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Northern Ireland Protocol

Volume 719: debated on Tuesday 6 September 2022

2. What discussions she has had with her international counterparts on the potential impact of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill on the UK’s international relationships. (901302)

The Northern Ireland protocol is not delivering the goals set out in it. First and foremost among those is ensuring peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland, and protecting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. The protocol is also disrupting east-west trade, including by doubtless affecting businesses in the hon. Lady’s constituency. Northern Ireland is an integral part of the UK and we must resolve the very real problems it is facing, which is why we have introduced the Bill.

University College London’s chair of science and research policy recently said that the UK has “no pathway to association” with Horizon Europe and that

“leaving Horizon knocks us back both in reputation and in substance in terms of the UK as an international partner in research. It is fanciful to pretend anything else.”

Will the Government finally accept that as a truth? What does the Minister say to researchers and academics up and down the UK who are missing out on precious funding and collaboration with European partners in the name of the Brexit vanity project?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s passionate espousal of the need for us to be a member of Horizon, Euratom and the other programmes, all of which were agreed, as she will recall, in the trade and co-operation agreement. The EU has failed to implement our association with that, and there is no linkage. I would ask the hon. Lady, with the scientific community of this country, to stand up to the EU and say that inappropriate linkages should be resisted, that they are damaging them, damaging us and damaging our joint endeavours to tackle the greatest challenges facing mankind, and it is something that needs to change.

I think we can all agree that the protocol, as it stands today, has become a thorn in the side of relations between us and Ireland, and indeed a thorn in Ireland’s side as it seeks to move things forward with the rest of the EU. Is it not time that we proceeded with the humility to recognise the legitimate interests of all parties to the protocol and the fierce resolve to say enough is enough and it is time to solve the evident problems that have arisen and to evolve the protocol in a negotiated way, if possible, but in any event to a solution that can last?

My hon. Friend is right. The protocol is not delivering the main objectives set out on its face. That is why something has to be done. I was delighted to spend Friday and Saturday at the British-Irish Association with the Taoiseach and the Irish Foreign Minister and, indeed, the vice-president of the European Commission. I believe, as I am sure my hon. Friend does, that our clear preference for a negotiated solution is the right one. I would further add that the Bill includes the facility to accelerate any negotiated agreement, and that is very much our offer to the EU. We prefer a negotiated solution. It is very important to put this right.

Can the Minister assure us that in any of his discussions with his international counterparts he will robustly argue that the protocol cannot continue? Will he explain that it has ripped apart the Belfast agreement, it has undermined democracy in Northern Ireland, it has increased costs to consumers and businesses, it has disrupted Great Britain and Northern Ireland trade and displaced it with trade from the Republic, and it is being cynically used by the EU as a mechanism to punish the UK for leaving the EU, regardless of the cost to the people of Northern Ireland?

The hon. Gentleman makes very strong points. At the heart of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is the idea of communities coming together, to have the Executive, to make sure that we put the war-torn years and all that tragedy behind us. It is clear that not just one party in Northern Ireland but the entire Unionist community has ruled out the protocol as a route to delivery of that. And, of course, there is disquiet in all communities, as can be found in the surveys of, for instance, the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies.

I recently met a cross-party delegation of MPs from Tunisia, who are united in their opposition to the forced closure of the Parliament building with tanks by President Saied, and now his proposed rewriting of the constitution. To date, Tunisia has been the one spark of hope—

Order. That is not relevant to this question. I thought that there must be something somewhere, but I cannot spot it. Let us go to the shadow Foreign Secretary, David Lammy.

We are facing a cost of living crisis in which bills are sky-rocketing and people across the country will face the choice between eating or heating. Instead of proposing a solution, the Conservatives have spent the summer ramping up the rhetoric on the protocol, to risk new trade barriers with Europe. This Minister has had a recent elevation. Will he take this opportunity to commit to scrapping the reckless Northern Ireland Protocol Bill so that the Government can begin serious negotiations with the EU to fix the protocol and avoid hitting the British public in their pockets?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for yet again making it so crystal clear, both to the House and to the British public, that in any dispute he and his party will always side with the EU and not with the interests of the British people. [Interruption.] As he says, I am horribly new to this brief. The first thing I did on the first weekend after my appointment was to read the protocol. It does not matter how we look at it, the protocol is not functioning and it is not working. For him and his party to suggest that it is us and not the EU that needs to change tack shows that, yet again, he betrays the British people and shows why Labour now, in the past and in the future is unfit for office.

I find myself in unexpected agreement with the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson): I do believe that the protocol is being cynically abused. However, I do not think that it is being cynically abused by the EU; it is being cynically abused by the future Prime Minister. The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is wrong in international law; wrong in politics, in that most MLAs support the protocol; and wrong as a negotiating tactic, because it has put backs up across the EU. There are ways of reforming the protocol within the protocol, but that has been ignored. The only way that the Bill makes sense to me is as a vehicle for the future Prime Minister to prove how tough she is on Europe. Now is the time to get rid of it. As we have heard, it is stymieing lots of constructive relations. Will the Minister please pass that on to the future Prime Minister?

As I have said, I am new to this, but I have looked at the protocol and it is not working. There are three main priorities. One is the protection of the single market—perhaps there is a tick. On the Good Friday agreement, peace in Northern Ireland and community consent, that is required by the protocol but it is not working, and neither is the prevention of unnecessary blockage for east-west trade. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman, and even the shadow Foreign Secretary, might have put their constituents and the businesses that they represent first, and for once been prepared to recognise that it is the British Government who are correct. We are ready to negotiate. As the hon. Gentleman said, the protocol set out the objectives and said that it might need amendment, it might need replacement, but in any event it needs consent. That is what the protocol says. I suggest that he reads it, rather than insisting on the imposition—