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Brexit: Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration

Volume 799: debated on Monday 7 October 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union to an Urgent Question in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, we are unconditionally committed to finding a solution for the north/south border which protects the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the commitments which can best be met if we explore solutions other than the backstop. The backstop risks weakening the delicate balance embodied in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement between both main traditions in Northern Ireland, grounded in agreement, consent and respect for minority rights.

Any deal ahead of Brexit on 31 October must avoid the whole of the UK or just Northern Ireland being trapped in an arrangement without consent in which it is a rule taker. 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 indeed flexible. Under no circumstances will the United Kingdom place infrastructure, checks or controls at the border.

On Wednesday 2 October, the Government proposed a new protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland. These were serious and realistic proposals that reflect the core aims put forward by both the UK and the EU. These proposals are consistent with the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and deliver our aim of avoiding any checks or infrastructure at the border. These proposals were set out in detail in an explanatory note and in a letter to the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker. The Prime Minister deposited both of these documents in the Library of the House on Wednesday 2 October and published them in parallel on GOV.UK. To support these negotiations, a draft legal text was also shared with the Commission on a confidential basis.

The Prime Minister’s Europe adviser, David Frost, and UK officials have been in intensive discussions with the Commission for some time now and will continue meeting with their counterparts from taskforce 50 for further technical talks this week. These meetings will cover our proposals on the protocol and the political declaration to reflect the goal of a comprehensive free trade agreement. The previous withdrawal agreement and political declaration would have trapped the United Kingdom within European regulation and customs arrangements. The Prime Minister is continuing talks with EU leaders today, including the Prime Minister of Sweden, the Prime Minister of Denmark and the Prime Minister of Poland. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union is also travelling to EU capitals, including Amsterdam and Valletta, over the course of this week.

Discussions with the Commission are ongoing and sensitive, and we must ensure that we as a Government act in a way that maximises our chance of success in these negotiations. We will of course keep the House informed as these discussions continue. The legal text that we have shared with the Commission will be published only when doing so will assist the negotiations. We hope that those in Brussels will decide to work with us over the upcoming days. If they do, we will leave with a new deal. If they do not want to talk, we are prepared to leave without a deal. We need to get a new deal or a deal, but no more delays. We must get Brexit done so that the country can move forward and focus on the cost of living, the NHS and other domestic priorities”.

My Lords, I feel I have heard some of those words before in many other Statements. To be clear, what the Urgent Question asked was when the Government intend to publish the full legal text of proposed changes to the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration. MPs will be asked to make a judgment on this and consider the Prime Minister’s offer. I am not going to call it a deal, because a deal to me is something that is agreed between two parties. At the moment, this is an offer from the Government which, as I understand it, has not found favour with anyone yet except the Government’s partners, the DUP. Unfortunately, they are not in the Chamber.

The Prime Minister’s language on this has changed. First, he said he would die in a ditch rather than ask for an extension beyond 31 October, then this was going to be a take-it-or-leave-it offer and now he talks about negotiations and having a basis for discussion. There are probably three things to ask here. First, there is the issue of confidentiality. My understanding is that both the President of the European Commission and the Irish Prime Minister have called for the legal text to be published. It is just the British Government who are saying that they do not want to publish it.

Secondly, in two different places, the Statement says that:

“Under no circumstances will the United Kingdom place infrastructure, checks or controls at the border”.

“At the border” is very specific. I have two questions for the Minister about that. Could the offer that is being made to the EU, which we do not know the details of, mean that the EU would need to put checks or infrastructure in place? Is the UK considering checks or infrastructure at locations other than the border? Those are very important questions, given how specific the Statement is.

People also want more information on employment, consumer and environmental rights—that is why seeing the detail of the legal text, rather than just brief Statements, is so important. Can the Minister confirm that we will maintain the levels of protection we have and keep pace with the EU in future?

My final point relates to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive having to consider the arrangements on the border every four years. Can the Minister give any examples of such arrangements being in place, or reference any treaty or agreement, in respect of which the parliament or assembly that has to make the decisions is not active? It seems an extraordinary way forward.

It would help the House if the Minister could respond to these questions. I struggle to understand why the legal text cannot be published to parliamentarians in this country so that we can see the detail of it.

I thank the noble Baroness for her questions. Of course, implicit in her first question was the fact that discussions are continuing; she was quite right about that. These are proposals from the United Kingdom, as she says. It appears that they may not have found favour with the EU, so talks will continue and the texts may change. She can rest assured that, as soon as we have any concrete proposals, we will bring them back to the House and we are considering whether they should be published before then. As soon as it is helpful to the negotiation process, we will indeed do that.

The noble Baroness asked whether the EU will put checks or infrastructure in place. I do not know. It is a question for the EU. How they choose to interpret their regulations is a matter for them. We very much hope not. We have said that we are prepared to work with them.

We have no plans for any infrastructure at the border, as I said. We have always said that there will have to be customs checks, but they can be done in traders’ premises and places such as haulage depots and others away from the border, similar to the way in which we conduct excise checks now. I remind the noble Baroness that there is already a VAT border, an excise border, a currency border. The excise regulations are currently enforced by both sides, by co-operative, pragmatic, low-profile, intelligence-led policing, in co-operation with the Irish authorities. We envisage something similar.

The issue of social and environmental protection goes back to a question that I answered last week from the Liberal Democrats. I remind the noble Baroness that we already exceed EU minimum standards in a whole range of areas. On holiday pay, maternity protections, workers’ rights, et cetera, our standards are already higher than those mandated by EU minimum standards. That also applies to environmental standards; our climate change targets are higher than the whole of the rest of the European Union.

Lastly, on the noble Baroness’s question about the consent procedure, clearly, it is a challenge that the Northern Ireland Assembly is not sitting, and we are working hard to get it reinstated. We are prepared to discuss the details of these proposals but we believe that, when one is going to subject an area of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to control by an external body through alignment with EU single market standards, which we are proposing in a compromise for Northern Ireland, it is right that the people of that area should have the opportunity to give their consent or otherwise to those proposals.

My Lords, by way of explanation, I said that the DUP were not represented here. I see that they have now taken their seats, and we look forward to hearing from them.

My Lords, I hope that the Minister understands that part of the reason for our demand to see the full text is that many of us neither trust the Government nor are convinced that they understand quite where they are going. In answer to my question last week, the Minister insisted, as he just has again, that the Government are aiming for higher standards than common European standards. Yet, since he gave that any answer, I have seen a number of briefings for the press from Ministers and sources in No. 10 which suggest that we want more flexible standards to be able to open up to a range of things, which suggests lower standards. It says here that we are not prepared to be a “rule-taker”. It also says that we want to renegotiate the political declaration so that we can have our own regulations.

When I was following Margaret Thatcher’s proposals for the single market in the early 1980s—the Minister is probably too young to remember that period—the argument which was made by those around Margaret Thatcher was that we were a rule-taker. We by and large took US regulations and taking part in creating European regulations would give us much more of a handle on questions such as how we coped with the internet, and what is now the whole digital economy, and we would therefore be able to take part in making our own regulations.

There seems to be a fantasy in the Government that we are not going to follow American regulations or European regulations but we will be a wonderful island with our own special regulations in this whole area, which will make it much more difficult to trade and produce services in collaboration with others. Is that the direction we are going in, or are we going back, as some Ministers seem to have suggested at the weekend, to following American regulations instead?

I thank the noble Lord for his question and particularly for his age compliment, although I am not sure I am that much younger than he is; I accept it none the less.

I said last week, and repeated to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that we already have higher standards in virtually all those areas than the EU minimum standards. What standards we have in the future is one of the great opportunities of Brexit. What standards we might like to have is a matter for this House. The great thing about Brexit is that we no longer have to have these things dictated for us by the European Union. This is about taking back control. We can decide these matters for ourselves.

I am not clear why the Opposition think that this is such a bad thing. We can decide whether we have much higher standards, different standards, alternative standards. The opportunity to better regulate new and emerging areas of technology is one of the great opportunities of Brexit when we are no longer attached to the lumbering dinosaur of the EU. We can decide these things in a nimble and flexible way.

In terms of the noble Lord’s general comments about standards, obviously it is the case that if we want to export to the US market, the Chinese market, or the Indian market, we have to follow those standards in those particular areas. For the vast bulk of our trade and commerce which goes on within our own internal economy, we can determine those standards for ourselves.

My Lords, will the Minister address this issue about standards? He seems not to have properly understood, if I may say so, what actually happens. We have higher standards now in many cases than the EU, but we are in the EU. Being in the EU has not stopped us having higher standards. We are not stuck with a dinosaur at all. We are setting our own standards. The only reason that I can see for removing this passage from the political declaration about the level playing field is so that we may be able to have lower standards than the EU in future; otherwise, there is no need for it. Will the Minister will reply to that point?

I thank the noble Lord for his question, but I understand the issue very well. I have taken part—as he did—in the standard-setting procedure in the European Union and understand very well how it works and how cumbersome it is. I maintain my point. I do not understand why we need to dynamically align to have exactly the same standards as the European Union. We may want to have different standards. Who is to take a view or a judgment on whether standard A is appropriate, different, lesser, or higher than standard B? That is something for this House to decide. We might decide to have an alternative policy which regulates some things in a different way. It is the flexibility to do that which is appropriate. I maintain the commitment of this Government to have higher standards than the European Union, as we do now.

My Lords, one reason why I think your Lordships believe we need to see the legal text concerns the arrangements that are being proposed for democratic consent in Northern Ireland. As I understand the arrangements under the Good Friday agreement, a majority in both communities have to agree to any major change. Why is it that this is being briefed as giving the DUP a veto? Why should not Sinn Féin also have a veto on any change that might introduce a hard border in the island of Ireland?

The arrangements for decisions in the Northern Ireland Assembly are set out. This is one of the areas that we are prepared to have detailed and intensive discussions on, and we are doing so. I take the noble Lord’s point about publication. I am not ruling out publishing the legal text. We will do so when it is helpful to the negotiation and when we can aid discussions in this House.