreement with negotiated solutions. That is where we want to get to. Members should be fair and current about the context in Northern Ireland, because people at home do not recognise the Mad Max scenario being portrayed of people unable to access goods and services in Northern Ireland—it is just not reflective of the reality. Once again I say, as I have probably done every time I have spoken on this issue, that I fully understand the hurt of many Unionists. I have also spoken about the constitutional identity of many of us. I am Irish and I am Northern Irish, and I do not pay my taxes to the same state that my passport comes from—I understand that those are compromises, and it is frustrating when the impression is given that such compromises are for non-Unionists, but Unionists should never have to compromise on their lines of governance.
In terms of the actual material effect on people’s identity, I quoted yesterday words from the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) that I agree with. He said clearly that customs checks do not alter the constitutional status of the UK, and I think he is correct, but it is also appropriate that people reflect on the reality of what is and is not happening with goods moving through, where there is not the full panoply of EU checks. The situation is evolving. We were not given the benefit of an implementation period—such was the rush from other parties to get Brexit done, they did not allow businesses a period in which to adapt—but as was always envisioned, the protocol is evolving and the EU has set out legally dropped checks that are available permanently for easement, so Members should be rational about that.
Members should also be rational about the impact of the European Court of Justice. If I understand it correctly, it applies to the sovereign parts of Cyprus in the absence of Brexit. Perhaps Ministers in their summing up could advise whether the constitutional status of those UK sovereign areas of Cyprus has changed due to the jurisdiction of the ECJ.
Consistent with those points, amendments 48 and 49 would try to apply the consensus and the trust of the Northern Ireland Assembly to some of the powers that will be exercised apparently for its benefit. That consent from the Assembly will better reflect the range of views across Northern Ireland’s diverse communities, as well as businesses, whose representative groups—Members and in particular Ministers should be honest about this—have all rejected this Bill and set out their grave reservations about it. It is important that those views be reflected, if only because Members have, shamefully, maligned some of those business representatives in the Chamber, and I do not believe that their accusations have been withdrawn.
When Ministers sum up, will they say whether they will table a report that gives qualitative and quantitative information on the feedback that the Government have received from businesses on the Bill? It is frustrating for many that little pieces of feedback are being appropriated by some, while the vast majority of feedback—the representative feedback—is being distorted. I ask the Government to commit to publishing a report on the feedback—anonymised, where appropriate—that they have received, so that we can ensure that the voices of the economic actors in Northern Ireland are heard without distortion or impediment.
It is wrong to imply, as some did in debate yesterday, that Northern Ireland exporters will have a choice on regulations and standards. In fact, customers will have that choice; that is how these things work. The UK proposes a dual-regulation system on an open border. That will require customers—mostly other businesses—to make judgments and assumptions about the validity and standards of Northern Ireland produce. The Bill creates that serious reputational risk to businesses. I must repeat that the Bill’s powers, to the extent that they can be quantified—there are a lot of unanswered questions—are unwanted by a majority of Members of the Legislative Assembly, and by all the business organisations. Our amendment will help to ensure that those powers are appropriately moderated by the Northern Ireland Assembly. I do not want to hear the all-purpose excuse, “The Assembly isn’t sitting.” We are told, as part of the two-step that is going on between the Government and the Democratic Unionist party, that once the Bill passes, the Government will give democratic governance to the people of Northern Ireland, so that should not be an impediment. I ask the Government to accept that.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. I want to make a few points about the European Court of Justice and my amendment 46. It is important to recognise that the ECJ has not been a big issue in Northern Ireland to date. No business has ever expressed any concern to me about its jurisdiction. Indeed, it was a very minor issue in political debate in Northern Ireland until Lord Frost took it upon himself to escalate the issue in a speech that he made last October in Lisbon, I think. It was on the eve of the European Commission tabling proposals for breaking the deadlock on this issue; that shows how well the Government have handled some of the so-called negotiations. The European Court of Justice seems to be an obsession for hard-line Brexiteers in this Chamber and elsewhere, and for those who advocate what could be described as a purist and old-fashioned approach to sovereignty that denies entirely the realities of the modern, interdependent world.
It is important to focus on the distinction between dispute resolution mechanisms in a free trade agreement, and the situation regarding the protocol. Many people suggest that we should simply have an arbitration mechanism for the protocol, and deliberately conflate the two types of agreement. It is entirely appropriate to have an arbitration mechanism for the trade and co-operation agreement, which is a free trade agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union. It is about two equals coming to the table and working out exactly how things will be taken forward. The position on Northern Ireland and the protocol is qualitatively different; we are talking about a region that continues to have direct access to the single market for goods, and is required to remain aligned with a body of European law, as is set out in annex 2 of the protocol. We will in a minute discuss the pros and cons of that, and the justification for it, but that is the situation that pertains, and why there is a different arbitration mechanism for a free trade agreement.
If the ultimate jurisdiction of the European Court is removed, that will jeopardise or destroy Northern Ireland’s ability to access the single market for goods. It is important that Members are fully aware of the implications of going down this particular road, because the two go hand in hand. Northern Ireland needs to remain in line with that law, and the European Court is part and parcel of how the situation works. Of course, if that were to happen, there would be massive implications for all businesses that operate on a north-south basis or that trade directly into the European Union. It is important that we do all we can to preserve that jurisdiction, while at the same time trying to fix the issues that pertain across the Irish sea. Through the Bill, a unilateral approach will be imposed on the European Union that probably will not address the issues across the Irish sea and at the same time will undermine Northern Ireland’s current dual-access opportunities.
I will go further and say this: we do not simply have to tolerate and put up with the situation. I maintain that being within the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice is actively in Northern Ireland’s interests, because there may well be situations that come to light over the years where—due to the complications around the protocol, and the distinctions between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom—some businesses and places in the European Union do not accept goods from Northern Ireland, because they are confused about the overarching situation. In such situations, it is crucial that we have the European Court of Justice to enforce the rules and protect the rights of Northern Ireland businesses. If we are to change the jurisdiction, there is a real danger and risk that we throw away the opportunity and advantage that we have.
Last night, I had a conversation with a major export business in my constituency, whose representatives said that they were recently at a trade fair in Italy and people said to them, “Thank God you’re still part of the single market via the protocol, because we cannot do business readily with your counterparts in Great Britain, but because you’re part of the protocol we have that export opportunity.” Many hundreds of people are employed by that company. It is important to recognise that issue.
The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting and important speech. In clause 20(4), the Government propose to allow cases to be referred to the European Court; they say they want the European Court to have nothing to do with any of this but are then taking a power to allow referrals. Does he, like me, think that that is because businesses in Northern Ireland that choose to operate under the dual regulatory system under EU rules may themselves, in the circumstances he has just described, want to go to the Court to demonstrate that they are abiding by the rules, and therefore ensure that the Republic or any other EU country cannot say, “We are not taking your goods”? That is in the interests of business in Northern Ireland, is it not?
Absolutely. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for reinforcing that point; there is a kernel of rationale as to why the provision is in the self-interest of Northern Ireland businesses. If the Government even slightly recognise that—without, perhaps, wanting overly to acknowledge it—that is indeed welcome. I hope that the Minister will expand on that whenever he speaks.
I want to make some closing comments on the democratic deficit. Of course, the largest democratic deficit we currently face in Northern Ireland is the fact that we do not have an Assembly, which means that we cannot do any self-government, pass any laws or strike a devolved budget, and there is money building up through Barnett consequentials to address the cost of living that cannot be allocated to help struggling households. That is the big democratic deficit that the people of Northern Ireland are talking about at present, not the intricacies of European law.
That said, I recognise that there is an issue in relation to the evolution of EU law in annex 2, over which Northern Ireland currently has no direct say. I do not want to go back through history too much, but when we were part of the EU we had, through the good offices of the UK Government, a front-row seat at discussions around the evolution of EU law. Whether it was an update of EU law or the conclusion of a new law, the UK was very much part and parcel of that.
Now, however, outside the EU, we have a degree of democratic deficit. That has been recognised. The EU has set out four strands for future negotiations—medicines, sanitary and phytosanitary issues, the customs issue and governance—so there is an open door to discuss those issues. It will not be easy to find a solution, because Northern Ireland is not a member state of the EU and will not be treated as such in terms of any future outworkings; but we have to think as creatively as we can, to give Northern Ireland political voices and as direct seats as possible at the table.
The EU proposals do not currently go far enough in that regard. They are essentially around what we would term some form of super-consultation or targeted consultation with Northern Ireland businesses, which is fine as far as it goes; but we need some means by which the directly elected political representatives in Northern Ireland can sit down with their EU counterparts and discuss the evolution of EU law. I stress that those conversations are perhaps most important in the initiation phase of the law, rather than further down the line. It is about simply saying, “That type of proposal will have a differential impact on Northern Ireland,” and it is important that we flag that early.
I recently had a discussion with representatives of the Norwegian Government. They are, of course, part of the European economic area and do not have a direct seat at the table in terms of initiation. They take a very strategic approach to trying to engage in terms of the way in which EU law is developed, and they pick the most important issues. For Northern Ireland we will have a broad range of interests for our interaction with the EU. It will be a challenge, but it is one that we must overcome.
The final point that I want to make is about the debate that has emerged around cross-community consent. It is probably a better discussion for the next stage of the Bill, but unfortunately a lot of our discussions overlap. Absolutely it is important that we have a cross-community consensus in Northern Ireland on these issues. However, we are currently seeing that a minority in Northern Ireland has pulled down the institutions and we do not have power sharing at all. To me, power sharing is about power sharing happening; it is not about blocking it from happening.
In turn, however, the Government constructed the entirety of their narrative around the Bill by saying, “Unionists have withdrawn from the institutions; therefore we must proceed with this legislation.” In that regard they are addressing only a minority. We have moved from a situation of asking whether the Government are doing something to appease the majority in Northern Ireland, or to appease a cross-community situation, to one where the Government are directly, openly and deliberately only addressing the concerns of a minority—and that includes a minority of political representatives and of business representatives.
It is worth stressing time and again that a majority of the MLAs and of the voters in Northern Ireland are at least pragmatic around the protocol, and that applies to the vast majority of businesses. Of course people recognise that there must be some degree of modification to the protocol to address the genuine concerns, but I have deep reservations if the Government twist that type of situation to say that there is justification for the Bill. We see opinion polls saying that 68% or 70% of people want to see the protocol modified or read that virtually all political parties recognise that there are changes, but that is a million miles away from any notion of majority support in Northern Ireland for this legislation. I fear that Parliament is proceeding on a false pretence to pass very dangerous and destructive legislation.
I am now going to call Jim Shannon as the last contributor on this group, and then we will have two brief contributions from the Front Bench. We anticipate that two Divisions will follow.
I am very pleased to be called to speak, Mr Evans. The Minister referred to the democratic deficit and clause 13, and that is what I want to focus on. I want to focus on the effect it has on my constituents in Strangford. I thank the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for her significant contribution, too.
I have informed the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) that I intend to refer to some remarks that were made yesterday. Yesterday, I listened to him as he told hon. Members in the Chamber what conversations took place—he seemed to know better than I did—between me and Lakeland Dairies. To go on the record, let me be quite clear: I have been assured not that Lakeland Dairies is for or against the protocol; rather that it looks at the issue of the protocol and simply wants to know how we intend to deal with it in this place, so it has the information to move forward.
I refuse to allow others in this place to misrepresent me and my relationship with one of the largest employers in my constituency of Strangford. It is also noteworthy that meetings took place on a regular basis between myself and Lakeland Dairies staff, because they understand that I am up to the case and up to the job of helping them. I have had meetings with Lakeland Dairies directors, the Minister here and Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. They were quite clear where they are on those issues. So that is where we are, on the record.
I want to see a way that works for Lakeland Dairies, but also for the seed farmers in my constituency, for the small business person, for the dog owner and for the pharmacist. Lakeland Dairies is not against that either. It has stated an opinion on how its business is currently operating and wants to know how to continue to grow its incredible global enterprise. That should not be twisted by any Member, whether it be the hon. Member for North Down or any other Member.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. It is perhaps useful to distinguish between what are two separate conversations. One is a business saying that, on how the protocol is addressed, it is pragmatic, open-minded or indeed that it does not take a position in that respect. Yesterday, we were having a very good separate discussion on dual regulation. I was articulating the views expressed quite openly by the Dairy Council. It is worth making clear that the authoritative information I have is that Lakeland Dairies is entirely in agreement with the stated public position of the Dairy Council.
For the record again, I repeat, and do so with authority: Lakeland Dairies has told me that whatever legislation is in place, if it assists the Bill to go through it will work with that, north and south, to make it happen—and that is the important point.
It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to read off a bit of paper and say this group supports this and that groups supports that, but let me tell him something. He reads it off a bit of paper. The difference between him and me is that I live this every day. When it comes to knowing the difference between a field of barley and a field of wheat, do you know something? I know it because I live it. When it comes to knowing the difference between a cauliflower and a cabbage, I know it—I don’t read it on a bit of paper. When it comes to knowing the difference between a Friesian cow and a Dexter cow, I know the difference. You know why? Because I live it. The hon. Member just reads it on a bit of paper.
If you want to know the difference, Mr Evans, between a John Deere tractor and a Ford tractor, I know it because I live it every day. I do not read it off a bit of paper. With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, he can read it off a bit of paper and know nothing about it, but you can live it and know everything about it. That is the difference—
Well, have you brought your wellies? He wants to go and buy himself a pair of wellies. Before he goes on to the farmer’s field, he’d better ask for the farmer for his permission.
I am quite concerned about how we are, so let me be rightly understood in the Committee today. The protocol can undoubtedly work for some—I have never said that it does not—but the fact of the matter is that the majority of individuals who have approached me in my constituency have told me that it does not work for them and their businesses.
If the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) was here, I could ream off to her, if she had the time and the patience to listen to me, perhaps 100 businesses in my constituency that are impacted by it. They have told me that it does not work for them or their businesses. I believe that to be replicated in other constituencies. In my intervention on the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet, I referred to businesses in South Down and West Belfast. I mentioned another one yesterday. Again, the hon. Member for North Down ignored it as if it did not matter, but it matters to me because a constituent of mine is involved.
Sam McChesney, who was on “Countryfile” on Sunday night, said that the protocol as it is at this moment impacts greatly on him, and on his cattle and his sheep. He cannot take his cattle across to the markets in Carlisle and the rest of north England or in Scotland without a financial equation being involved. Just for the record, he happens to be a member of the Ulster Farmers Union, as am I—I declare that as an interest. The hon. Member for North Down can read things off a bit of paper and hold up some names, but he does not know it because he has not lived it, unlike we who understand the agricultural business and who speak to the farmers.
I spoke to farmers on the 12th day; they happened to be in my lodge, Kircubbin LOL 1900—true blues they are, just for the record. They were telling me their thoughts on the Northern Ireland protocol and why they want it changed. When we live with them, understand them, socialise with them, and are members of a lodge with them, then when they tell us what their problems are on the farm, we know it because we live it—we don’t read it off a bit of paper. That is the issue for me; I just want to put it on the record.
I also have concerns about the 300 hours spent by the EU not to find a solution—if only that were the case—but just to be obstinate and awkward, and never at any stage to have it in mind to deal with this.
I want to ask the Minister some questions because yesterday I met people involved in the pharmaceutical business; I will be happy if he can come back to me at a later stage with answers. Should the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill pass, can the Government confirm that the regulation of all medicines, health technologies and vaccines in Northern Ireland will fully and exclusively fall under the remit of the UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency as the primary assessor and regulator, and no longer under the European Medicines Agency, as is currently the case? I want to make sure that what I am looking for and what they asked me to ask about is in place. They also seek confirmation that in such an eventuality all pharmacovigilance reporting for drugs, medicines and vaccines will thus transfer fully and exclusively to the UK MHRA.
Similarly, can the Government confirm that should the Bill become law the testing and batch release of relevant health technologies and vaccines will fully and exclusively fall under the UK National Institute for Biological Standards and Control, and that the European official medicine control laboratories network will no longer have any responsibility for Northern Ireland? Can it subsequently be confirmed that the requirements under the falsified medicines directive, which includes products having to be serialised and barcoded for decommissioning, will also no longer be required for Northern Ireland, as is already the case for the rest of the UK?
Importantly, pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies are asking for the same thing that the agricultural representative bodies that I referred to earlier are looking for: an explanation of the transitional arrangements and preparations that have been made and an account of what guidance will be issued to urgently bring clarity. Most businesses understand the nature of this Bill, but they need to know that they will have useful information from day one and not be left uncertain, as they have been in recent days.
Certainty is the order of the day: certainty that Northern Ireland can trade with her biggest market; certainty that Northern Ireland citizens can access the same medicines as the rest of the United Kingdom; certainty that farmers can get seed potatoes from, or sell their beef to, their biggest market, the UK mainland; certainty that people can take their dog on a staycation trip to Scotland without a costly pet passport; certainty that they can see their Amazon order delivered without a message telling them the seller will not post outside the United Kingdom because they think Northern Ireland is not part of the United Kingdom; certainty that they can order dog biscuits, frames or plastic flowers from their supplier without needing to fill out paperwork for each colour of each flower, which shows how absurd the EU is and why this Northern Ireland Protocol Bill needs to be law, giving us in Northern Ireland the same opportunities as the rest of the United Kingdom; certainty that our Chancellor and Government in this House can progress state aids which are currently being withheld from the people in Northern Ireland struggling with the price of daily living; certainty that the Unionist voice in Northern Ireland in terms of the upholding of the Belfast agreement is on equal footing with the nationalist voice, facilitated in this House by the SDLP and Alliance party pan-nationalist front, which is aided, disappointingly, by some on the Labour Benches—there are some that do not, but there are some that do; and certainty that, unless the people of the Province determine otherwise by a democratic specific vote, we still have the right to call ourselves as British as Finchley, as Margaret Thatcher once famously said.
This Bill is not perfect, but it starts a journey back to certainty that every single person in Northern Ireland deserves. I ask that we do the right thing.
I will refer briefly to clause 18 and the amendments tabled by SDLP and Alliance party Members, including amendments 46, 48 and 49. Despite the fact that all those Members have sat in the Northern Ireland Assembly and that they are intelligent and thoughtful individuals, there seems to be a grave misunderstanding about the role of this House in legislating through the Bill. It is not for the Northern Ireland Assembly to circumnavigate the decisions of the Minister as they pertain to individual protocol issues. Those Members should well understand the role of this House in rectifying the complete override of this House that was caused by accepting the role of a foreign power in Northern Ireland—namely, the EU: that insatiable giant that soaks everything up and takes all the goodness away. Its power was abused to punish the temerity of the British people for seeking to withdraw from Europe. We wanted to withdraw from Europe, and the Bill would give us the same authority and make me as British as Members on the Government Benches.
This United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland voted to leave. The EU abused that. Hon. Members have been unsuccessful thus far with their copious wrecking amendments. I trust that today’s latest attempt to remove authority from this place and devolve the power to the Northern Ireland Assembly, as another attempt to bypass Brexit, will suffer the same fate. We will oppose all the amendments tabled by the hon. Members for North Down, for Belfast South and for Foyle (Colum Eastwood).
I am anxious to get the right thing done in this place and to allow our capable MLAs to get back to their seats and do their day-to-day job by legislating and providing the accountability that is missing. These matters are solely the responsibility of this House. Customs, goods regulation, VAT, state aid, rules on agrifood and our very legal standing as UK citizens are being circumnavigated by the ECJ. All those are part of the package deal of being a member of the UK and ensure that Northern Ireland gets more than its fair share as a member of the UK. That power must lie here—not in Brussels, but with all 650 Members of this House and with the people of Northern Ireland through their MPs. That is who should be able to make these changes. It should not be down to some faceless bureaucrat in the EU who sits in a warm office, never sees the sunlight, looks across at us here and makes a decision about what we are going to do. My goodness, let us put that to bed—put it in the bin—tonight.
The amendments are not a serious attempt to add a layer of security. They are wrecking amendments to remove power from this place, and that should not be accepted. Members are content to receive the Barnett consequentials of Treasury funds—I am talking about Members from all the parties: if they are given the money, they will grab it. We will take it because it is ours, but we in this place should have responsibility for legislating and the rule of law.
In conclusion, I oppose the amendments. I oppose the rationale behind them by the pan-nationalist front of the SDLP, the Alliance party and some Labour party Members here. The Bill must be passed. The time for Northern Ireland to pay the price has come to an end. Members should do what they constantly ask us to do: accept the will of the people and work in this place get the best for their individual constituencies and our wee nation in this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
On a point of order, Mr Evans. Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on the use of the term “pan-nationalist front”? I appreciate that this is a heated debate, but I understand that there have been multiple pieces of guidance on the use of temperate language. The use of the term “pan-nationalist front” has led to people being put under threat of their lives. It is a dangerous concept that implies that both my party and the SDLP are somehow in league with other nefarious forces who are trying to do certain things to people. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not like me to refer to the “pan-Unionist or loyalist front” for exactly the same reason.
Clearly, Mr Speaker asked people today to use temperate language, with reference to “Erskine May”, and that stands not just for Prime Minister’s Question Time but for all debates. I know that this is an emotional, sensitive Bill, but people must be very careful with the language that they use at all times.
This has been a very wide-ranging and thoughtful debate, albeit with passion at various points. The question of a democratic deficit is one of the key issues that we have discussed. I recognise the concerns of Unionist colleagues in the Chamber, but I find it odd that the Government are pursuing a Bill with parts that remove powers from this place and the Northern Ireland Assembly and give them to Ministers here. It strikes me that that is the real democratic deficit that we are dealing with.
I hope that the other place will look at these matters in great detail in the weeks to come. I indicate our support for amendments 12 and 49, if those are put to a separate decision, but I will withdraw amendment 38.
I thank hon. Members, who have all spoken passionately. I will try very briefly to address some of their points.
The hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) asked about the impact of CJEU provision on Northern Ireland access to the EU single market. When he raised the point, I reiterated the importance of cross-community consent; I should also reassure him and the Committee that we want and intend to retain elements of the protocol that are working and preserve north-south trade and co-operation. As the Prime Minister has said, we want to fix it, not nix it. The Bill just makes targeted changes to address key concerns and restore balance.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised some technical questions about pharmaceuticals; I will write to him about them.
The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) referred to clause 18, which I assure him is genuinely less exciting than some might think. Normally, as he knows, the lawfulness of Ministers’ non-legislative actions can be taken for granted or implied. The Bill is slightly unusual in that it clarifies how new domestic obligations replace prior domestic obligations that stem from international obligations. Those international obligations are currently implemented automatically by section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. That conduit pipe currently constrains—and could cause confusion in future as to —how Ministers can act in support of the Bill. Clause 18 will remove that potential confusion.
The hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) juxtaposed Northern Ireland with Cyprus. I do not need to say to anyone on the Committee, particularly anyone from anywhere on the island of Ireland, that the history and geography of Northern Ireland is vastly different from that of Cyprus, so it is clear that different issues might arise from the remit of the CJEU. On that note, I recommend that the clauses stand part of the Bill.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clauses 13 and 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Amendment proposed: 12, in clause 18, page 10, line 9, leave out subsection (1).—(Hilary Benn.)
This amendment would remove the Minister‘s power to engage in any conduct in relation to any matter dealt with in the Northern Ireland Protocol, not otherwise authorised by this Act, if the Minister considers it appropriate to do so.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Amendment proposed: 49, in clause 18, page 10, line 15, at end insert—
‘(3) Each Minister of the Crown must have due regard for the principle that the Belfast Agreement, including its subsequent implementation agreements and arrangements, should be protected in all its parts.”—(Colum Eastwood.)
This amendment is based on the fourth point in the Preamble to Northern Ireland Protocol.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Clauses 18 and 20 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
New Agreements Amending or Replacing the Northern Ireland Protocol
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Clause 21 stand part.
Amendment 50, in clause 22, page 11, line 16, at end insert—
“(1A) A Minister of the Crown may not exercise any power to make regulations conferred by this Act unless a Legislative Consent Motion approving a draft of the regulations has been passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly.”
This amendment would prevent a Minister of the Crown seeking to use powers conferred by this Act to make regulations unless and until the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly to said regulations has been obtained.
Amendment 51, page 11, line 16, at end insert—
“(1A) A Minister of the Crown may not exercise any power to make regulations conferred by this Act before a Minister of the Crown has presented a draft of the regulations to the UK-EU Joint Committee for discussion and has laid a full report setting out the details of those discussions before each House of Parliament and provided a copy to the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly.”
This amendment would prevent a Minister of the Crown seeking to use powers conferred by this Act to make regulations unless and until said regulations have been presented by a Minister to the UK-EU Joint Committee for a discussion and a report detailing those discussions had been laid before each House of Parliament and a copy provided to the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Amendment 55, page 11, line 16, at end insert—
“(1A) A Minister of the Crown may not exercise any power to make regulations conferred by this Act in contravention of views agreed by the North-South Ministerial Council on EU matters, including those regarding future policies, legislative proposals and programmes under consideration in the EU framework as provided for in Paragraph 17 of Strand Two of the Belfast Agreement.”
Amendment 53, page 12, line 15, at end insert—
“(6A) A Minister may not exercise the power to make regulations under subsection (6) with respect to a devolved authority in Northern Ireland unless the exercise of any power by that devolved authority is approved by the First Minister and deputy First Minister acting jointly—
(a) on behalf of the Northern Ireland Executive,
(b) following a resolution by the Northern Ireland Assembly,
This amendment would prevent a Minister of the Crown seeking to use powers conferred by subsection (6) without the agreement of the First Minister and deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland acting jointly has been. The First Minister and deputy First Minister may be acting on behalf of the Northern Ireland Executive and/or following a resolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Clause 22 stand part.
Amendment 19, in clause 23, page 12, line 25, leave out from “to” to “unless” in line 26 and insert “draft affirmative procedure”.
This probing amendment would apply “draft affirmative” procedure in place of regulations being subject to annulment.
Amendment 20, page 12, line 33, leave out “draft affirmative procedure” and insert
“super-affirmative procedure (see section (Super-affirmative resolution procedure: general provisions))”.
This probing amendment would replace draft affirmative procedure with super-affirmative procedure (see NC6).
Amendment 21, page 12, line 33, leave out from “procedure” to the end of line 37.
This probing amendment would prevent Henry VIII powers (amending Acts of Parliament by regulations) being made using the “made affirmative” procedure.
Amendment 22, page 12, line 38, leave out subsections (7) to (9).
This probing amendment would remove the “made affirmative” procedure.
Clauses 23 and 25 stand part.
Amendment 2, in clause 26, page 15, line 41, leave out subsections (2) to (5) and insert—
“(2A) This section comes into force on the day on which this Act is passed.
(2B) The other provisions of this Act come into force on such day as the Secretary of State may by regulations made by statutory instrument appoint.
(2C) A statutory instrument containing regulations under subsection (2B) may not appoint a day for the commencement of any section unless—
(a) a Minister of the Crown has moved a motion in the House of Commons to the effect that a section or sections be commenced on or after a day specified in the motion (‘the specified day’),
(b) the motion has been approved by a resolution of that House,
(c) a motion to the effect that the House of Lords takes note of the specified day (or the day which is proposed to be the specified day) has been tabled in the House of Lords by a Minister of the Crown, and
(d) the day appointed by the regulations is the same as or is after the specified day.
(2D) Regulations under subsection (2B) may—
(a) appoint different days for different purposes;
(b) make transitional or saving provision in connection with the coming into force of any provision of this Act.”
The intention of this amendment, linked to Amendment 1 to clause 1, is to require parliamentary approval for bringing into force any provisions of this Act.
Amendment 33, page 15, line 42, after “section” insert
“, section [consistency with international law]”.
This consequential amendment would bring NC11 into force on the day the Act is passed.
Amendment 3, page 15, line 44, at beginning insert
“Provided that the Northern Ireland Assembly has first passed a resolution indicating support for this Act,”.
This amendment, together with Amendment 4, will make all operational aspects of the Bill dependent upon the approval of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Amendment 4, page 15, line 45, at end insert—
“(3A) A motion for a resolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly referred to in subsection (3) must be tabled by either—
(a) the First Minister and Deputy First Minister jointly, or
(b) any Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.”
This amendment, together with Amendment 3, will make all operational aspects of the Bill dependent upon the approval of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Amendment 47, page 15, line 45, at end insert—
“(3A) Regulations under subsection (3) may not be made unless a draft of the regulations has been laid before, and approved by resolution of, each House of Parliament, except that regulations under subsection (2) relating to tax or customs matters may not be made unless a draft of the regulations has been laid before, and approved by resolution of, the House of Commons.”
This amendment would make all the commencement regulations subject to parliamentary approval.
Clause 26 stand part.
New clause 6—Super-affirmative resolution procedure: general provisions—
“(1) For the purposes of this Act the ‘super-affirmative resolution procedure’ in relation to the making of regulations subject to the super-affirmative resolution procedure is as follows.
(2) The Minister of the Crown must have regard to—
(a) any representations,
(b) any resolution of either House of Parliament, and
(c) any recommendations of a committee of either House of Parliament charged with reporting on the draft regulations, made during the 60-day period with regard to the draft regulations.
(3) If, after the expiry of the 60-day period, the Minister of the Crown wishes to make regulations in the terms of the draft, the Minister of the Crown must lay before each House of Parliament a statement—
(a) stating whether any representations were made under subsection (2)(a); and
(b) if any representations were so made, giving details of them.
(4) The Minister of the Crown may after the laying of such a statement make regulations in the terms of the draft if the regulations are approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.
(5) However, a committee of either House charged with reporting on the draft regulations may, at any time after the laying of a statement under subsection (3) and before the draft regulations are approved by that House under subsection (4), recommend under this subsection that no further proceedings be taken in relation to the draft regulations.
(6) Where a recommendation is made by a committee of either House under subsection (5) in relation to draft regulations, no proceedings may be taken in relation to the draft regulations in that House under subsection (4) unless the recommendation is, in the same Session, rejected by resolution of that House.
(7) If, after the expiry of the 60-day period, the Minister of the Crown wishes to make regulations order consisting of a version of the draft regulations with material changes, the Minister of the Crown lay before Parliament—
(a) revised draft regulations; and
(b) a statement giving details of—
(i) any representations made under subsection (2)(a); and
(ii) the revisions proposed.
(8) The Minister of the Crown may after laying revised draft regulations and a statement under subsection (7) make regulations in the terms of the revised draft regulations if the revised draft regulations are approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.
(9) However, a committee of either House charged with reporting on the revised draft regulations may, at any time after the revised draft regulations are laid under subsection (7) and before the revised draft regulations are approved by that House under subsection (8), recommend under this subsection that no further proceedings be taken in relation to the revised draft regulations.
(10) Where a recommendation is made by a committee of either House under subsection (9) in relation to revised draft regulations, no proceedings may be taken in relation to the revised draft regulations in that House under subsection (8) unless the recommendation is, in the same Session, rejected by resolution of that House.
(11) For the purposes of subsections (4) and (8) regulations are made in the terms of draft regulations if the regulations contain no material changes to the provisions of the draft regulations.
(12) In this section the ‘60-day period’ means the period of 60 days beginning with the day on which the draft regulations were laid before Parliament under section 23 of this Act.”
This new clause sets out the bi-cameral super-affirmative procedure regulations under the Act, except in relation to tax and customs matters.
New clause 11—Consistency with international law—
“(1) A Minister of the Crown must not make regulations under this Act unless both the conditions in subsections (2) and (5) have been satisfied.
(2) The condition in this subsection is that a Minister of the Crown has laid before both Houses of Parliament a consistency report from a qualified person in relation to the provisions of the Northern Ireland Protocol that are, in consequence of the regulations, to become excluded provision (‘the provisions at issue’).
(3) For the purposes of subsection (2), a ‘consistency report’ is a report as to whether, in the opinion of the qualified person, it is consistent with the international obligations of the United Kingdom for the provisions at issue to become excluded provision, and which—
(a) sets out the reasons for its conclusions;
(b) sets out the steps taken by the qualified person to obtain the views of persons appearing to the qualified person to have appropriate expertise in questions of international law; and
(c) attaches, or contains references to a publicly available version of, all materials considered by the qualified person in the course of preparing the report.
(4) For the purposes of subsection (2) a ‘qualified person’ is a judge or former judge of—
(a) the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom;
(b) the Court of Appeal of England and Wales;
(c) the Inner House of the Court of Session; or
(d) the Court of Appeal of Northern Ireland.
(5) The condition in this subsection is that—
(a) the House of Commons has approved a resolution to take note of the consistency report on a motion moved by a Minister of the Crown; and
(b) a motion for the House of Lords to take note of the consistency report has been tabled in the House of Lords by a Minister of the Crown and—
(i) the House of Lords has approved a resolution to take note of the report, or
(ii) the House of Lords has not concluded a debate on the motion before the end of the period of five Lords sitting days beginning with the first Lords sitting day after the day on which the House of Commons passes the resolution mentioned in paragraph (a).”
This new clause would prevent any clause of the Bill (or regulations made under it) that create ‘excluded provision’ from coming into force until (a) an authoritative and independent legal expert presents a report to parliament as to whether it is consistent with the international obligations of the United Kingdom, and (b) the House of Commons has passed a motion noting that report, and the House of Lords has debated that report.
New clause 12—Adjudications of matters pertaining to international law—
“No later than two weeks after any finding by any international court, tribunal or arbitration panel that any provision of this Act, or any action taken by a Minister in exercise of powers granted by this Act, is inconsistent with the international obligations of the United Kingdom, a Minister of the Crown must—
(a) report to each House of Parliament setting out the extent to which the relevant court, tribunal or arbitration panel has found that any provision of, or any exercise of power under, this Act is inconsistent with the international legal obligations of the United Kingdom; and
(b) set out what steps Ministers propose take in order to bring the United Kingdom into compliance with those international obligations.”
This new clause would provide that, if an international court, tribunal or arbitration panel found as a matter of fact that any actions taken by the government under the Bill were inconsistent with the UK’s international legal obligations, the Minister must report this finding to the House, and set out what steps the government will take to ensure the UK is in compliance with its international obligations.
New clause 16—Impact assessment—
“Within six months of a Minister of the Crown exercising any power conferred by this Act to make regulations, a Minister of the Crown must publish a full impact assessment of the effect of the regulations on businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland.”
This new clause would require a Minister of the Crown who has exercised any power conferred by this Act to make regulations to publish a full impact assessment of the effect of said regulations on businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland within six months.
New clause 17—Consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly—
“(1) A Minister of the Crown may not exercise the powers to make regulations conferred by this Act before a Legislative Consent Motion approving a draft of the regulations has been passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly.
(2) A Minister of the Crown must, at the end of the relevant period, seek a Legislative Consent Motion approving the continued application of regulations made under the powers conferred by this Act.
(3) For the purposes of subsection (2), the ‘relevant period’ is—
(a) the period ending four years after the powers are exercised; or
(b) the period ending eight years after the powers are exercised where the original Legislative Consent Motion was approved by—
(i) the support of a majority of Members, a majority of designated Nationalists and a majority of Unionists,
(ii) the support of 60 per cent of Members, 40 per cent of designated Nationalists and 40 per cent of designated Unionists, or
(iii) the support of two thirds of Members.”
This new clause would require a Minister of the Crown to obtain the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly in order to exercise the power to make regulations conferred by this Act. It would also require a Minister of the Crown to obtain the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly for the continued application of the said regulations within the relevant period. The relevant period would be four years unless the vote passes with a majority in any of the ways described in Clause 3(b), in which case the relevant period is eight years.
New clause 19—Expiry—
“(1) The powers conferred by this Act upon a Minister of the Crown will expire if the Northern Ireland Assembly passes a resolution pursuant to Article 18 of the Northern Ireland Protocol (Democratic Consent in Northern Ireland).
(2) A resolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly under subsection (1) can only pass with one or more of the following measures of representational support—
(a) the support of a majority of Members, a majority of designated Nationalists and a majority of Unionists,
(b) the support of 60 per cent of Members, 40 per cent of designated Nationalists and 40 per cent of designated Unionists, or
(c) the support of two thirds of Members.”
This new clause provides a sunset clause whereby the powers expire if the Northern Ireland Assembly does not vote to approve the continued application of the Northern Protocol in 2024 in the vote required by Article 18 of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Let me, for the last time, thank hon. Members who have spoken in the previous Committee stage debates. I remind hon. Members that, although the Northern Ireland protocol was agreed with the best of intentions, it is causing real problems for people and businesses in Northern Ireland, and this legislation will fix those practical problems.
Let me turn to the clauses under scrutiny this afternoon. Clause 19 gives powers to Ministers to implement a new agreement with the European Union as soon as one can be reached. A negotiated agreement with the EU remains the preferred outcome of this Government and this clause demonstrates that very commitment.
Clause 21 allows for preparatory spending undertaken to support the aims of the Bill to be made proper in the eyes of this place. This ensures that the Government can get on with delivering the new regime as soon as possible for the businesses and people of Northern Ireland.
Clause 22 sets out the general scope and nature of the powers contained in the Bill. This will ensure that the powers have the appropriate scope to implement the aims of the Bill, including setting out that regulations made under the Bill can make any provision that can be made by an Act of Parliament.
Regulations under this Bill may not create or facilitate border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which feature at the border either physical infrastructure, including border posts, or checks and controls that did not exist before exit day. I know that some Members are concerned about the possibility of border checks on the island of Ireland. This is the clearest possible way to show that this Government will not do that.
Further to that point, will the Minister also assure us that, consistent with clause 1, regulations brought forward as a result of this Bill will not harm the integrity of the United Kingdom and will respect Northern Ireland’s place within the Union?
Subsection (6) provides that a Minister can facilitate other powers under this Bill to be exercisable exclusively, concurrently or jointly with devolved Administrations to implement the aims of the Bill, and that is our intention where this is possible and appropriate.
Clause 23 sets out the process and parliamentary procedure for regulations made under the Bill, except for those in relation to tax, or customs, or commencement, which have been dealt with in other clauses by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. Clause 23 will ensure that the appropriate level of parliamentary scrutiny is in place for the different arrangements that will be necessary for the functioning of the new regime.
I will now move on to clause 25, which sets out the definition of relevant terms in the Bill, including by cross reference to their definition in other pieces of legislation. This is a normal and regular feature of all legislation. Clause 26 makes a number of final provisions in the Bill relating to extent and commencement, which are a normal part of all legislation. That clause is vital to ensure the smooth commencement of the new regime and to give business certainty.
Moving briefly to amendments 50 and 53 in the name of the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood). This would require approval from the Northern Ireland Assembly before the Bill could come into effect, but the Northern Ireland Assembly is not currently sitting and it is precisely because of this breakdown of institutions that we need this Bill, so I ask the hon. Member not to press the amendments.
Amendment 51 is in the name of the hon. Member for Foyle. This would require secondary legislation under the Bill to be presented to the Joint Committee. It is wholly inappropriate, in our view, to give scrutiny of UK domestic legislation to the EU in this way, as it would effectively give it a procedural veto, so I urge the hon. Member not to press that amendment.
Amendment 55 in the name of the hon. Member for Foyle relates to the role of the North-South Ministerial Council. As the hon. Member knows, the North-South Ministerial Council includes Members of the Government of the Republic of Ireland and, as I said yesterday, it would be wholly inappropriate and a wholly inappropriate role for the Irish Government potentially to veto the Acts of a sovereign United Kingdom Parliament. I therefore urge the hon. Member not to press the amendment.
I will consider amendments 19 to 22 and new clause 6 together. They are in the name of the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson). My right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury covered similar amendments to clause 24 of the Bill during the first day of debate. I reiterate her comments that the normal affirmative and negative procedures for statutory instruments provide effective scrutiny for the House. I therefore urge the hon. Gentleman not to press his amendments.
I will touch on amendments 2 and 47 in a little more detail. They are tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) and seek to require a parliamentary vote prior to the commencement of the substantive provisions of the Bill. As I have outlined to the House, the EU is not prepared to change the protocol to resolve the problems we face, and there is no prospect of seeing a power-sharing Government restored in Northern Ireland if we are unable to tackle those problems. We need to bring in solutions as soon as possible to help the businesses and consumers of Northern Ireland. Additional parliamentary procedures would risk delays to the regime’s coming into force and undermine the certainty and clarity that we are looking to provide through this very Bill.
Turning to amendment 47 specifically, it would also set a concerning precedent that, when the legislature has passed legislation, the Executive are not free to bring it into force. That freedom has been a long-standing rule and one that a Government of any party would not wish to depart from. Furthermore, the amendment deviates from the previous one in that, rather than offering this House a single future debate on the issue at hand, it hands an effective veto on most of the Bill to the other place. I understand that some may find that an attractive outsourcing of opposition and a way around the conventions governing relations between the two Houses. However, the Executive , as my hon. Friend is well aware, is grounded in this honourable House and must be able to commence legislation they have agreed with Parliament. I urge him not to press his amendments.
I come now to amendment 33 and new clause 11, in the name of the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). He is right to raise the important question of the relationship between this Bill and the United Kingdom’s obligations in international law. However, the consistency report that he proposes in his amendment, is unnecessary in our view. The Government have already been clear that the proposals of this Bill are consistent with international law, so I ask him not to press his amendment or the new clause.
I respectfully point out to the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) regarding his amendments 3 and 4 that, while we need to see the restoration of the institutions as quickly as possible, it is exactly because of the breakdown of those institutions that this Bill was needed in the first place. That is why we cannot have a resolution of the Assembly before it comes into force. His amendments, by contrast, would allow the Northern Ireland Assembly to constrain the UK Parliament’s power to legislate, even if that legislation relates to a reserved matter. That cannot be right; it would be wholly inappropriate under the devolution arrangements, and for that reason and the others I have mentioned I respectfully urge the hon. Gentleman not to press his amendments.
Moving on to new clause 12, and coming rapidly to a conclusion, this new clause is not necessary, as we have been clear that proceeding with this Bill is consistent with our obligations in international law and in support of our prior obligations to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. The Government have published a summary of our legal position alongside the Bill and would robustly defend our position in any relevant legal proceedings, should they occur. I therefore ask the right hon. Member for Tottenham not to press this new clause.
New clause 16, tabled by the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna), would require an impact assessment to be published within six months of making regulations. We are currently engaging with businesses on the detail of regulations, but we need flexibility so that any regulations brought forward as the product of that engagement ensure that the new regime is as smooth and operable as possible.
Penultimately, new clause 17, tabled by the hon. Member for Foyle, would allow the Northern Ireland Assembly to constrain the UK Parliament’s power to legislate on reserved matters. As I have said before, that is inappropriate under the devolution settlements.
New clause 19, tabled by the hon. Member for Foyle, would remove the powers provided by the Bill in the event of a Northern Ireland Assembly vote for continued application of the protocol. This would freeze in place a muddied set of arrangements in Northern Ireland and remove the ability of the UK Government to manage them, so the new clause should also be withdrawn.
This Bill provides a comprehensive and durable solution to the existing problems with the Northern Ireland protocol. The Government remain open to a negotiated outcome with the EU on the protocol, but the urgency of the situation means that we cannot delay. We must act to preserve political stability in Northern Ireland and fulfil our duty to uphold the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. I therefore recommend that these clauses stand part of the Bill.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Dame Rosie, for the second part of this debate. I will speak to new clause 12 in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends.
In the debate so far, we have focused, rightly, on the Henry VIII powers that the Government seek to gift themselves, but of course the problems with this Bill stretch far beyond the sweeping powers that Ministers are attempting to take. We seem to have forgotten at various points during its passage that this is a Foreign Office Bill because it relates to an international treaty and our international obligations. Indeed, there are many crucial issues at stake in that regard, because, as has been recognised by right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House, the Bill is incompatible with international law. It is not just those who have spoken up in the House who have said that. The Bingham Centre states unequivocally:
“The Bill is in clear breach of international law”
and that the breach is “without legal justification”. It, along with many others, has argued that the Government’s so-called defence of the Bill, grounded in the doctrine of necessity, is completely baseless. As the shadow Foreign Secretary my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) set out in great detail on Second Reading—many more have done so subsequently —each of the elements of the justification for the doctrine of necessity fall flat. This is a difficult situation that we all want to see resolved, but it is not a situation of grave and imminent peril, no more than the doctrine of necessity is an excuse for countries to abandon other responsibilities or dig themselves out of holes.
Similarly, the Government’s proposed actions are not the only way possible to resolve the issue. Although imperfect, there are clear mechanisms within the protocol for resolving disputes, meaning that the passage of this Bill is not the only way to resolve these challenges. Indeed, the Government themselves continue to maintain that they seek a resolution with the EU through negotiating, which is of course what Labour Members would want to see. Therefore, not only is this Bill a clear obstacle to these apparent efforts, but for as long as a solution is even remotely possible through negotiation, breaching the obligations of the protocol cannot be the only way to protect the UK’s interests. We have discussed at great length the fact that trust is at an all-time low with this Government, and this will do nothing to help to rebuild it. Unilateral action will not find us a way forward. Either the Bill is necessary because the Government are certain that negotiations will not lead to any kind of resolution or they still hope for a breakthrough with the EU, rendering the Bill unnecessary under the doctrine.
Given this confusion and the flawed justifications offered, we have tabled new clause 11—although we do not seek a Division at this stage—which would prevent powers of the Bill from coming into effect until an authoritative and independent expert set out whether it is consistent with international law. The Government keep stating their position, but that is their interpretation. The problem is that we do not trust the Government on this, and neither do many others outside the House, while many have criticised the Bill from an independent perspective, so it is important that we understand all those views. An independent expert could make a determination on the legality of this issue before any clause unilaterally altering the protocol came into effect.
There was a time when having to table an amendment to this effect would have been unthinkable—a time when we would have legitimate political differences here in the Chamber but would never wilfully break with our international obligations as a first recourse. As I said, we do not intend to seek a Division on new clause 11, but I hope the other place will look carefully at the Government’s legal justifications to see whether they stack up. I do not believe they do and neither do many others.
I do not agree with the last part of what the right hon. Gentleman said, but actually I sat around the table with EU ambassadors and, indeed, the EU ambassador to the UK to discuss these very issues just weeks ago, so I have sat down in private, and we have said so publicly on a number of occasions. The right hon. Gentleman should be reassured on that point.
It is not just Members on the Opposition Benches who have talked about the incompatibility with international law; Government Members have done so, too. The former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) said:
“My answer to all those who question whether the Bill is legal under international law is that…it is not.”—[Official Report, 27 June 2022; Vol. 717, c. 64.]
The Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) said:
“Respect for the rule of law runs deep in our Tory veins, and I find it extraordinary that a Tory Government need to be reminded of that.”—[Official Report, 17 May 2022; Vol. 714, c. 550.]
Beyond this House, the Taoiseach has said:
“Unilateral action to set aside a solemn agreement would be deeply damaging”,
“mark a historic low-point signalling a disregard for essential principles of laws which are the foundation of international relations.”
Is that what global Britain has come to mean to this Government?
The Bill must comply with Britain’s international obligations, or we risk a collapse of our global reputation, discord with allies at a time of crisis in Europe and the risk of a raising of trade barriers during a cost of living crisis where billions are already struggling to make ends meet. That is why we want to see new clause 12 put to a separate vote today, because a piece of legislation that runs even the remotest of risks of breaching the UK’s international obligations should never pass this House, but we must be prepared if it does.
Under new clause 12, if an international court or tribunal found that actions taken by the Government were inconsistent with the UK’s legal obligations, the Government would have to immediately set out to Parliament what steps they would take to rectify the breach. Quite simply, once the Bill is passed, if the Government’s actions are found to be unlawful, it is only right that a Minister is brought to the House to explain how that has come to be and what they will do to put it right. The Government should not be afraid of that measure, because if their arguments hold sway, it would not be needed, although many others out there disagree with the position they have taken. There must be a mechanism to ensure that we can urgently restore our compliance and mitigate further damage to our global reputation, if indeed this Bill is found to be unlawful. We should not need to be pushing for this change, but if the Government insist that this is their chosen course, Members are duty-bound to do everything in our power to ensure that the Government do the right thing.
In the TV debates in the latest Tory leadership contest, the Foreign Secretary has been boasting about this legislation as an example of her effectiveness and her ability, but we see it differently. If she were so effective in her role, she would get back around the negotiating table, rather than countenance the UK breaking the international legal framework it should be championing, with huge impacts for Britain’s wider reputation and effectiveness. [Interruption.] The Minister, who I have a great deal of respect for, is chuntering from a sedentary position, but the collapse in trust in this Government has been made clear to us. With this zombie Government, it is likely that that trust has fallen to an even lower level.
I will speak briefly to some of the other amendments. I will not rehearse the arguments we have already made about the Henry VIII powers and the related amendments that we discussed in the earlier debate, except to add that many reasonable amendments have been tabled, including amendment 2 by the Chair of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill). Taking back control for this Parliament should mean that parliamentary approval is required for operationalising provisions of this Bill.
Equally, we support the principle behind amendment 3 in the name of the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry), which would make the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly required—we all want to see the Assembly functioning again—and ensure that the views of all communities are heard and considered before unilaterally making changes with wide-ranging implications, as this Bill does. Both those amendments would undo the real power grab by this zombie interim Government, trying to approve large numbers of unaccountable powers in areas of huge sensitivity. It is simply not the way to proceed. I will seek a Division on new clause 12, but we will not press new clause 11 at this stage. I look forward to hearing the contributions of others in this debate.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Dame Rosie. I am grateful to the Minister for the constructive approach he has taken, as always, and I am grateful, too, to the Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office, particularly the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns), who is not in his place. He has been very helpful in a number of discussions we have had. I welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to his place for the first time in the Chamber.
The reason behind my two amendments, 2 and 47, was well rehearsed on Second Reading and on the first day in Committee, so I do not seek to repeat that. As the House, and my hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench, know well, I have misgivings about the Bill, as do a number of right hon. and hon. Members, and I cannot say that that has changed. My right hon. and learned Friend says that amendment 47 is unprecedented. With respect, it is unprecedented for regulations to breach international law; that is why I tabled the amendment. However, he and I, and everyone in this House, hope that we will never get to that stage; of course, by far the best outcome would be for negotiated changes to the protocol, which we all want, to be brought into force. Those with whom I have engaged, on both sides of the Irish sea, have good will and are men and women of honour; I hope that that will enable us to find a window for that negotiation, if the Bill passes its stages in this House.
Of course, the Bill would then go to the upper House. As the Bill was not in an election manifesto, that revising Chamber will be entitled to look with considerable care at the issues that I and others have ventilated in these debates. The best outcome would be if that never became necessary, for the reasons that we have all rehearsed.
I have set out the caveats, have said where I hope this matter will go, and have said that it will be troubling if the Bill needs to go through the whole parliamentary process and ever needs to come into force; I hope it is made redundant by a negotiated change. In that spirit, I will not press my amendments to a Division.
I will speak to my amendment 3, and some others. The Bill is notionally about the good of Northern Ireland, but we cannot escape the reality: it is not supported by the majority of people or businesses in Northern Ireland, which rather prompts the question: why is the Bill going forward, if it is so unwanted there, and is seen as damaging to the wider community and the economic life of the region?
We could discuss consent to Brexit and the protocol, and how we got here, but I will not give into that temptation. I will focus on consent to where we are on the Bill. Brexit, the protocol and any modifications to it are matters for the UK Government and the European Union to work through in negotiations. Northern Ireland is not directly party to those negotiations. The issue of the consent of Northern Ireland, and specifically the Assembly, is recognised in article 18 of the protocol. I believe that was inserted into the protocol at the insistence of the UK Government, rather than the European Commission, so the Government have recognised the importance of the views of the Assembly.
The Government talk about the importance of Unionist concerns, and of getting some degree of cross-community consent, but the bottom line is that the Government are working towards a minority agenda. It is fine to have a debate about whether the aim should be majority consent or cross-community consent, particularly in the context of a divided society, but I am not aware of any democratic society in the world where progress is based on the views of a minority.
Well, obviously, that is about to happen in Northern Ireland, if the Bill goes through its stages. We cannot escape the reality that a majority of MLAs have signed a letter making it very clear that they do not support the Bill. I urge all Members of this House, and of the House of Lords, to respect the views of the people of Northern Ireland, who have a direct mandate. Obviously, we have a group of MPs here who represent Northern Ireland, though some of them do not take their seats, which is regrettable. The views of the DUP are not the views of Northern Ireland. Of course, we have to address the views of the DUP, alongside the views of others, in trying to find a way forward, but it is not consistent with democracy to allow that view to dictate what happens to the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland.
I have listened to the hon. Member outline to the Committee that the majority of people in the Northern Ireland Assembly are against the Bill. We hear him say that he recognises there are issues that need to be resolved, yet he was fully supportive of the Northern Ireland protocol and talked about its full implementation. He was supportive of New Decade, New Approach in 2020, yet he was against the provisions within it on the UK internal market. His party was against the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, against triggering article 16 when the conditions were met and outlined in the White Paper, and now against this Bill. When are we going to get to the stage where we actually resolve the issues in Northern Ireland?
There is a lot in that intervention. I hope that I can address the hon. Member’s points in order. I have been consistent throughout this process in recognising that there is a need for pragmatism, but the bottom line has to be that outcomes are mutually agreed between the UK and the European Union, and they have to be sustainable and legal solutions. I very much supported New Decade, New Approach; I did not support the UK Internal Market Act, because that diverged from that. Of course I want Northern Ireland to have full access to Great Britain and Great Britain to have access to Northern Ireland, and to reduce the impediments as far as possible.
We have discussed at length on many occasions a range of constructive proposals to address the issues, including the red and green channel proposal, which can only be delivered through negotiations, and wider sanitary and phytosanitary measures—preferably a wider UK-EU veterinary agreement—to address movements across the Irish sea. Those are pragmatic solutions that would address the vast bulk of the issues raised by businesses, as opposed to the ideological matters of sovereignty spoken about by people in here or elsewhere in Great Britain; that is an important distinction to make. I regret to say that at various times, such solutions—particularly the veterinary agreement—have been rejected by Unionism, and I confess that I find that bizarre.
There are some genuine concerns about the implications of the Bill. There are major implications for Northern Ireland’s economy, particularly for the ability of businesses to access the single market. There are also implications for the UK as a whole. The UK’s international image will take an even further hit from breaking international law and undermining the rules-based international order, at a time when that is so important whenever we are facing down Russian aggression against Ukraine, and other countries around the world are potentially breaching international law—I am looking at China in particular, among a number of other situations.
The UK is also risking economic retaliation from the European Union, which I do not want to happen, but is a genuine risk if this legislation passes. At a time of major economic pressure in the UK as a whole, it is bizarre that anyone would seek to make the situation worse through a trade confrontation with the European Union.
It is absurd for people to vote for and proceed with the passage of the Bill—to take all that pain and those consequences—in the name of doing Northern Ireland a favour, when the majority of people and businesses in Northern Ireland do not believe it is a favour; indeed, they believe it is incredibly harmful. The Government have acknowledged that the Sewel convention should apply to this legislation, but also recognise that, unfortunately, in the absence of an Assembly, that becomes moot.
We are in a chicken and egg situation. The Government are saying, “We can’t talk about consent of the Assembly in the absence of the DUP,” but want the Bill to get the DUP back into power sharing. Of course, if amendment 3 were accepted, there would be a huge incentive for the DUP to go back into power sharing in order that eventual consent or otherwise could be considered by the Assembly, if warranted. There is a certain inbuilt incentive to put that challenge to return to the DUP.
My amendment would essentially link commencement of the Bill to the democratic vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly. We can discuss whether that should be a majoritarian vote or a cross-community vote in the Assembly, but either would be far better than a situation where we have a minority dictating an outcome. There is, in theory, an article 18 vote scheduled for 2024, and that covers the continued application of articles 5 to 10 of the protocol. That vote will become null and void if the Bill is passed and implemented, and in particular whenever large aspects of article 5 have become excluded provisions. Indeed, the Bill goes even further; it even allows Ministers to do away with article 18 votes on a legal basis, so that the views of the Assembly in 2024 could be absolutely taken away.
The amendment would ensure that the democratic voices of the people of Northern Ireland, as expressed through the Northern Ireland Assembly, were taken into account. If the Bill is genuinely about the good of Northern Ireland, respect will be given to the views of the Assembly.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 19 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 21 to 23 and 25 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Extent, commencement and short title
Amendment proposed: 3, in clause 26, page 15, line 44, at beginning insert “Provided that the Northern Ireland Assembly has first passed a resolution indicating support for this Act,”
This amendment, together with Amendment 4, will make all operational aspects of the Bill dependent upon the approval of the Northern Ireland Assembly.—(Stephen Farry.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Clause 26 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
New Clause 12
Adjudications of matters pertaining to international law
“No later than two weeks after any finding by any international court, tribunal or arbitration panel that any provision of this Act, or any action taken by a Minister in exercise of powers granted by this Act, is inconsistent with the international obligations of the United Kingdom, a Minister of the Crown must—
(a) report to each House of Parliament setting out the extent to which the relevant court, tribunal or arbitration panel has found that any provision of, or any exercise of power under, this Act is inconsistent with the international legal obligations of the United Kingdom; and
(b) set out what steps Ministers propose take in order to bring the United Kingdom into compliance with those international obligations.”—(Stephen Doughty.)
This new clause would provide that, if an international court, tribunal or arbitration panel found as a matter of fact that any actions taken by the government under the Bill were inconsistent with the UK’s international legal obligations, the Minister must report this finding to the House, and set out what steps the government will take to ensure the UK is in compliance with its international obligations.
Brought up, and read the First time.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.
The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.
Bill, not amended, reported.
Queen’s consent signified.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
While the debates in Committee have been heated—literally, given the ambient temperature—the exchanges have been productive. Members heard detailed scrutiny of the Bill and the Government’s planned solutions to the problems that the protocol is causing in Northern Ireland. Some Members do not agree with the Government’s diagnosis, but it has been reassuring to note how many Opposition Members do agree and accept the problems, even if they do not currently accept that the Government have no choice but to proceed unilaterally. I can understand that, but unfortunately, while our door is always open, there does not appear to be a fruitful negotiation to be had with the European Union at present.
We have not had a Report stage debate, as the Committee did not see fit to amend the Bill. I, and the Government as a whole, see that as a strong vote of support for our proposals, and we hope that those who are eagerly waiting for them to come to pass in Northern Ireland will take heart in the knowledge that they may not have to wait too long, and that the House of Commons has heard them. I hope that the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) and his party will hear that too, and will continue their moves towards returning to power sharing.
The Bill is a powerful toolkit. I know that there are noble Lords in the other place who might think it too powerful, but the Government have been clear on our policy and the range of detailed regulations that will be required, and these are the tools for the job. The Bill provides certainty that the elements of the protocol that have developed into problems will no longer apply in our domestic law and, alongside that, ensures that the Government can honour their promises to the people of all the communities in Northern Ireland. We will protect that which is working to maintain the economic and social framework for north-south traders and nationalists, and we will fix that which is undermining the lives and livelihoods of east-west traders and Unionists.
This Bill is the Government’s top legislative priority. Given the grave situation in Northern Ireland, it must be so. Negotiations will always remain a possibility, and the Bill ensures that implementation of any agreement will not cause further delays. Negotiations tomorrow are always a day away, but it is today in Northern Ireland and the issues are clearly with us now. In the absence of other comprehensive and durable solutions, the Government and Parliament must act. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.
As if we needed any more evidence that this zombie Government are even now doing everything they can to avoid proper scrutiny, here we are as they push this Bill through its Third Reading with less than 24 hours’ notice—[Interruption.] We had 24 hours’ notice of Third Reading, despite what the Secretary of State is chuntering. If only Conservative Members had had the courage to remove the Prime Minister sooner, Northern Ireland and Britain’s international standing could have been spared the fallout that will be inevitable from this legislation. Just now we have heard that there are two candidates vying to take his position who are just as tied up in this mess and in whom trust has fallen to at an all-time low.
This week, Labour Members—indeed, hon. Members on both sides of the House—have tabled amendments to improve the Bill by ensuring that it would comply with our international legal obligations, to prevent a brazen ministerial power grab not just from this House but from the people on Northern Ireland, and to ensure that the changes to the protocol would have the consent of all the communities of Northern Ireland. Conservative Members have voted each one of them down, but not without knowing the facts. They know what this Bill is and what it means—but don’t take my word for it. Take it from the right hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), who called the Bill “unamendably bad”, or from the former Attorney General—
I will not give way. The hon. Gentleman has not been here throughout the course of the debates on the Bill today.
The former Attorney General, the right hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Sir Geoffrey Cox), admitted:
“I do not believe that this legislation will produce a permanent solution”.—[Official Report, 13 July 2022; Vol. 718, c. 399.]
Even the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), said that the Bill failed on all three counts of upholding international law, achieving its aims and maintaining our global standing. From these assessments and countless others, it is clear that the Bill does not address the challenges of the protocol.
Only to this outgoing Prime Minister, his zombie team of Ministers and those who have not yet had the courage to disown him completely is the Bill worth defending. Regrettably, it could be said to represent the state of certain parts of the Conservative party today. We can say that because it proposes a complete abdication of responsibility from resolving challenges that the Government themselves have created. We must remember that it was this Prime Minister who negotiated the protocol and ran an election campaign on it, and now it is the Foreign Secretary who, in vying for his job, seeks to advance her own political fortunes by unravelling it. We are truly through the looking glass. Time and again we have seen senior members of the Government attempt to make political gains from what is a very serious and fragile situation. To them, damaging our reputation on the world stage is a second thought and risking trade barriers during a cost of living crisis is a price worth paying—never mind the issues that this Bill could cause for the people of Northern Ireland.
When it comes to the protocol, Labour would not act like this. As the party that negotiated the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, we would do what we have always done: get around the table and negotiate in good faith. We would find workable, practical and sustainable solutions such as a veterinary agreement and a data sharing deal that would eliminate the need for the vast majority of checks. We would negotiate with the EU to seek more flexibility on VAT and use that to take VAT off energy bills to help with the cost of living crisis. We would not breach our international obligations or derail our relationship with European partners while gifting Ministers powers without proper scrutiny, as this outgoing Government seem ready to do.
Before Members are tempted to go there, this is not about trying to relitigate Brexit. We want to see it work, which means leadership and negotiation to defend the UK’s interest, to safeguard peace and stability in Northern Ireland and, crucially, to ensure that our word continues to mean something internationally. Trustworthiness and a commitment to the international rule of law are British values, yet those values are impossible to reconcile with this Bill and the Government’s agenda in forcing it through.
We know the protocol is not perfect, but we have all known that from the very beginning. The Government, however indignant they may be today, knew we would reach this moment. We have listened to the legitimate concerns expressed by colleagues on both sides of the House and from all communities about the functioning of the protocol and its ability to deliver for Northern Ireland and its people. Those legitimate concerns need to be addressed, and the EU needs to show flexibility and understanding in addressing them. We are under no illusion in that regard, but let us be crystal clear that this Bill does nothing whatsoever to remedy that. Labour will be voting against this Bill tonight to uphold the rule of international law and to protect our global reputation.
It is a great pity that the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) says I have not participated. I did not participate this afternoon, as the House can well understand, but what difference does it make? I spoke in Committee on previous days, and I spoke on Second Reading. We only have this Bill because of the work done by a number of people to ensure it got its Second Reading. I will leave it at that for the moment.
The hon. Gentleman, in his arguments on international law, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) and the other people whose assertions he quoted, are talking through their hats. The reason I say that is terribly simple: for those who have any knowledge of these matters—[Interruption.] Yes, I mean that. For those who understand these matters, this Bill is the only way to address the democratic deficit created by the protocol.
I am the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, and we receive a tsunami of legislation every single week that comes into Northern Ireland as a matter of EU law and binds voters and businesses, whom the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth claims to be trying to protect, without their having any involvement or influence. They have no protection from Westminster, and this Bill is so important because it gives back to the people of Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, through a sovereign Act of the United Kingdom, the right to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland are listened to and protected.
This democratic deficit—[Interruption.] I see that some Opposition Members obviously know nothing about this Bill and its content, or any of the principles of international law that quite clearly—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth is shouting at me across the Chamber, but it makes absolutely no difference whatsoever. He does not know what he is talking about, and some people who have studied this do.
The words on state necessity are “grave and imminent peril”. Nothing could be more perilous to the people of Northern Ireland than to be legislated for in absentia by an unelected Commission making proposals that are agreed in the Council of Ministers, behind closed doors, without so much as a transcript and by a majority of other countries.
Northern Ireland belongs to the United Kingdom, and it belongs to the democratic decision making of its people, just as constituencies such as mine do. I do not have to enlarge upon this but to say that the Bill is essential to protecting Northern Ireland and its constitutional integrity, irrespective of the rantings of those who claim it is a breach of international law when, actually, state necessity does provide an answer and a remedy to the democratic deficit that the hon. Gentleman does not seem to understand and clearly does not care about.
I rise to confirm on Third Reading that the SNP will also oppose this Bill, and to take the opportunity to thank Maria-Clorinda Luck from our research team and all the House staff for the support they have given us throughout this process. It has been very much appreciated.
Despite our opposition to this Bill throughout, and despite the fact that the protocol was of the Government’s own doing, we have always accepted that seeking a renegotiation of its terms was a legitimate aim. So we have tried to stay focused throughout on the content and intent of the Bill, and through doing that I have learned a number of things. Perhaps first and foremost, I have learned that the words “urgent” and “necessity”, at least in the eyes of the Paymaster General, do not mean quite what I previously thought. That was an education.
More importantly, the people of Scotland will have learned something about their own place and standing in the Union. The Paymaster General has more than once in Committee dismissed amendments that would have given the Northern Irish Assembly oversight and democratic control over whether aspects of the Bill would ever be switched on; they have been dismissed on the grounds that there is, clearly, no Assembly sitting. He has, however, also been happy to go past the fact breezily that a Parliament within these islands that is sitting, in Edinburgh, at Holyrood, has declined to give its legislative consent—but still the legislation continues without that consent.
I have tried throughout to empathise with and understand how Unionists in Northern Ireland would feel, and I have said on more than one occasion in this House that I cannot for the life of me understand how any Unionist Government who seek to have that label attached to them could ever have left Northern Ireland in a situation where there was, in effect, a trade border down the Irish sea; it is inconceivable that any competent Government could have done that. However, if this Bill brings some satisfaction to some in Northern Ireland, it throws a few issues for voters in Scotland into very sharp relief. We have found out that the precious Brexit has at all stages throughout this pantomime been much more important than the previous Union. We have found out that we do not exist in anything remotely approaching a partnership of equals. We have also found that we are no longer part of a state that can claim with any shred of credibility to stand up for international law and the rule of law and that can be respected for the stance it takes as part of that rules-based international order.
Sadly, this is not going to be the end of the process, because if the measures in the Bill are used, owing to the Government’s inability to negotiate and push at, what is, an open door, we are going to find ourselves, at the height of a cost of living crisis, experiencing even more frictions than we are currently for our manufacturers and our consumers. We will also find this legislation being prayed in aid by despots around the world as they seek to escape their own obligations under international law. What is clearest of all is that the Union in which Scots were invited to vote to remain in 2014—to “lead not leave”, as the slogan had it—has been changed utterly and is now unrecognisable. That, above all, is why we can, we must and we will have a referendum on Scotland’s future.
I will be brief. I thank the Minister and his team for the work they have done on this Bill, and I thank other right hon. and hon. Members for the contributions they have made to the Committee stage. The Democratic Unionist party supports this Bill. We believe that the Government are right to act at this time; that a very real issue needs to be addressed; and that Northern Ireland at the moment is without a fully functioning Government, because the consensus essential for power sharing to operate has broken down, and the reason for that is the protocol—that is acknowledged.
Even those parties that supported the protocol initially recognise that change is required. We have waited and we have been patient. The European Union has refused to change the negotiating mandate of Maroš Šefčovič, which means he is limited in his scope as to what can be negotiated. The solution that is required necessitates the EU changing its negotiating mandate. If it does, let us see where a negotiation—a meaningful negotiation—leads, but I am sceptical that the EU will change its mandate. In the absence of such a change, the Government are right to act, because their first priority is the integrity of the United Kingdom and ensuring that all parts of the United Kingdom can function properly, that the Acts of Union are respected and that article 6 and the rights that flow from it mean that Northern Ireland has the right to trade freely with the rest of the United Kingdom.
This Bill offers a framework to correct the difficulty that we face and to deal with the real problems that the protocol has created not just for business and consumers in Northern Ireland but by undermining the identity of the majority of people in Northern Ireland who want to remain part of the United Kingdom. We have heard a lot in this debate about majorities, but there is no evidence whatever that anything other than the greater number of people in Northern Ireland want to remain part of the United Kingdom. That is their settled will, and it should be respected. The protocol does not respect it, and that is why change is required. This Bill offers the opportunity to deliver that change, and we support it.
In closing, I say this to the Members of the House of Lords, who will consider the Bill in due course. They may be tempted to make radical changes to it, but they need to understand that the choice is not merely one of determining whether the Bill is a good thing or not. The Bill is essential to protect the Belfast or Good Friday agreement, to protect political stability in Northern Ireland, to restore the political institutions in Northern Ireland and to restore the consensus that is at the heart of power sharing. That is the choice, and if they should try to wreck the Bill, they need to understand that, in so doing, they will also destroy the consensus—the basis, the foundations—for the Belfast agreement. That will fall to them. Without that consensus the agreement does not work; that is what we are talking about here—that is the choice for those in the other place. Do they want to protect the Belfast or Good Friday agreement and restore stability in Northern Ireland and the consensus that is required for the agreement to operate, or do they not? I put that choice to them, and I hope they will be wise in the decisions they have to make.
I promise to be brief, because we have heard a lot over the last number of days and we have heard a lot repeated as well. The Bill clearly and blatantly breaks international law. It breaks an agreement that the Government made with the European Union and that was trumpeted to the electorate as a fantastic deal. I think the Bill will end up going the same way as the Prime Minister.
I will not. Sit down!
This Bill is a sop to the DUP and a campaigning tool for the Foreign Secretary in the Conservative party leadership election. If it is driven through, the only likely outcome is a trade dispute with the European Union. Well, good luck to the next Prime Minister if they want to go into the general election with prices going even higher than they already are.
I have heard a lot from some interesting people about the Good Friday agreement. I have always supported the Good Friday agreement, and I am delighted that so many people support it now. However, there is a nonsense at the heart of the argument that the Good Friday agreement is based on consensus. It is not; that is not possible. I sat in the Northern Ireland Assembly for almost nine years, and there was very little consensus in that place. Things got gone and things got voted on, but majorities made decisions.
The reality for all those people who say they care about the people of Northern Ireland is that the people of Northern Ireland do not want this Bill. Their elected representatives do not want this Bill. The representatives of the business groups we have been told so much about do not want this Bill. Anybody with any sense knows that this is a blatant breaking of international law.
We have also heard an awful lot about the Union. I think that some people in this place, who have talked a lot about the Union but have acted in a certain way around this Brexit farce since 2016, will come to regret it. There will be statues erected in the new Ireland to Boris Johnson and some of the Members of the DUP, because that is the road that they have taken us down. I fully respect—by the way—the principle of consent, and it was my predecessor who made sure that it was in the Good Friday agreement. The constitutional position of Northern Ireland, whatever anybody says and however much I want to change it, cannot be changed until the people of Northern Ireland and the people of the Republic of Ireland vote to change it. To say anything else is just not true.
I wish to end my remarks with an ask of the DUP. We have been told over the past number of months that the Northern Ireland Assembly cannot meet unless this piece of legislation goes through. Well, this piece of legislation is just about to go through the House of Commons. Will the DUP now take the opportunity to go back into Stormont to live up to their responsibilities as democratically elected leaders in Northern Ireland and do the job that people are crying out for them to do? If they do not do so, the SDLP will put a recall motion into the Northern Ireland Assembly tonight, asking them to come back in to nominate a Speaker and to nominate a Deputy First Minister, who I hope will be the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson).
Despite all the talk about the Good Friday agreement, we have to get back to working together, to working the common ground, to dealing with the issues in our health service, in our economy and in all those issues that people say they care about. We will not be able to do that if we stay out of Government for months upon months upon months, because that is how long it will take for this Bill to get Royal Assent. That is my appeal to the DUP.
I make this appeal to the Government: there is no option to unilaterally rip up an agreement. The only way that we can do these sensitive, difficult things is to sit down with our partners and negotiate. I met Lord Frost many, many times when he was in that position. I did not get the sense that he was a man determined to find accommodation and compromise. Whatever things may look like in September, I appeal to the Government to sit down with the European Union and stop using Northern Ireland as a political football.
There is a problem with the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol and it needs to be sorted out, but this Bill is not the way to do it. Indeed, it will end up making matters worse, because it has damaged trust—the very thing that is required to solve the problem. That is why I will not be voting for the Bill tonight.
You will be glad to know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I will also keep my remarks very brief.
Tonight, we have reached a milestone and we can say that we are off to a good start in this place. I am pleased that the amendments designed to wreck this Bill have been defeated, safe in knowledge that they were more about grandstanding than actually helping the businesses and constituents who, day in, day out, are affected by the protocol.
The Bill, as it is, certainly does have the potential to restore devolution in Northern Ireland and preserve the constitutional balance. Although the SDLP Members have consistently called for the re-establishment of the Executive, they fail to recognise why that Executive are not sitting—it is the fact that not one Unionist party in Northern Ireland supports the protocol. We are actually elected on that mandate. The SDLP forget and ignore our mandate, which is to ensure that our constitutional place within the United Kingdom is restored and the economic impediments to trade are scrapped.
Throughout the course of the debate, it was and is very clear that there is no alternative to the Bill. This Bill is the only solution, after everything else has been tried, to help restore devolution.
Let us now address the EU and the pipe dream of further negotiations. It is fact that negotiations have been tried and have failed. It is abundantly clear, as per the reports today in The Daily Telegraph, that the EU is not in a position to renegotiate a satisfactory outcome. We only have to look at the fact that it is continuing to pursue legal action against the UK for grace periods that virtually everyone in Northern Ireland supports as essential.
As the EU continues to demonstrate a complete indifference to the real challenges in Northern Ireland, it is naive to believe that there is a negotiated solution that comes close to delivering the objectives of this Bill. A new Prime Minister is not going to change the EU’s fundamentally belligerent approach, which in truth is less about protecting the single market and more about punishing the UK and warning other countries not to consider leaving.
Today is an important staging post, but we know there is a long road ahead. I have no doubt that the other place will try to thwart the will of this House—those actually elected to legislate on these matters—but I warn those in the other place that, if they wish to see devolution restored, they will leave well alone.
The Social Democratic and Labour party and the Alliance party parrot the narrative of others who will not even come and sit in this House. They were slow to realise the damage the protocol was doing in Northern Ireland. They eventually caught up and sought mitigations, but they still bury their heads in the sand regarding the consent of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland to the protocol. It is all smoke and mirrors to deflect from the folly of their own position.
The UK as a whole voted on the same ballot that the whole UK should leave, and leave on the same terms. It does not matter who the leader of the Conservative party is; it only matters that they repair the damage that has been done in the form of the protocol and are not bullied by the EU.
The hon. Lady makes an important point about the leadership of the Conservative party. As one of many on the Conservative side of the House who pushed for this Bill, I think it is important that the House understand that the two candidates who go forward for the leadership have also given strong undertakings on the importance of Northern Ireland within the UK and the importance of the protocol. I hope she can take that as reassurance.
I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Member. We welcome those comments, but we hope and trust that the incoming Prime Minister will not be bullied by the EU, but will bring Northern Ireland with them, restore its place in the UK’s internal market and allow it to trade on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom.
A number of assertions have been made during the course of this debate about the breaking of the international rule of law and the rest of it. Has the hon. Lady heard of the House of Commons Library paper that clearly indicates that de Valera himself broke the Anglo-Irish treaty in 1938? Not only that, but A. J. P. Taylor, in his extremely erudite book, also says that the treaty was ripped up by de Valera in 1938.
I thank the hon. Member for that wonderful point. I genuinely thank every hon. Member who has put their trust in this Bill and supported it; the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) has been a real friend to Northern Ireland. We will be supporting the Bill tonight.
Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
Bill read the Third time and passed.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 41A(3)),
That, at this day’s sitting, Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply to the Motions:
(a) in the name of Lucy Frazer relating to Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Bill: Money;
(b) in the name of Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng relating to the draft Register of Overseas Entities (Delivery, Protection and Trust Services) Regulations 2022; and
(c) in the name of Secretary Dominic Raab relating to the Remote Observation and Recording (Courts and Tribunals) Regulations 2022 (SI, 2022, No. 705).—(Craig Whittaker.)
Question agreed to.
Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Bill (Money)
Queen’s recommendation signified.
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Bill, it is expedient to authorise:
(1) the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any expenditure incurred under or by virtue of the Act by the Treasury; and
(2) the payment of sums into the Consolidated Fund.—(Craig Whittaker.)