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Irish Border: Checks and Customs Arrangements

Volume 799: debated on Tuesday 1 October 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, and on behalf of my noble friend Lord Callanan of the Department for Exiting the European Union, I will now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given in the other place earlier today by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union:

“Mr Speaker, we are committed to finding a solution to the North/South border which protects the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We can best meet these commitments if we explore solutions other than the backstop.

The backstop risks weakening the delicate balance embodied in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. This was grounded in agreement, consent, and respect for minorities. Removing control of the areas of commercial and economic life of Northern Ireland to an external body, over which the people of Northern Ireland have no control, risks undermining that balance. Any deal on Brexit on 31 October must avoid the whole or just part—that is, Northern Ireland—being trapped in an arrangement where it is a rule taker.

The Government intend to set out more details on our position on an alternative to the backstop in the coming days. In the meantime, I can assure the House that under no circumstances will the UK place infrastructure, checks or controls at the border. Both sides have always been clear that the arrangements for the border must recognise the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland and, reflecting that, be creative and flexible.

The Prime Minister’s European Union sherpa, David Frost, is leading a cross-government team in these detailed negotiations with Taskforce 50. We have shared in written form a series of confidential technical non-papers, which reflect the ideas the United Kingdom has been putting forward. These papers are not the Government setting out our formal position. These meetings and our sharing of confidential technical non-papers show that we are serious about getting a deal, and one that must involve the removal of the backstop”.

My Lords, if there is an ounce of truth in the reports today that the Government’s technical non-paper, or indeed a real paper, dealing with the Irish border is suggesting physical infrastructure or indeed anything that currently does not exist at the border, does the Minister accept that that could compromise the Good Friday agreement, that it flies in the face of the joint declaration of 2017 and that it would break the law as outlined in Section 10(2)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018? Can he categorically tell the House that no such proposals have been considered?

My Lords, the noble Lord speaks with wisdom on this matter and brings great experience to the question. I can be categorical: there will be no infrastructure at the border. That is the policy of this Government; it continues to be that, and it will be that going forward. As for the technical non-papers, those are matters for discussion with the EU and it would be inappropriate just now to talk further on them, but this House will have ample opportunity in due course to examine them in the thorough and careful detail that I know it will take to do so.

My Lords, has the Prime Minister not acknowledged that there will be physical customs posts within striking distance of both sides of the border? Would that in itself, according to the reaction that we have seen across Northern Ireland, not be deemed by most people to be incompatible with the Good Friday agreement? Could the Minister respond to the freight industry’s suggestion that any such proposal would require designated routes, which clearly would require restrictions on other routes across the border and therefore would in themselves be fundamentally disruptive of free movement across the border? This is a non-paper so presumably the Government are sounding the water, but do they not recognise that what they are coming up against is that there is no Brexit arrangement that will not deeply damage the economy and security of the people of Northern Ireland and indeed of the rest of the UK as well?

My Lords, I had the pleasure this morning of waking up to the dulcet tones of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister on the “Today” programme. When he was asked about proposing a customs border five to 10 miles back from the border, he was very clear, saying: “That’s not what we are proposing at all”. I reiterate the point that there will be ample opportunity to discuss this very clearly. It is very difficult to discuss a non-paper when the non-paper is not available to discuss.

My Lords, given that the Government have formally and legally agreed with the EU on no border, no hard-border-related checks or controls between Ireland and Northern Ireland, preserving an all-Ireland economy and the single market, and protecting North/South co-operation as part of the new Good Friday/Belfast agreement, can the Minister explain why they appear ready to present proposals in Brussels that achieve precisely none of those objectives—including by suggesting customs checks away from the border, as I heard the Prime Minister indicate today that they would do? Surely the Government are proposing to break the law again by contravening Section 10(2)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which specifically bans,

“border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after exit day which feature physical infrastructure, including border posts, or checks and controls, that did not exist before exit day and are not in accordance with an agreement between the United Kingdom and the EU”?

The noble Lord raises a point that we must be very clear in answering. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has been very clear: there will be no infrastructure, no checks and no controls at the border, and we will be in full conformity with our obligations under the law. With regard to the comments that have been floating around today regarding the dialogue with the EU, it will be easier to have a proper discussion on this issue when those documents are in the public domain, as they will be, to facilitate that very discussion and the interrogation by the Members of this House.

My Lords, we are having a debate tomorrow on the European Union. Not only do we not have a non-paper; we do not have any paper. It is very difficult to negotiate, suggest or judge if you have absolutely nothing in front of you. I appeal to the Minister to implore his colleagues that if we have a general debate tomorrow, at some point immediately thereafter—whether next week or whenever—we actually put down proposals in black and white that this House can debate and, hopefully, share with the other place. We are running around in circles and arguing over language, one thing is contradicting the other, and this merely adds to and builds up the uncertainty that is so corrosive to not only our economic but our political existence.

My Lords, it is important to stress that this House is not itself negotiating: the UK Government are negotiating with the EU. It is important in that negotiation itself to respect the conditions of the negotiation. Equally, it will be vital for this House and the other place to fully examine that which emerges from those negotiations, as it is right and proper to do.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm the point made by my noble friend Lord Hain that any new infrastructure at or near the border would be a breach of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018?

The UK Government will not breach that Act. As I have been very clear before, the discussions that we must necessarily have as a preamble to the negotiations will be fully transparent and available to all here and in the other place to interrogate, as I am sure they will, very thoroughly.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that it is still the Government’s policy that no new border checks will take place in the Irish Sea as a consequence of any deal being reached with Europe?

My Lords, is it the Government’s intention that goods coming from the Republic of Ireland to the United Kingdom via Holyhead will be subject to exactly the same sort of border controls as those in Northern Ireland, or is Northern Ireland being treated differently from the rest of the United Kingdom?

It is not the intention of this Government to have Northern Ireland treated any differently from any other part of this, our United Kingdom.

My Lords, in a situation where there is no technology to deal with the interface between the European Union and, in this case, the United Kingdom, and recognising as the Minister does the need for the economic interests of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to be protected, there must be a mechanism to allow manufacturing and trade to continue uninterrupted on 31 October and 1 November. Surely the Minister has to agree that, in the absence of other ideas—and we have not really heard any—the compromise must be a time-limited backstop which does not keep us in the European Union indefinitely, without any power to withdraw unilaterally? As I hope that the Minister is aware, the risk of attack on any physical structure, no matter where situated, is very high. Dissidents are still active, and the UVF on Sunday announced that it would continue to fight if the situation deteriorates further.

The important thing to stress right now is that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has put to the European Union, in a series of clear technical papers, different approaches that can be considered in those negotiations. He will take the full position and present that to his European Union colleagues over the weekend. Thereafter it will come to this House and the other place for a full and careful consideration.

Will the Minister please explain his advice to your Lordships that we will all have plenty of time to discuss this matter? Can he explain how, if the Prime Minister comes back with a deal in the middle of October, he is going to be able to comply with the provisions of Section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 and legislate for the actual withdrawal agreement itself, without requesting an extension of time from 31 October?

My noble friend asks an important question, to which the answer has been straightforward. It is the intention of this Government to leave the European Union on 31 October.

My Lords, like the Minister, I have got information only from Radio 4 on what is going forward, but that seems to be common parlance. Excuse my ignorance of the situation, but my under- standing is that a border between two countries is set as a line. However, the Minister is indicating that there will be no checks on the border, but the border zone could be 10 miles wide.

Again, the Prime Minister made it very clear this morning, on the show which we all tuned in to, that that is not what he is proposing at all. There will be no new infrastructure on the border. I hope the negotiations which are taking place right now will lead to a successful conclusion which can be interrogated by this House in due course.

Could the Minister confirm that the Government are abandoning the solemn commitment that they made in December 2017 to ensure regulatory alignment on the island of Ireland?

I am happy to respond simply to the noble Lord. We will continue to meet our obligations as we have set out before this House and the other place, and we will continue to do so throughout the negotiations themselves.