My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place. The Statement is as follows:
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a Statement on the Government’s proposals for a new agreement with our European friends that would honour the result of the referendum and deliver Brexit on 31 October in an orderly way, with a deal. This Government’s objective has always been to leave with a deal and these constructive and reasonable proposals show our seriousness of purpose. They do not deliver everything we would have wished. They do represent a compromise. But to remain a prisoner of existing positions is to become a cause of deadlock rather than breakthrough. So we have made a genuine attempt to bridge the chasm, to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable and to go the extra mile as time runs short.
Our starting point is that this House promised to respect the referendum before the vote. More people voted to leave than voted for any political party in our history. The referendum must be respected. Both main parties promised at the 2017 election that they would respect the referendum and there would be no second referendum. This House voted to trigger Article 50 and has voted repeatedly to leave. Yet it also voted three times against the previous withdrawal agreement and for repeated delay. And so, as I have emphasised time and again, there can be no path to a deal except by reopening the withdrawal agreement and replacing the so-called backstop.
While, as I stand here today, we are some way from a resolution, it is to the credit of our European friends that they have accepted the need to address these issues. I welcome the constructive calls that I have had over the last 24 hours, including with President Juncker, Chancellor Merkel and Taoiseach Varadkar, and the statement from President Juncker that the Commission will now examine the legal text objectively.
The essence of our new proposal is a new protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland consisting of five elements. In the first place, all our actions are based on our shared determination to sustain the Belfast Good Friday agreement—the fundamental basis of governance in Northern Ireland—the protection of which is the highest priority of all. From this follows the second principle; namely, that we shall of course uphold all the long-standing areas of co-operation between the UK and our friends in Ireland, including the rights of all those living in Northern Ireland, north/south co-operation, and the common travel area, which predates both the Good Friday agreement and the European Union itself.
Thirdly, we propose the potential creation of a regulatory zone on the island of Ireland covering all goods, including agri-food. For as long as it exists, this zone would eliminate all regulatory checks for trade in goods between Ireland and Northern Ireland. But, fourthly, unlike the so-called backstop, such a regulatory zone would be sustained with the consent of the people of Northern Ireland, as expressed through the Assembly and Executive. They will give their consent during the transition period as a condition for these arrangements entering into force. Thereafter, the Assembly will vote again every four years. If consent were withheld, these arrangements would then lapse after one year.
Fifthly, it has always been a point of principle for this Government that, at the end of the transition period, the UK should leave the EU customs union whole and entire, restoring sovereign control over our trade policy and opening the way for free trade deals with all our friends around the world. That is a fundamental point for us. So, under the proposals in this new protocol, Northern Ireland will be fully part of the UK customs territory and not the EU customs union, but there will be no need for checks—or any infrastructure—at or near the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Indeed, I have already given a guarantee that the UK Government will never conduct checks at the border, and we believe that the EU should do the same, so there is absolute clarity on this point.
Instead, under this new protocol, all customs checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland would take place either electronically or, in the small number of cases where physical checks would be necessary, they would happen at traders’ premises or other points in the supply chain. We have put forward a method for achieving this, based on improving and simplifying existing rules, trusting certain traders and strengthening our co-operation with Ireland, in a spirit of friendship and sensitivity to the particular circumstances. While these proposals will mean changes from the situation that prevails today in Ireland and Northern Ireland, it is their driving purpose to minimise any disruption. In order to support the transition further we propose a new deal for Northern Ireland, which will boost economic growth and competitiveness and set in train new infrastructure, particularly with a cross-border focus.
The previous withdrawal agreement and political declaration would have permanently anchored the United Kingdom within the orbit of EU regulation and customs arrangements. An indefinite so-called backstop provided a bridge to that vision of the future. This Government have a different vision, basing our future relationship with our European neighbours on a free trade agreement and allowing the UK to take back control of our trade policy and our regulations. We propose to amend the political declaration to reflect this ambition. Our proposals should now provide the basis for rapid negotiations towards a solution in the short time that remains.
I do not for one moment resile from the fact that we have shown great flexibility, in the interests of reaching an accommodation with our European friends and achieving the resolution for which we all yearn. If our European neighbours choose not to show a corresponding willingness to reach a deal, then we shall have to leave on 31 October without an agreement, and we are ready to do so. But that outcome would be a failure of statecraft for which all parties would be held responsible. When I think of the conflicts that have wracked Europe in the past, of the immense challenges that we have surmounted, of the 74 years of peace and prosperity that we have together achieved, I believe that surely we can summon the collective will to reach a new agreement.
This Government have moved. Our proposals do represent a compromise, and I hope that the House can now come together in the national interest behind this new deal, to open a new chapter of friendship with our European neighbours and move on to our domestic priorities, including education, infrastructure and our NHS. So let us seize this moment to honour our overriding promise to the British people, respect Brexit and get Brexit done. I commend this Statement to the House”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I first thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement. I think that most of us listened carefully to what the Prime Minister has said today. The Statement was very different in tone to what we heard last Wednesday, so hopefully her entreaties to the Prime Minister had some impact.
When the Prime Minister took office in July, we were promised a fresh approach to Brexit, and that, despite actions suggesting the opposite, the Government really wanted to strike a deal with the EU. Having patiently awaited the result of the Conservative Party leadership contest, our EU partners were promised certainty by Mr Johnson. The de facto Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Gove, tells us that the new Cabinet Brexit sub-committee has had dozens of meetings over the summer, leading to a new plan for the Irish border being drawn up and dispatched to Brussels.
It is perfectly legitimate for the new Prime Minister to want to put his own plans to Brussels. In doing so, however, he would have been conscious that the Article 50 process was designed to take two years—not just the two weeks before the last European Council summit—for good reason. It was unfortunate that his advisers briefed the media that this would be a take-it-or-leave-it offer. Thankfully the tone has shifted to something much more conciliatory. We welcome that.
We must, however, face facts. Despite being welcomed by the DUP—I am sorry that our DUP colleagues are not here today for the Statement—the plan has been dismissed by all the other major political parties in Northern Ireland, as well by manufacturing and retail bodies. Retail NI’s Glyn Roberts said that the proposal was “worse than no deal”. Trevor Lockhart, the group chief executive of an agri-foods business, said on this morning’s “Today” programme:
“It is ultimately a balance between what works politically and what works economically. The UK backstop, for us, delivered economically but clearly did not work politically, and in the pursuit of getting a political solution the interests of businesses in Northern Ireland to some extent have now been sacrificed”.
Those are harsh words. For a plan centred on the principle of consent, there appears to be little consent for it.
Last night the noble Lord, Lord Empey, powerfully made the point that the Government were reneging on their commitment not to have a border down the Irish Sea. Like him, I struggle to understand the position of the DUP, as that party has opposed a border in the Irish Sea since the very start of the Brexit process.
Those in the know told us to watch out for the reaction from the EU 27. No news would be good news; it would mean talks were going into the tunnel for further discussion, and a deal was possible. Anything more than a basic acknowledgement of receipt would spell trouble. What, then, was the verdict? The Taoiseach warns that the texts tabled,
“do not fully meet the agreed objective of the backstop”.
The President of the Commission, while welcoming a degree of clarity about the UK’s intentions, noted several “problematic points”. The European Parliament’s Brexit steering group was less than enthusiastic, and that institution, which has to ratify any agreement, has already signalled that it will not support a deal without a backstop.
As I noted earlier, now that the party conference season is over, the Prime Minister appears to be approaching matters differently. I hope that talks will continue and progress will be made. However, given the leaked and very unwise memo calling on Conservative MPs to call the EU “crazy” if it rejects such a plan, it is vital that these talks take place in good faith.
So let us look briefly at the issues with the proposals. Despite warm words from the Government on the Good Friday agreement, it is not clear that this arrangement would uphold the UK’s commitments. The plans talk of a limited number of physical inspections taking place away from the border at the premises of producers, or perhaps further down the supply chain. I listened carefully to what the noble Baroness said, but is she able to confirm what arrangements are envisaged for such checks? Would the system operate in the same way as the Sweden/Norway border, with UK customs officials able to inspect premises in the Republic and vice versa—because that is how Norway/Sweden works?
The use of electronic submissions for trusted traders is surely part of the solution, but I am slightly concerned that the clue is in the name—it works only for “trusted” traders. What would the criteria be for a “trusted trader” under the new scheme? How do the Government envisage dealing with irregular traders, or those attempting to smuggle goods across the border, particularly if the UK ends up not participating in EU-wide intelligence and data-sharing schemes? Is the Prime Minister confident that his answer to that will reassure the EU 27 with regard to upholding the integrity of the single market?
Key to the plans is the inclusion of agri-food, a sector that relies heavily on cross-border trade, in a single regulatory area across the island of Ireland. Has the Lord Privy Seal had an opportunity to reflect on the comments of the Food and Drink Federation, which last night said that,
“these proposals don’t work for shoppers and consumers. That’s because they ask food and drink businesses operating in Northern Ireland to pay—through new bureaucracy and costs—for the Government’s inability to agree a comprehensive exit deal”?
Such concerns have been echoed by a variety of retail organisations across Northern Ireland and the Republic.
On these Benches, we are extremely worried by the Government’s insistence that there is,
“no need for … extensive level playing field arrangements”,
in the withdrawal agreement. The Leader of the House and the Minister sitting next to her will have heard the debates over the past couple of years in your Lordships’ House, and they will understand that what has been spoken about is more than mere customs procedures. Such arrangements cover social, employment and environmental standards, which completely underpin the contents of the political declaration. Can the Leader confirm whether the Government wish now to amend the political declaration? If so, have they prepared a new text? Do they believe that it is feasible to secure substantial changes to and ratify—including passing the withdrawal agreement Bill through both Houses—the withdrawal agreement and political declaration in the time available over the next two to four weeks?
Simon Coveney, the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Ireland, has indicated that if this were the final offer, the outcome on 31 October would be a no-deal exit. However, the Prime Minister has toned down his rhetoric since the Conservative Party conference and has talked about this being a “broad landing zone” for a deal, with the Government prepared for further discussions and further concessions. However, the fact remains that time is tight if Boris Johnson and his advisers stick to their “31 October or die-in-a-ditch” mantra. The fact is that the withdrawal Act No. 2 is a lifeline for the Government. It is an irony that the Prime Minister’s best chance of securing deal is an Act that he has opposed and done nothing but attack.
Noble Lords will recall that exactly this scenario was envisaged during our earlier debates on the first withdrawal Bill. We argued that it would be wrong to tie the Government’s hands if they were close to a deal but running out of time because of an inflexible exit date. The Prime Minister says in his Statement that,
“we are some way from a resolution”.
The extension legislated for in the most recent withdrawal Act gives the Prime Minister the flexibility he needs if he genuinely wants to get that deal over the line. Therefore, given that the Prime Minister feels that his proposal is the basis for further talks, does the Leader also accept that that is what he is suggesting? If a version of this proposal is agreed with the EU, are the Government confident that the necessary systems can be put in place during the transition period ending in December 2020? What are the Government doing to ensure, and is the Leader confident, that Stormont will be sitting by then?
My Lords, I too thank the Leader of the House for repeating a Statement that was written in much more measured tones than the one she was required to read last week. It is thanks to the purported Prorogation having been nullified that Parliament can now hold the Government to account on this important development. It is worth reflecting that if that had not happened, these important proposals would have been brought forward without Parliament being in session to examine them.
It is important that we examine these proposals, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, has asked a number of detailed questions on their application and how it is proposed that the arrangements will work. It appears that, from having no borders as a full member of the European Union, the Prime Minister’s proposals would give Northern Ireland two borders. Does the Minister believe that these proposals are better for the economy and, above all, for the security of Northern Ireland than what Northern Ireland has at present? It is important, too, that we closely examine the proposal of a “potential”— the word is there in all the documents—regulatory border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and customs checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Simply to state that position must surely suggest that Northern Ireland’s economy would be in a worse position.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, quoted a number of businesses that have expressed considerable scepticism about the proposals. The Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry said:
“Businesses are telling us that the potential increased costs will seriously damage … supply lines and indeed business survival.”
There are other quotes that could be repeated from spokespersons who have cast doubt on the workability and cost of these proposals. It would be interesting to see whether the Minister, when she comes to reply, can quote any business or business organisation which, in the last 24 hours, has given support to these proposals. The proposals depend on electronic and, in some cases, physical checks—possibly on business premises. What estimate have the Government made of these added costs to businesses as a consequence of such additional surveillance?
Last night, in response to a point that has been raised on a number of occasions, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, said that the proposals did not breach Section 10(2)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018,
“because they avoid checks, controls and physical infrastructure at the border”.—[Official Report, 2/10/19; col. 1765.]
I note his words, “at the border”, but if one looks at Section 10(2)(b) of the 2018 Act, it refers to creating or facilitating,
“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”.
I believe there is a difference between “at the border” and border arrangements; customs arrangements are by their very nature border arrangements. Can the Minister confirm that the proposals put forward by the Prime Minister conform with the provision, given the clear indication in his Statement that checks could take place at designated locations anywhere in Ireland and Northern Ireland?
The Statement referred to the,
“potential creation of an all-island regulatory zone on the island of Ireland, covering all goods.”
It goes on to say that it would eliminate,
“all regulatory checks for trade in goods between Ireland and Northern Ireland”.
So, of course, there would be checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Will the Minister indicate whether this would be a two-way process? The Prime Minister, I understand, seemed to indicate in a reply that it would be only one way: for goods coming from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. Surely, however, if Great Britain has higher regulatory standards than the European Union, there would be checks for goods coming from Northern Ireland into Great Britain. Can she confirm whether that would indeed be the case, or is the Government’s working assumption that there will never be situations where the regulatory regime in Great Britain would be more stringent than that in the European Union? Have the Government had any discussions with the Scottish Government as to the implications of this proposal for any infrastructure required for such checks at Cairnryan?
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, referred to the powerful speech yesterday evening by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, who wondered how the DUP could possibly sign up to it. He gave various quotes at col. 1744, quoting DUP spokespersons opposed to any form of regulatory divergence. Why would they? Maybe the secret is that the answer is in the word “potential”, if it is read in conjunction with the consent arrangements, which in the explanatory note provided, refer to consent,
“within the framework set by the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement”.
There are people in your Lordships’ House who are far more expert in the intricacies of the Good Friday agreement and the procedures in the Northern Ireland Assembly than I am—I am conscious that my noble friend Lord Alderdice is behind me—but I understand there is a procedure called a petition of concern. Is it possible that a petition of concern could be used to ensure that these arrangements never take place, and could be vetoed by the DUP and others before they ever had a chance to take off? Does the Minister think that that enhances the chances of this arrangement being agreed to, not only by the Government of Ireland but by the European Union?
The Written Statement laid by the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, yesterday and reflected in the Prime Minister’s Statement, refers to a revised political declaration. The Statement says:
“In parallel, we will be negotiating a revised Political Declaration which reflect this Government’s ultimate goal of a future relationship with the EU that has a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement at its heart”.
While there is a lot of detail on the arrangements with Ireland, there is very little detail on what arrangements or provisions are sought for the political declaration. It would be helpful if the Minister, when she comes to reply, would indicate what provisions are proposed. Does it mean that the reassurances we had in times past about maintaining workers’ rights and environmental protections may no longer be the case?
The Statement from the Prime Minister also says:
“If our European neighbours choose not to show a corresponding willingness to reach a deal, then we shall have to leave on 31st October without an agreement and we are ready to do so”.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, has already indicated how the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act might come to the assistance of the Government, but assuming this agreement does not pass, and that the House of Commons does not agree to no deal, can the Minister indicate in detail how the Prime Minister can state that in these circumstances, we shall have to leave on 31 October without an agreement consistent with the provisions of that Act?
Obviously, an orderly departure from the European Union is preferable to a disorderly one. However, we on these Benches do not believe there is any agreement that can be reached which gives us a better deal, in terms of our security, our prosperity, our trade, our jobs, or the future opportunities for our young people than the deal we have at present, as full members of the European Union. That applies to the United Kingdom as a whole and to Northern Ireland in particular.
I thank the noble Baroness and the noble and learned Lord for their comments. I reiterate once again that we are committed to and focused on getting a deal, which is why we have brought forward these new proposals. I also remind noble Lords, who will be aware of this, that the House of Commons has rejected the previous withdrawal agreement three times; therefore, to get a deal, we have had to come forward with new proposals.
I reassure the noble Baroness that she is absolutely right: we believe that these proposals set out a reasonable compromise and that they are a broad landing zone in which a deal can take shape. We are pleased that our European colleagues have said that they will look at these proposals. Detailed discussions will now have to take place on them. I can reassure her that David Frost, the Prime Minister’s lead negotiator, is back in Brussels today. Intensive talks will be ongoing and we look forward to continuing them to ensure we can get a deal that everybody is happy with. We are committed to supporting the all-Ireland economy by avoiding checks and infrastructure at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, keeping Northern Ireland in the same customs territory as Great Britain and ensuring unfettered access for Northern Irish farmers and businesses to the UK.
The noble Baroness and the noble and learned Lord talked about the political declaration. Yes, we are in negotiations on changes to that. Those negotiations are ongoing and as soon as we are in a position to give further details on them, we will of course do so. I am happy to reassure them both that we are committed to strong standards in the areas of environmental protections and workers’ rights, as the noble Baroness set out. We have an excellent record in this country in these areas. There are numerous examples of where we exceed EU minima, such as on the length of maternity leave, shared parental leave, holiday entitlement and greenhouse gas targets. As I hope we have made clear continually at this Dispatch Box, we as a Government intend not only to maintain existing standards but to improve them. We will continue to hold this path.
The noble Baroness and the noble and learned Lord are right that these proposals will mean changes from the situation that prevails today—this was reflected in the Statement—but our driving purpose is to ensure that we minimise disruption. We understand the concerns of business. The noble Baroness mentioned concerns that have been raised. We will be talking in detail to businesses about the proposals, explaining why we believe there will be minimum disruption and making sure that their concerns are allayed. Part of the way in which we will do this is through our new deal for Northern Ireland. We will be making commitments to help boost economic growth and competitiveness, and to support infrastructure projects—particularly with a cross-border focus—so that we can work with our Irish partners as well to ensure that businesses and consumers across the island of Ireland are happy with what we are planning.
A limited number of goods movements will undergo physical inspections or checks. The system will largely be decentralised. It will be facilitated and minimised by the use of solutions such as electronic filing. We expect there to be a very small number of physical checks needed. These will be conducted at traders’ premises or other points in the supply chain. For instance, the UK currently checks around 4% of customs declarations, with fewer than 1% of these checks being physical in nature. This reflects our robust pre-clearance processes which involve the de-risking of high-risk traders and commodities. Our future system will be underpinned by continuing close co-operation between UK and Irish authorities, based on the existing customs legislations of both parties. It is our intention to make a series of simplifications and improvements to that legislation to ensure that the commitment in the new protocol to having no checks or infrastructure at the border is fulfilled.
The noble Baroness asked, for instance, about trusted traders. One of the ideas put forward is a special provision for small traders to ensure that requirements on them could be simplified. For instance, some small traders could be exempt from processes and paying duty altogether. These measures would need to be carefully designed so that they target the traders most in need of support, while continuing to ensure compliance.
The noble and learned Lord asked about Section 10 of the withdrawal Act. As my noble friend said yesterday, we believe that our proposals do not breach this provision but conform to it.
I can absolutely reassure the House that we are working very hard to get the Northern Ireland Executive back up and running. I think all of us in this House have been frustrated and disappointed about the lack of progress seen. I can reiterate only that this is an absolute priority and we are working extremely hard to ensure that it happens.
The issue of consent was also raised. The exact mechanism for consent will be discussed as part of these negotiations but in the context of the Good Friday agreement. We want to achieve the satisfaction of both communities in Northern Ireland. This is at the heart of what we look to do. We very much hope that these proposals will lead to a further, new and intense way in which we can move forward, so that we can present a Bill to the other place which can get through. Then we can move on and get a deal.
My Lords, I welcome any step, however tentative, which might possibly produce a resolution. Would the Leader of the House be in a position to clarify the intention of the Government if the EU—and I use it compendiously—were very interested in these proposals but asked for more time, say one month, to consider them?
As I said, I am afraid that I will not prejudge the outcome of the negotiations. Our aim is clear: we want to conclude these negotiations quickly, so that we can have an agreement at the EU Council this month and progress to leave the EU on 31 October. That is our very firm intention; it is where our focus is and what we are working towards. With willingness and compromise on both sides—it will require compromise on both sides; we accept and understand that we still have a way to go, but we believe that the will is there—that is what we will be focused on and working very hard towards.
My Lords, why do not the Government listen to hauliers, businesspeople, trade unions and every Northern Ireland political party except the DUP—including the Ulster Unionists and the cross-party Alliance Party—who all oppose this proposal, which undermines the all-Ireland economy and betrays the Good Friday and Belfast agreement? Surely the noble Baroness must accept that the customs border proposed is unworkable because there are no enforcement measures, leaving it wide open to smuggling and criminality. It is a virtual hard border, not a physical hard border. How could Brussels enforce its own rules, except by erecting infrastructure for security and checks on this external frontier of the European Union, at least to obey World Trade Organization rules? Surely this is the worst of both worlds: customs clearance centres and arrangements, including tariffs, that would be a target for civil disobedience and, perhaps, paramilitary attack, a border that is not even secure, and a shift from no borders to up to four borders. I appeal to every Member of Parliament— certainly every Labour MP—to vote against it to protect the peace process and progress on the island of Ireland.
I fear I cannot agree with the noble Lord’s assessment. We want a deal. We believe that a deal is in our best interests and also, frankly, those of Ireland and Northern Ireland. That is why we are working hard towards it. We made very clear—the Statement made clear, I hope—that our proposal is centred on our commitment to find solutions compatible with the Belfast agreement. We believe it is. We will work very hard and do everything we can to minimise disruption. We have made compromises. We now want to work with the EU to discuss further how to ensure that we come forward with a proposal which can get through the other place and means that we can move on and work together for a strong future relationship. I fear that I do not accept the noble Lord’s view of the proposals. They have been well thought through. We think that they address some of the key issues that have been a problem so far and we will be working very hard to advance them.
My Lords, I welcome this carefully crafted compromise and hope that it will receive serious consideration, because we need to secure a deal. Are not the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, mistaken in saying that there is no border? There is a border between the north and south of Ireland. There are checks, for example, on VAT on both sides of that border. They are done not at the border but away from it. Is it not also wrong to conflate a customs declaration with physical examinations? They are completely different. Can my noble friend confirm what the Prime Minister said in the House of Commons: no physical infrastructure will be required by these changes?
I thank my noble friend for his comments. He is absolutely right. We have been very clear that there will be no further infrastructure—there will be no hard border within Ireland. Any changes to process that happen, will, we believe, be very minor. We will do everything we can to ensure that. That is why we will be working hard with Northern Irish and Irish businesses further to explain our proposals to ensure that they understand that we intend absolutely to minimise any disruption. We all want to achieve a deal that will work in the best interests of the island of Ireland.
My Lords, the EU Select Committee intends to hold a public evidence session next Tuesday morning, based on the documents delivered yesterday. In preparation for that, I wonder whether the noble Baroness the Leader could give us a bit more help on the matter of consent. I should be grateful for clarification of two issues. First, the Assembly has not sat since January 2017. There must therefore be a risk that at some point during a future consent process, it may again not be sitting. Can she tell us how, if it is not sitting, the consent process works and what is the default position? Secondly, this time assuming that the Assembly is sitting, it has special rules for cross-community consent. How will those rules apply?
The principle behind the consent is that we believe any alignment with EU law in Northern Ireland must depend on the consent of those affected by it, which is why we believe this is an important element. As I said in my response to the opening questions, obviously the exact mechanisms will need to involve a discussion between us, Ireland and representatives of the communities in Northern Ireland. We are absolutely clear—I hope this was made clear in my responses to an earlier question—that this must be done to the satisfaction of both communities in Northern Ireland. The details of this are something we will need to talk about with our Irish colleagues and across the Province of Northern Ireland over the coming days.
My Lords, listening to the exchanges in the other place, I was struck that the really important question from Lady Hermon was not actually answered. I put to the noble Baroness this question, which in effect follows on from the one she was just asked but has not answered: can she explain the difference between a coalition Executive and a power-sharing Executive, in the context of Northern Ireland, with respect to this Statement?
I am afraid the noble Lord will not be happy, but I cannot say more than I have said. Some of the details of the exact mechanisms will be open to discussion. I will not pre-empt negotiations or discussions and do not think it would help the process if I did. I am sorry I cannot say any more to the noble Lord.
My Lords, having taken part in the original power-sharing agreement in the 1970s, I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, that these differences are extremely hard to disentangle in the atmosphere of Irish politics—but it is a pertinent question and I see why he is asking it.
I welcome this protocol very warmly indeed. I was a bit depressed by the question from the noble Lord, Lord Hain, which seemed very negative, but I thought his own Front Bench sounded a shade less negative. I do not know whether I am reading too much optimism into the situation. That is the big question: where are the Opposition on this matter? Will they support the protocol and the deal? The Government do not have a stable majority in the House of Commons. The position of the Opposition is absolutely crucial, so let us please have an answer to that question: will they support it or not? We know that the Lib Dems, of course, are against it all because they do not want this to happen at all. They want some other course, which I cannot quite fathom but which certainly would not benefit the national interest of this country.
Is not one of the missing factors in all this the concept of time? Time is a great solvent. As I understand it from this report, there is the transition period first—during which, we hope, the Northern Ireland Assembly will be recreated and give its consent—then there are four years before the issue comes up again, then a lapse of a year if, at the end of the four years, there is a vote for a change or it has not worked. Surely the enormous ingenuity of the people of Ulster, Northern Ireland, and the tremendous dynamism and creativity of modern Dublin and the modern Republic are between them capable, over all those years, of producing workable solutions in the modern world. Should we not put the concept of time a bit more into this before rushing to judgments?
I thank my noble friend for his more optimistic outlook. He is absolutely right: our proposal is that before the end of the transition period, then for every four years after that, the UK will provide an opportunity for democratic consent in the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive for the regulatory alignment arrangements, within the framework set out in the Good Friday agreement.
My noble friend is also absolutely right that the reason we have brought forward these new proposals and will be working incredibly hard over the coming weeks is that we need to get agreement in the other place to support them, which we have not managed to do with the backstop in its current state. That is an absolute priority for us. We very much hope that through further discussions and negotiations across all parties and all Benches, both in this House and the other place, we can get to a point where we can get a deal and move on to start talking about the positive relationship we want with the EU. That is what we all want to be talking about, and it feels as if it is time we really tried to get on to that, so that we can move on.
My Lords, do the Government recognise that consent is a tricky issue because the DUP does not represent the whole of the unionist community? Many unionists voted to remain and would certainly want to be in the single market and customs union in any future agreement. I remain very concerned that the Government seem to see one side of the story in Northern Ireland as represented by only the DUP. It is simply not true.
Regarding the regulation of goods—as opposed to customs—the Government’s explanatory note says that these arrangements must receive the endorsement of the Northern Ireland Assembly. We have already had questions about what happens if that is not there, and I realise that the Minister is not able to respond. If they are meant to receive the endorsement of the Assembly and Executive, Paragraph 13 of the paper states that that should happen before the end of transition period and every four years thereafter.
What happens if they do not give consent? What will then be the position? Do we revert to what we have now—common regulations—or is the reversion to the hard border, which differs absolutely from what most people in Northern Ireland voted for?
I once again reiterate: we have made very clear that there will be no return to a hard border in Northern Ireland and that we believe that it is only right that the people of Northern Ireland have a say through the Executive on whether they wish to consent to the proposed arrangements. I believe that that is right. I will not second-guess their decision, but we fundamentally believe that it is their democratic right to decide that.
That is, with respect, no answer to the noble Baroness’s question. Her question was this: supposing, four years down the line in this endless cycle of economic and political uncertainty—very dangerous to the Northern Ireland situation—that Northern Ireland said that it did not want this, what would happen then? It is not clear. Is the EU to be told that it may not have the particular standard or regulation because a province of a country that is outside the EU does not like it? It seems an implausible proposition to put to the EU.
I think that we are at a rather solemn moment here. We are formally resiling from our 2017 commitment to full regulatory alignment now and in future on anything that might affect the peace process and the all-Ireland economy. We are formally resiling from our 2018 commitment to a future economic partnership based on a level playing field and common standards for environment, employment and social standards. We are deliberately tearing it up and highlighting that in the letter that we have sent to the President of the Commission.
On the first point, I have nothing more to add to what the noble Lord, Lord Hain, has said on Northern Ireland. It seems to me that he is absolutely correct. I would only say that I think that the corrosive effect on the Northern Ireland political situation of the continuing uncertainty of this four-year cycle is bound to be damaging. I note that all elements in Northern Ireland—business or political, apart from the DUP—appear to be of the same view.
My view is that, in Brussels, more attention will be given to the abolition of the level-playing-field commitment. I think they will conclude, rightly or wrongly, that we intend to challenge them by going for lower standards and deregulation, and I think that they will find that extremely alarming. I heard the Prime Minister’s Statement. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, is completely correct: the Prime Minister said that checks in the Irish Sea would be one way. In other words, he implied that standards in the UK would be below those in the European Union and applied in Northern Ireland.
I have four questions to ask the Minister. First, does she recognise how this would increase the difficulty of concluding, some years hence, even a bare-bones, Canada-style free trade agreement with the European Union? Does she recognise the likely effect on market access to our largest market for our services exports, which are our biggest exports? Secondly, how will trade deals with third countries work, given that the applicable standards for UK imports will differ depending on the final destination in the UK? Thirdly, does the Minister believe that the European Parliament and this Parliament could conceivably agree by 31 October to ratify a treaty based on these proposals? Fourthly, if not, what do the Government intend to do?
Our focus, and what we are aiming for, is a comprehensive, best-in-class free trade agreement. We believe that we can certainly achieve that. I reiterate once again, as I said in answer to the earlier question, that we have an excellent track record in relation to standards. We have made clear at this Dispatch Box time and again that we are not intending to lower standards. I referenced a few examples of where we lead the world or exceed EU minimums, which I can repeat: length of maternity leave, shared parental leave, holiday entitlement and greenhouse gas targets. Of course, once we leave the EU, it will be for this Parliament to make decisions on our standards. The strength of feeling around this House—and the view of the Government—is that we absolutely would not want to lower our standards. In fact, we may want to exceed them, and we will be able to do a lot of other things that we want to do. It is an unfair attack to say that this is about lowering standards. We have been very clear: it absolutely is not.
My Lords, I return to the issue of democratic consent of the Assembly and Executive in respect of regulatory alignment. A number of noble Lords have raised this issue. It is absolutely crucial that we get this right; the way this is taken forward will have a profound impact on the result, whether it is a majority vote in the Assembly or taken forward by a cross-community vote. In addition, I will share some of the concerns that have been expressed about a vote taking place every four years on this issue. My experience in Northern Ireland, which goes back 30 years, is that this issue will be used every four years as a proxy for a border poll. That would have possibly profound consequences for economic and political stability in Northern Ireland.
I can only defer to my noble friend on his knowledge in this area. The concerns that have been expressed across the House are noted. As I have said, the exact mechanisms in this area will be subject to discussions with our Irish colleagues and, obviously, with representatives of the communities within Northern Ireland. As he says, it is critical that we get this right and get it right for both communities in Northern Ireland, so that we can move forward and protect the fantastic achievements that have been made in relation to peace in Northern Ireland. I hope I have been clear that this is paramount and a primary aim for us within these proposals.
My Lords, the Prime Minister has said that this is a final offer. Does the Minister agree that, while it may be the final offer from the UK, it is the beginning of a fresh negotiation? It is profoundly important for the Government to keep that in mind and be prepared to make further compromises against the framework of what they have outlined.
In light of that, coming back to the principle of consent, I would like to put a proposition to the Minister that is very much in keeping with the reservations that several noble Lords have addressed today. Instead of having a tight four-year framework in which issues are debated again and again, and with a limited mandate—as pointed out by the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong—would the Government be prepared to consider a longer timeframe, potentially of seven to 10 years? I accept that the Minister is not going to take part in negotiations from these Benches, but, in the absence of that, perhaps the Government can look at the provisions of the European Union Act 2011, where it was intended to consult the people only when there was a significant change in the transfer of powers to the EU. Perhaps a similar formula could be employed to gain consent. Significant regulatory change or dealignment from either the United Kingdom or the EU might be the only circumstances under which the consent formula would kick in again. In other words, continue with the framework at the point of departure, of Brexit, and make changes only when a certain threshold has been achieved.
I thank the noble Baroness for her constructive comments. She is right that I will not be stepping into negotiations from the Dispatch Box, but I can certainly reiterate that, as I said in answer to the noble Baroness, in his letter to President Juncker the Prime Minister makes clear that this is a broad landing zone, within which we believe a deal can take shape. As I said, his chief negotiator has gone to Brussels to continue the intense negotiations. We will be discussing the concerns or ideas raised by President Juncker, President Tusk and the Taoiseach as we go forward over the next few days.
My Lords, I wonder if the Minister could answer a couple of questions, after one observation, which is that in order to reach a landing zone you have to take off first. The two questions I would like to ask are as follows.
On this vexed issue of consent, I do not want to go into what would happen, but can she confirm that, under the arrangements for government in Northern Ireland, either of the two main parties—Sinn Féin or the DUP—could, during the transitional period or at the moment of the four-year review, frustrate the continuation of the arrangements that have been negotiated, either by opposing them or by bringing down the Government? Could she answer that factual question? It is in the hands of either of them, and I am not pointing the finger at the DUP only, to frustrate the operation of this agreement.
Secondly, the Prime Minister has had quite a lot of Brussels experience—although his misrepresentation of what went on there led one to doubt whether he really understood what was going on—but has he ever in his life seen a process of the sort he is now describing being completed in the time available to this, before 31 October? If not, what does he intend to do about it?
The noble Lord is right: if consent was withheld, the arrangements would not come into force or would lapse after one year. On his second point, the Prime Minister is absolutely committed to and putting his full energy into achieving a deal that can get through the House of Commons in the timeframe he has set out. We have faith and trust that he will do that.
My Lords, I am glad to hear of the progress he is making. I move away from Northern Ireland for a moment to ask my noble friend about work on the tariff schedule. This will be especially important in the event of a no-deal Brexit, which the Statement says could still be an outcome. I am interested to know the timing for finalising the schedule and debating it in this House. I am a great believer in free trade and cannot see how we can both unilaterally introduce low tariffs, as proposed in the draft schedule, and conclude amazing free trade agreements. There will be no incentive for countries such as Canada, let alone the EU, to conclude good deals. This is a concern that is outstanding, which we have not had an opportunity to debate.
I thank my noble friend, and I can say that the tariff schedule will be published shortly.
My Lords, in all this, have we forgotten about the economic stability of the Government in Dublin? Surely some of the things that we are talking about will damage the Irish economy enormously. Do we not owe something more to the Irish for their loyalty and co-operation over many years than just saying, “It’s your problem, we’ll leave it to you”? Specifically, I understand that a significant proportion of Irish trade with the EU goes across the sea route and then from Dover to Calais. What is going to happen to that trade link?
We are certainly not having that approach with our Irish colleagues; we want to work very closely with them. We realise and accept that there will have to be compromise on both sides and that Great Britain, not the Irish, made this decision. That is why we have put these new proposals on the table—proposals that we hope we can work with the Irish on, so that we can get a deal in order that we can move on to our future relationship. No deal is something that we do not want and certainly something that the Irish do not want, so, in order to try to tackle the issue that seemed to be the main problem with the withdrawal agreement getting through the other place, we have come back with these fresh proposals so that we can do exactly as the noble Lord said, which is come to a deal that is far, far better than no deal for both us and our Irish friends.
My Lords, to help the noble Lord, Lord Howell, the policy of the Liberal Democrats is to remain. That is the best deal on the table. However, that does not remove our duty in this House and in the other place to explore what the Government of the day are proposing. I therefore put it to the Minister that the reason why the Good Friday/Belfast agreement worked was that it was the result of careful diplomacy with all the players in play in Northern Ireland and in the Republic. What is worrying about the proposal that the noble Baroness has put before us today is that it seems that only the DUP was involved. That is a fatal flaw in any attempt to win consensus in Ireland.
The other issue is that 31 October is not a special date other than in the mind of the Prime Minister. There is absolutely no reason why we should leave on that date. If this proposal is as good as the Benches opposite are now arguing it is, surely it deserves time to get it right rather than walking over a precipice of our own making into a disaster. We have all said things in negotiations—"dying in a ditch” or whatever—but the important thing now is the responsibility of the Prime Minister to negotiate in good faith for success. An artificial deadline of his own making puts that commitment in doubt.
Well, I can certainly say that we are negotiating in good faith. Our seriousness in wanting to come up with a solution has been shown by the proposals that we have put forward, which have involved a number of compromises on our side and things that are perhaps slightly uncomfortable. We have done that because we want to get a deal. I say once again that we are completely committed to finding solutions that are compatible with the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. That is an absolute priority, and protecting it is the highest priority for us.
My Lords, it is difficult to reconcile the intention to complete this by 31 October with the noble Baroness’s recognition that further compromises, details and clarifications will be required. Would it not therefore be sensible, in order to clarify the situation, for the Prime Minister at this stage to say, “Well, I’ve got so far. There’s been a relatively good response from Europe. I, on my own initiative, will extend the time”?
I have two other questions. First, if that fails and we are in a no-deal situation, what happens to all the arrangements that have been made in the good times between the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic? Do they fall, because they are predicated on us both being members of the European Union and observing the same regulations and conventions?
My second point is that, in a no-deal situation, the Prime Minister was reported last week as saying, “Well, the EU can do what it likes and therefore the Irish Republic can set up customs checks on its side of the border, but we will let them in”. Leaving aside that that seems to be the opposite of what the Brexiteers wanted, is that not in contravention of the WTO, because we will have to be tied to a different EU tariff schedule from everybody else, and a nil tariff on the border?
We have been very clear that, in the event of no deal—which we do not want—we would not put new infrastructure along the border. We very much hope that the EU and Ireland would agree the same. Obviously, in a no-deal situation we would have to have a different set of conversations with the Irish. That is why we are clear that we do not want no deal; it is not the focus of this Government. We want to get a deal and that is why in good faith we have put forward these proposals.
I reiterate—frustrating though it is for everyone in this House—that the House of Commons three times rejected the withdrawal agreement and the backstop that was on the table. So we cannot put it back to the Commons again; we have to do something else. That is what we are trying to do. That is why we have come up with some flexible proposals to have the conversation with the EU in order to get a deal done and move forward to talk about our strong, positive future trading relationship with the EU. That is what we want to move towards.
Picking up on the theme of potential disaster, but nevertheless wishing the Government well in their endeavours to break the deadlock, while I can see complications, some of which have been expressed this afternoon. I hope that Yellowhammer will never need to be tested. However, given its importance—the report on its effectiveness is due out on 16 October, I believe—will the Government give serious consideration to ensuring that the Queen’s Speech allows us the opportunity to debate the contents of this, with appropriate days made available, because it is of such crucial importance? If not, will the Government ensure that, at the earliest opportunity after the Queen’s Speech, proper time will be put aside so that we can consider the contents of the publication?
I am sure that discussions with the usual channels being very constructive will ensure that we will have time available to discuss the issues that noble Lords wish to discuss. I will obviously relay that back to the Chief Whip.
I was in the Commons and—I think probably like the country—welcome the more conciliatory approach that the Prime Minister adopted. He was asked whether, in the light of trying to secure the majority which he needs at the other end, he would be willing to put the Whip back on those he had expelled. He did not give a straight answer—indeed, he dodged it, which was to be expected. Equally, I think his biggest problem is not with Labour and the Opposition. His biggest problem throughout has been with a group of his own—the ERG. The question might be: what soundings of the ERG have been taken, and will it be prepared to support the deal that comes back?
I can certainly say that the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and Ministers have been engaging with MPs throughout the Conservative Party. They have also been having conversations with MPs on the opposite side. We are trying to build a coalition for the deal. As I mentioned to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, I understand the frustration, but the previous withdrawal agreement was rejected three times. We have to build a coalition in order to get a new withdrawal agreement through the House of Commons.
These proposals are an attempt to address some of the concerns about the backstop, which appeared to be the main issue in the House of Commons. If you watched the Prime Minister today, he offered numerous meetings and conversations to MPs across the House, in order to make sure that we can move forward and get a deal and discuss our future relationship with the EU and, importantly, talk about our domestic priorities. I am sure noble Lords opposite would like to talk about the issues that they want to raise outside Brexit as well. It would be great to be able to talk more broadly to the public again about the ideas that we both have for taking this country forward.
My Lords, I did ask a second question about what happens to Irish trade that goes through England and then crosses from Dover to Calais. If the answer is not in the noble Baroness’s little book of words, perhaps she will write to me.
I apologise to the noble Lord. I am afraid it is not in my little book of words, so I will have to go back. I am happy to write to noble Lords and put something in the Library.
My Lords, can I ask specifically about the position of the Irish Government and their relationship with Her Majesty’s Government? The Good Friday agreement forms an international treaty—a legal agreement—between our two countries and is predicated on the basis of joint administration, or rather joint inter-ministerial agreement and consent. If Dublin feels that it cannot support the Government’s proposals, what then happens to the Good Friday agreement and that principle of joint consent? This has been absolutely crucial given the torn history of our two countries going back centuries. It is absolutely crucial to taking this whole process forward. Will the noble Baroness take that question back to the Prime Minister and say that it should be top of his agenda?
I can certainly take the noble Lord’s comments back. As I say, we are working very hard with the Irish Government. One of the first people the Prime Minister spoke to yesterday was the Taoiseach and there will be further discussions. We are very cognisant of the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland. I have tried to reiterate to noble Lords the importance we place on the Good Friday agreement and all the benefits that have flowed from that. I am very happy to reiterate that to my colleagues and the Prime Minister.
My Lords, I have spent quite a lot of my life observing and taking the temperature of the House of Commons. Does my noble friend agree that the change today was quite remarkable? I would not be at all surprised if there was consensus to at least support the new approach the Government have taken. That approach has several alternatives within it and, at any rate, is a base which did not seem to exist before. Would it have been helpful, if it had been obtainable, to have had a debate and a vote in the other place in which there could have been some endorsement of the Government’s approach before the meeting of the Council of Ministers?
Watching the exchanges in the House of Commons, it certainly felt like there was a more constructive tone than we perhaps saw last week. This is an extremely difficult situation. As I said, we are bringing forward these new proposals because we want a deal. We want to try to ensure that we have an agreement that can be passed by the House of Commons and that can mean we have a strong relationship with the EU going forward. I think that was recognised in quite a few of the contributions from across the House of Commons today. I very much hope we can build on that going forward. I hope we can build on it with our EU colleagues as we begin this next round of very intensive talks to hopefully break this deadlock, get a deal and move on to talking about the constructive relationship that we want going forward.