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Northern Ireland Protocol Bill

Volume 825: debated on Monday 31 October 2022

Committee (2nd Day) (Continued)

Clause 9: Regulation of goods: new law

Amendment 12

Moved by

12: Clause 9, page 5, line 26, at beginning insert “Subject to the conditions in subsections (3) and (4),”

Member’s explanatory statement

This amendment makes clear that the power in Clause 9(1) is subject to conditions contained in a later amendment to that Clause.

I shall speak very briefly because this amendment gives rise to many of the same debates that we have already had this evening. We have tabled Amendments 12 and 15, which would prevent

“the delegated powers in Clause 9 from being used unless a draft of the instrument, a report of a relevant consultation exercise, and an appropriate economic impact assessment have been laid before Parliament.”

The Government say that Clause 9 is needed because the policy is not yet developed. We are worried about this, so these amendments would act as a safeguard by preventing the power being used unless the conditions in the amendment are met. We think Northern Ireland businesses would be better served if our amendment were to be accepted, notwithstanding all our previous comments on our approach to the Bill more generally. Businesses were telling us—I am sure other noble Lords have heard the same—that they want and need stability, predictability and security. I do not think this will be delivered by the Bill; it comes only through negotiation. We must amend the Bill; it is what we are here to do this evening. We have made this suggestion because we think it would be particularly helpful to the business community to have more of a say and to get more clarity from the Government on what they might intend to do.

My Lords, I support these two amendments, but they are not even contesting the making of regulations or asking for substance or content; they just require a process for making the regulations. As my noble friend Lord Purvis said in the debate on the previous group, there is nothing in the Bill on consultation. Assuming that Clause 9 remains—which we hope it does not—this amendment is trying to put some meat on the bones that should probably already exist. The Government said in the delegated powers memorandum that the regulations under this clause would

“need to reflect the results of consultation with businesses”.

The problem is that this clause provides for no such consultation. Our Delegated Powers Committee commented:

“This is the frankest admission by the Government that policy is so embryonic that it has not yet been consulted on.”

The committee’s comment on Clause 5 is also pertinent and relevant:

“Ministers are said to need flexibility, but the reality is that policy has not yet been formulated … the Government could have formulated their policy, consulted on it, refined it (if necessary) and then brought forward legislation with the details filled in. This would have facilitated meaningful parliamentary debate.”

Yet, the Delegated Powers Committee went on,

“Parliament is being presented with a major Bill on the subject. Legislation has preceded policy development rather than vice versa”.

I think I may be repeating what my noble friend has already quoted.

Amendment 15 therefore contains reasonable and sensible conditions for a draft of any proposed SI—for a report on consultations with business and an economic assessment to be laid. I suggest that the Government will, or ought to, have some difficulty in finding arguments to resist these amendments.

My Lords, I intervene briefly in support of these amendments requesting that the Government provide an economic impact assessment.

Nothing could better characterise the extraordinary nature of our debates today, Wednesday and next Monday—and their unreality—than the fact that the Government are asking us to enact a Bill that gives them complete powers to do whatever they like in circumstances where it has been impossible, in the Government’s view, to get a negotiated solution. I recognise that the Government’s preference is for a negotiated solution. They are proposing that we give them a blank cheque for that without telling us what the impact on the British economy or the economy of Northern Ireland might be. That is frankly bizarre. It is not truly credible.

Of course, we all know that, in the event and after we have given them those powers, they would probably publish something, but we need to know now. We need some guesstimates—I accept they could be only guesstimates—of what the likely consequences would be if the Government’s preference for a negotiated solution cannot be achieved and they use the powers in the Bill that they are asking us to enact. I cannot honestly think of an argument against it.

Five years before we joined the European Communities, the then Labour Government issued a White Paper under George Brown which was an impact assessment of joining the European Communities. Why is it impossible to do that now? Why can the Government not say what the impact would be if the car goes over the cliff? I hope the Government will relent and will provide some impact assessments of these matters, because we really need to see them before we are asked to vote on the Bill.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman of Darlington, for Amendments 12 and 15 in her name.

Since the Bill was introduced, the Government have engaged extensively with groups across business and civic society in Northern Ireland, the rest of the UK and internationally. In addition to routine engagement, as I have mentioned, during the summer, the Government held over 100 bespoke sessions with more than 250 businesses, business representative organisations and regulators to inform the details of how the dual regulatory and trade boundary models should work in practice. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, I refer to some of my own engagement, not just with the dairy and agri-food sectors, but with business representative groups in Northern Ireland. That has been a similar experience to that of my right honourable friends, the Minister of State and the Secretary of State. We are very committed to this and we are reflecting on the huge wealth of feedback that we have received as we continue to develop the details of the underlying regime.

The clause is designed to provide stakeholders in Northern Ireland with certainty that the Government will deliver the solutions we have outlined. The House will have the opportunity to scrutinise regulations in the usual fashion, and the Government will provide all the usual accompanying material under normal parliamentary procedures. The full details of the new regime will be set out in, and alongside, regulations made under the Bill, including economic impacts where appropriate, so that Parliament may make informed scrutiny of the new regime which is being put in place.

The regulations themselves will be the product of engagement with businesses to ensure the implementation of the new regime is as smooth and operable as possible. Stakeholder views are of course important, but it is ultimately for Ministers to exercise these powers, and for Parliament to scrutinise and hold them accountable in the usual way. An additional requirement for the Government to lay an assessment and a report when it makes regulations using this power is therefore, in our view, unnecessary, and in that spirit, I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.

I am grateful to the Minister and to others who have contributed to the discussion on this group of amendments. I just gently say to the Minister that we do appreciate and respect the fact that a great deal of engagement is being undertaken by the Government and by others; we are all talking to businesses, and so we should. But that is not the same as a proper consultation process in line with Cabinet Office guidelines, which is what we really need here, because at some stage there will be decisions made by the Government about what they want to do, and it would be really unfortunate if those decisions were implemented without sufficient consultation. That is the point we are trying to get across to the Government at this stage, but for now I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 12 withdrawn.

Amendments 13 to 15 not moved.

Amendment 15A

Moved by

15A: Clause 9, page 5, line 34, at end insert—

“(3) In exercising any of the powers under this section, a Minister of the Crown—(a) must act in a way that is compatible with the terms of Article 2 of the Northern Ireland Protocol,(b) must not suspend or seek to diminish any of the other provisions of the EU withdrawal agreement or the Northern Ireland Protocol so far as they relate to Article 2 of the Protocol, and(c) must not suspend or repeal, or make alternative provision to, domestic law so far as it gives effect to Article 2 of the Northern Ireland Protocol or any other part of the EU withdrawal agreement to the extent that it relates to Article 2 of the Northern Ireland Protocol.”Member’s explanatory statement

This amendment seeks to protect the operation of Article 2 of the Ireland-Northern Ireland Protocol.

My Lords, I rise to support the amendments standing in my name in group 6, which all seek to protect the operation of Article 2 of the protocol. There is much that is highly contentious about the Bill that we are considering, but I hope that there is at least one issue that is not controversial: that fundamental human rights should not be undermined by this Bill. As my noble friends Lady Kennedy and Lady Goudie both argued in their powerful speeches at Second Reading, they are too fundamental to the Northern Ireland peace process to risk that happening.

The purpose of Article 2 is quite clear: it is to protect the rights that those negotiating the Belfast/Good Friday agreement identified as the basis for moving Northern Ireland forward. The fear that Article 2 addressed was that these rights were underpinned by European Union law, and that that underpinning could be weakened, and in some cases destroyed, when the UK left the EU. The operation of Article 2 has never been regarded as controversial; indeed, when the Government identified the list of controversial issues in the protocol, Article 2 was explicitly identified as uncontroversial. So far as I am aware, no unionist politician—and in fact the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, referred to Article 2 earlier in a previous debate—has ever tried to argue that the operation of Article 2 is a problem for them, whatever other problems they consider the protocol to give rise to.

The Government themselves appear to have recognised the importance of Article 2 in Clause 15(3) of the Bill, which provides that the powers given to Ministers in that clause cannot be used to repeal Article 2. However, welcome as that protection in Clause 15(3) is, it does not deal with the problem. First, it does not apply to the vast panoply of ministerial powers granted by other clauses. Secondly, even regarding the limits it places on the exercise of ministerial powers under Clause 15, it only prevents Article 2 ceasing to have effect, not a weakening of Article 2 that falls short of repeal. Thirdly, it does not protect Article 2 from other provisions of the Bill that limit its scope immediately the Bill is brought into force and which are not dependent on the exercise of delegated powers to Ministers.

What is the problem and why are a significant number of amendments needed to protect Article 2? Simply put, the effectiveness of Article 2 in practice depends on other provisions of the withdrawal agreement and the protocol threatened by the Bill. To use an analogy, having a chair to sit on is pointless if all its legs are sawn off; it ceases to function as a chair. If the necessary supports for Article 2 are removed, it will cease to function. If the Bill is passed in its current form, it appears it will cut off one crucial support immediately, as well as enabling Ministers to remove all the other supports as they please.

I turn to the detail. I will identify the key questions which I expect the Minister to answer immediately or at least before Report; immediately following this debate, I will forward to him the text of the questions to which I seek answers.

When read together with Article 13 of the protocol, Article 2 requires that Northern Ireland equality law keep pace with EU equality law. This is the dynamic alignment requirement. My first question is this: may a Minister by regulation under Clause 14(4) provide that Article 13(3) of the protocol is disapplied in relation to Article 2? If so, can this power be used to prevent the equality directives in Annexe 1 being subject to dynamic alignment? Amendment 23A is relevant in this regard.

Clause 14(4) provides that:

“A Minister of the Crown may, by regulations, make any provision which the Minister considers appropriate in connection with any provision of the Northern Ireland Protocol and other parts of the EU withdrawal agreement to which this section relates.”

My second question is: does this mean that a Minister could, by regulation, provide that the provisions of the withdrawal agreement that enable disputes relating to Article 2 to go to international arbitration if they cannot otherwise be resolved—Articles 170 to 181 of the withdrawal agreement—may be disapplied with regard to disputes concerning Article 2? Amendment 23A is relevant in that regard.

Clause 15(2) provides that:

“A Minister of the Crown may, by regulations, provide for any provision of the Northern Ireland Protocol or any related provision of the EU withdrawal agreement … to become excluded provision”.

My third question is: does this empower a Minister to disapply Article 5 of the withdrawal agreement, which requires that the provision of the agreement be applied in good faith, in so far as it applies to Article 2 of the protocol? Amendment 31A is relevant in this case.

Clause 15(2) also appears to permit Ministers to designate Article 14(c) of the protocol as excluded provision. My fourth question is: does Clause 15(2) permit Ministers to limit the current powers of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to refer matters to the specialist committee under Article 14(c) of the protocol? In this regard, Amendment 31A is relevant.

It is worth pointing out that the equality commission and the human rights commission have been given mandatory responsibility under the dedicated mechanism to deal with Article 2. Northern Ireland courts are currently under an obligation under Article 2 to interpret the equality directives listed in Annex 1, in conformity with the existing and future jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice. Clause 20(2) provides that in proceedings relating to the protocol, a court or tribunal

“is not bound by any principles laid down, or any decisions made, on or after the day on which this section comes into force by the European Court”.

Does this mean that the obligation to interpret the equality directives in conformity with the existing and future jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice ends on the day this section enters into force? In this regard, Amendments 41ZA and 41A are the relevant amendments.

The role of the European Court of Justice is also an issue in Clause 13. Clause 13(1) provides that any provision of the protocol or withdrawal agreement is an excluded provision so far as it confers jurisdiction on the CJEU in relation to the protocol or related provisions of the withdrawal agreement. Article 174 of the withdrawal agreement provides that disputes that go to international arbitration and raise issues of EU law must be referred to the European Court of Justice. This will be relevant as regards disputes regarding Article 2 of the protocol, because the Annex 2 directives apply as EU law. What is the effect of this provision on Article 174 of the withdrawal agreement? In this regard, Amendments 19A and 21A are relevant.

Clause 22(2)(d) of the Bill provides that:

“Regulations under this Act may make any provision that could be made by an Act of Parliament (including provision modifying this Act).”

Does Clause 22(2)(d) enable the ministerial powers provided by Clause 9 or 10 to override the application of Section 7A of the withdrawal agreement Act 2018 to Article 2? In this regard, Amendments 15A, 15B and 54A are the relevant amendments.

Since these questions are, in some cases, highly technical in their nature and as I have already referred to, I shall understand if the Minister is more comfortable writing to me subsequently, but I expect a detailed response to each of these questions at some point before Report. My last question, however, calls for an immediate answer. To the extent that the operation of Article 2 is adversely impacted by the Bill, resulting in the UK violating its obligations under the protocol and the withdrawal agreement, how on earth can this specific breach of international law be justified under the doctrine of necessity?

Therefore, it is unclear whether the Government intend to damage Article 2 or whether Article 2 is simply unintended collateral damage. I hope it is the latter and that the Government will agree to these amendments, or at least agree to bring forward their own amendments to deal with the problem. If, however, the Government see within their own case to refuse to do so, then the implication is clear: that damaging the operation of Article 2 is intentional. That would have serious consequences, for it would mean that the Government are willing to sacrifice a critically important part of the Belfast agreement in terms of its equality and human rights provisions.

I know that the Government are adamant that the 1998 agreement should be honoured in all its parts, and I fully comply with that. Now they have the opportunity to demonstrate that this commitment is sincerely meant. I hope tonight in your Lordships’ House and in subsequent correspondence to me, which I hope the Minister will place in the Library, that undertakings can be given that Article 2 is being protected at all costs.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, has done the Committee a great favour by detailing this particular aspect of the Bill. She has shown that the powers which the Government are seeking to take cover so much that none of us has any idea whatever as to what it may mean. No doubt, the Minister will be able to write a letter which details the answers to each of her excellent questions, but behind those questions is the fundamental falsehood of this Bill. The Bill gives to Ministers powers the strength, width and depth of which none of us have any idea, and the Government have even less idea, clearly, because if they did, they would have restricted those powers and would not have asked this House to accept a proposition which is manifestly undemocratic and which could not be accepted by any democratic House in any country in western Europe.

By the noble Baroness’s detailed forensic explanation of her particular interest, she has revealed the basic falsehood in the Bill and the reason that many of us are not going to allow it to pass, because it is contrary to everything that we have ever done in our political lives. I have been in politics in one House or another for more than 40 years, and no one has ever suggested a Bill of this kind ever before. Ministers had better understand just how serious this is.

I want to say one thing about Ministers too. Having been a Minister for 16 years, which is longer than most people are in post, I learned how important it was to have parliamentary restrictions—how important it was that civil servants could say to you, “I’m afraid, Minister, you can’t do that because that requires Parliament’s acceptance.” It was a vital part of the democratic process. We are being asked to remove that from Ministers, and I say to my noble friends that it is very bad for them, as Ministers, because it is that restriction and control which ensure that they do not move beyond where they ought to go merely because it is convenient.

The last thing that I will say about the excellent offering of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, is this. However detailed the answer is, it will not overcome the fact that any promise made in this House can be taken apart if we give the Government these powers. It is not for Ministers to promise us things, because, if the Act gives them powers, however fine they may be—and what a fine list of Ministers we have—their successors will be able to use these provisions in a way which undermines any promise made to the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie. That is why I wanted to come in particularly to congratulate her, because she has revealed the fundamental falseness of this whole proposition and the reason why this Bill, of all Bills, should not be passed by this House.

My Lords, I rise to comment on the nature of the Bill, which has now taken on gargantuan proportions. It is a raging beast running through our constitutional rights and liberties.

However, to be clear cut, it is a good deal more modest. It says that there will be no hard border. It guarantees that it will protect the European single market. Just before the dinner break, the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, pointed out that, even if the Bill were implemented, it would not restore Northern Ireland completely to the UK single market in some pure form. He was quite right but it rather misses the point that this Bill is significantly more modest.

As for human rights, a very serious topic—the record of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, in this respect is unequalled—the fact of the matter is that the Bill’s focus is the trade aspects of Articles 5 to 10. It is an attempt to remodel them so that it could reasonably be argued that the commitment in the protocol that the UK single market will be protected is lived up to rather better than it currently is. This seems entirely reasonable to me. I understand that there is a new doctrine in the House: if we read a document, we are all struck dumb by what was in the protocol and cannot even think. All further thought and debate about it is now over, as some mental trauma afflicts us all and we are so lost in admiration for it, but it is a problem. One of the many problems is this: there is a commitment to protecting the UK single market but we have many examples of how it is not protected.

However, the Bill is more limited than many would guess from listening to our discourse today. The crucial point with respect to this amendment is that Article 2 is not the target. That article and its points on human rights remain untouched by this Bill. It is Articles 5 to 10, which deal with the way trade is to be conducted, that are the target of the Bill. The Bill is therefore much more limited, and possibly less of a threat to our constitutional traditions, than has been said.

Above all else, there is a very simple thing that nobody seems to accept is critical: rather than saying, “We’re terribly sorry about the democratic deficit and so on,” how do you respond to the communities in Northern Ireland, who have a right under Article 1 of the international Good Friday agreement to have their aspirations protected by the sovereign Government and are saying, “We have a major problem here: the major issue of our alienation”? That seems to have disappeared entirely. For all its problems, at least the Bill is an effort to do this.

I am not convinced that the constitutionality of the United Kingdom and its great provisions are incredibly protected or defended by saying, “We just could not care less about that question.” This is about a more complicated balance. Is it not obvious that there is a balance to be found here? I desperately hope that it is reached in the negotiations with the EU. Is it not obvious that these strong, dramatic statements on both sides are not helpful in the struggle to reach the balance that must be found?

My Lords, I want to bring the focus back to Article 2. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, said that this Bill is modest but the problem is that the law of unintended consequences could come into play here.

My noble friend Lord Purvis of Tweed coined the phrase “Rumsfeld clauses”. I do not want to detract from his trademark on that phrase—he will kill me—but, as concerns Article 2, the Bill shows some evidence of having been written on the back of an envelope. Concerns about human rights and equality have been at the heart of the conflict in Northern Ireland, so those concerns were central to the Good Friday agreement.

Thus Article 2 of the protocol, ensuring a non-diminution of the wide range of rights set out in the Good Friday agreement, is a key clause. However, there are worrying implications of the Bill for human rights and equality protections, which are in danger of being overlooked. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland point out that the Explanatory Notes to the Bill make no reference to any consideration having been given to compliance with Article 2 of the protocol. Those two commissions have previously recommended that this should be the case regarding all relevant legislation. I understand that the Leader of the House of Commons, the right honourable Penny Mordaunt, is talking about draft guidance to Bill teams on this matter. This is in response to concerns that have been raised for quite a few months now by various committees, such as the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and Women and Equalities Committee in the other place, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, on which I have the pleasure to sit, and our own Northern Ireland Protocol Sub-Committee. They have all raised concerns about compliance with Article 2 of the protocol.

The Government gave assurances about their commitment to Article 2, and it is true that this article gets a degree of protection under the Bill; for instance, that Clause 15 does not permit Ministers to make regulations defining Article 2 among “excluded provisions”. However, even Clause 15 needs completion, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, pointed out. The logic of protection of Article 2 is far from fully reflected in other clauses of the Bill. Hence these amendments—and I support all those tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, not just the two I have co-signed—propose a strengthening of Clauses 9, 10, 13 to 15 and 20.

This Government do not like the European Court of Justice, but its role is essential at various points in relation to Article 2. That article includes a commitment to keep pace with EU laws, as the noble Baroness pointed out, with EU law developments falling within the scope of the six equality directives listed in Annexe 1 to the protocol. As these directives are updated or replaced under the normal process of EU legislation, the UK Government are committed to ensuring that domestic legislation in Northern Ireland reflects any substantive enhancements in relevant protections. There are also other relevant EU laws beyond the six equality directives that underpin rights in the Good Friday agreement, such as the victims’ directive, the parental leave directive, and the pregnant workers’ directive.

The Government are committed to ensuring that there will be no diminution of protections as contained in relevant EU law on 31 December 2020. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland have acquired additional powers to oversee the Government’s commitment under Article 2. However, it is essential that Clause 20, which removes the binding nature of judgments of the European Court of Justice, is amended to ensure that the dynamic alignments—the keeping pace—guaranteed under the protocol for citizens’ rights in Northern Ireland can be delivered. The same applies to Clause 13.

The UK-EU joint committee supervises the implementation of the withdrawal agreement, but where there is a dispute regarding the interpretation of EU law which the joint committee or the arbitration panel cannot resolve, then under Article 174 of the withdrawal agreement, the ECJ must be asked to give a binding interpretation. This needs to be recognised and incorporated in Clause 13.

I mentioned Clause 15. The remaining problem there is that it does not prevent Article 14(c) of the protocol, which provides for the UK-EU specialised committee to consider matters brought to its attention by the two commissions in Northern Ireland—human rights and equalities—from becoming excluded provision by sort of oversight. The same applies to the lack of protection of the protocol’s Article 15, which provides for a joint consultative working group on the effective operation of Article 2.

The other amendments in this group raise similar and related issues. For reasons of time, I will not dwell on them. I am sure that noble Lords get the drift. One is left to conclude that there was either a lack of thorough preparation on the Bill—hence my quip about the back of an envelope—or a disturbingly cavalier disregard for Article 2 of the protocol. I am not sure which is worse. Neither is excusable, but I hope the Minister can tell me that the Government will take away especially all those excellent, very dense and precise questions raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie. Quite honestly, what is in the Bill at the moment is not remotely satisfactory to honour and safeguard Article 2 of the protocol.

My Lords, these amendments relate to Article 2 of the protocol. However, it is clear that Articles 1 and 2 subject that protocol to the prior treaty, the Belfast agreement. That is the fundamental point that must not be overlooked. There is merit in examining in detail what, for instance, Article 2(1) says, because it lends weight to arguments that we have advanced on our side and that have been advanced very eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Bew. Article 2(1) specifically places an act of duty on the UK Government. That duty is as follows:

“The United Kingdom shall ensure no diminution of rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity as set out in that part of the 1998 Agreement entitled Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity results from its withdrawal from the Union”.

However, the operation of the protocol, as it is currently being operated and is designed to operate, is diminishing the rights set out in

“that part of the … Agreement entitled Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity”

and in the Belfast agreement, which sets out

“the right to pursue democratically national and political aspirations”.

That applies right across the whole remit of lawmaking in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Up until 31 December 2020, the people of Northern Ireland were represented in all the lawmaking to which they were subject.

However, since then, more and more laws are being applied that have been developed by the European Union, in which Northern Ireland representatives have absolutely no representation whatever. It is helpful that we are looking at Article 2. The operation of the protocol is therefore actively diminishing the Belfast agreement’s

“right to pursue democratically national and political aspirations”.

People in Northern Ireland can currently not do that—by standing for election or electing someone to the relevant legislature, whether here at Westminster or at Stormont—because they cannot make any laws. They have no say in any laws to which the people of Northern Ireland are subject in over 300 areas, hence the need for the Bill, which will return lawmaking powers for goods destined for Northern Ireland to a legislature within the United Kingdom.

I have listened to the outrage—as the noble Lord, Lord Bew, described it very well—that has been expressed about the powers that will be taken by Ministers. However, there seems to be little or no outrage felt at all about the absolute lack of any democracy whatever when it comes to whole swathes of laws over the economy in Northern Ireland. Never mind giving the powers to Ministers, or bringing forward regulations or statutory instruments capable not of being amended but at least of some scrutiny in a United Kingdom legislature—these are laws being brought forward on a dynamic basis, aligning Northern Ireland to EU law, different from UK law in many cases, with no scrutiny, say, vote, or anything else by anyone elected in Northern Ireland.

Where is the outrage about that? Where are the fulsome expressions of how this is a travesty of democracy, the like of which has not been seen—I cannot count any kind of precedents for it. The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, referred to the idea of a stool that has legs being cut off it. It reminds me of the description of the Belfast agreement as amended by the St Andrews agreement: a three-legged stool, with strands 1, 2 and 3; strand 1 being the internal affairs of Northern Ireland, the Assembly and so on; strand 2 being north-south; and strand 3 being east-west. When you interfere and cut the leg of the east-west relationship, which is what has happened as a result of the protocol, and you also interfere with the cross-community voting mechanisms of the Assembly itself in order to undermine any kind of unionist opposition to the protocol, you are cutting away at the legs of the Belfast agreement as amended by St Andrews. That is the reality, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Bew, said, we need to focus on the fundamental problem, which is that the Belfast agreement is being undermined by the protocol. Until it is sorted out, there will not be proper functioning of that agreement.

My Lords, I want to rise very briefly in support of these amendments and also to say that my noble friend Lady Ludford made an extremely clear and very good case. I just want to add three very brief points.

The first is that I refer the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, to Hansard in 2019 and my contributions, among others from these Benches. We debated these issues and highlighted them, and he knows that. I am sure this evening it is just rhetoric in our Committee. He knows we have raised the concerns that he just outlined now. They are why we opposed it. So I do not think he can present that fact towards these Benches.

The second is that in my view Article 2 of the protocol should not be seen in a static form. Article 2(1) states:

“The United Kingdom shall ensure that no diminution of rights … results from its withdrawal from the Union”.

This is a permanent agreement, a permanent commitment, and therefore it cannot be seen that those that were in place in 2019 are now kept in aspic. So my noble friend is absolutely right that if you are taking away what is case law and when those rights and freedoms protected by Annexe 1 powers are adapted, unless they are dynamic, there is a diminution of those rights, by definition. The Bill proposes retaining them in aspic. The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, is absolutely right to highlight the fact that those Article 2 rights need to continue to be dynamic.

I know the hour is late, but I want to remind the noble Lord, Lord Bew, and others of Northern Ireland Protocol Bill: UK Government Legal Position, which is the founding basis upon which this Bill has been brought for our consideration. The final sentence of the penultimate paragraph is:

“The UK urges EU Member States to provide a new negotiating mandate to the Commission, wide enough to change the terms of the Protocol to respond to the full range of issues addressed by this legislation.”

So far, I have not heard a squeak from any Minister saying that the position of the Government is still that there should be a new negotiating mandate from the Commission to EU member states. I have not heard that; I am willing to be intervened on, or, if not, I want to hear from the Minister whether that is still the position. That was the legal position of the Government: that they are seeking a new negotiating mandate from the Commission. It is there in black and white, but I have not heard whether that remains the same. When it comes to putting faith in the negotiations, what is the basis of these negotiations if the Government’s legal position is that there has to be a new mandate and that is not forthcoming?

The third and final point I want to make in support of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Deben, is that two committees of our House have now highlighted the unprecedented nature of this. With his experience as a Minister operating and then implementing legislation, he should be listened to. Whenever a Parliament passes something considered unprecedented, it immediately becomes precedent. Of course, we cannot bind our successors, but Ministers will be able to say as soon as this is done that this precedent is not tightened; of course it is not tightened. This is why we have gone from Henry VIII to Donald Rumsfeld. The breadth becomes wider and wider and, unless we say no, the ability to prevent that precedent becomes even harder; that is why these amendments are so important.

My Lords, I will comment again briefly. I have said on the Floor of this House during these debates that I did not consider it necessary to reopen the mandate. If the EU can genuinely commit itself, as it is committed in the protocol, to defending the Good Friday agreement in all its parts, although it has not really understood what that means, my personal view is that that would be enough. I can understand why the Government feel the EU should reopen the mandate, but it is not a problem for me. I accept the point and I believe there could be successful talks without the reopening of the mandate; that is, providing that the EU accepts what it said itself that this is about protecting the Good Friday agreement in all its parts. As long as that part of the commitment, which has already been made, is upheld, I think there is a good prospect for these talks.

My Lords, I open by thanking my noble friend Lady Ritchie for tabling this group of amendments. It has provoked an extremely interesting debate, with some strongly held views. First, in welcoming these amendments, my noble friend built on the contribution of my noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, who spoke last week about the importance of preserving the rights of people from all communities. The withdrawal agreement was not about the practicalities of trade; first and foremost, it was about setting out matters relating to the rights of citizens. Article 2 of the protocol reflects this, with the Government having committed to

“no diminution of rights, safeguards or equality of opportunity”

under the 1998 agreement.

The concerns raised by my noble friend Lady Ritchie are legitimate and need a detailed answer from the Minister. The Government’s obsession in relation to the European court is not helpful when it comes to questions about the rights of individuals. As my noble friend said, this is indeed an opportunity for the Government to show that they are protecting Article 2 at all costs.

The noble Lord, Lord Deben, asked a couple of very important questions. I think I wrote down correctly that he said that the Government do not even know the extent of the powers they are asking for in this Bill. That is quite a statement to make. He also gave a very telling comment about the importance of parliamentary restrictions when one has the responsibilities of a Minister. I thank him for making those points.

The noble Lord, Lord Bew, had a different view. He said that the Bill is less important than the noble Lord, Lord Deben, seemed to imply and that really the focus was on Articles 5 to 10; they are really the target of the Bill, not Article 2. I would be interested to see how the Minister reconciles those two points of view.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, spoke of the law of unintended consequences. She went into some detail—almost the same level of detail as the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie—with a number of questions that I hope the Minister will be able to answer, maybe in writing at a later stage.

The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, asked some interesting questions and reminded us all that two committees have highlighted the unprecedented nature of the Bill. This is an opportunity for the Minister to reassure us that the Article 2 rights can indeed be dynamically maintained through the Bill.

My Lords, as ever, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, for her amendments, which have provoked a wide-ranging debate at this late hour. I put on record my acknowledgment of her forthright defence of human rights in Northern Ireland over very many decades.

I note that some of the amendments that have been debated this evening follow on from briefings and comments made by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, both of which are important institutions that were established under the 1998 agreement and were set out in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. They perform a hugely important function, as noble Lords have pointed out, as part of the dedicated mechanism under Article 2 of the protocol. I do not think there is any difference between us on that point.

I therefore reaffirm at the outset that the Government are committed to Article 2 and to ensuring that rights and equality protections continue to be upheld in Northern Ireland. If noble Lords will forgive me, I think I have long enough experience in Northern Ireland itself to understand the importance of those protections. That is why Article 2 is explicitly protected from being made an excluded provision by Clause 15 in the Bill. To be clear, the Government will not do anything to undermine the provisions of Article 2. We believe that the Bill gives us all the powers we need to ensure that we can protect it. The noble Baroness’s amendments therefore seek to address problems that we do not envisage arising from the Bill.

I could go into great detail now but, given the lateness of the hour, I will say that we will continue to look at these issues as we consider plans for secondary legislation under the Bill. We will be particularly mindful of any interactions with Article 2, given the interest of the Committee. In that spirit, I look forward to receiving the detailed questions from the noble Baroness in writing. Of course, I give her an undertaking that we will provide her with very detailed responses, which will be placed in the Library well in advance of Report so that noble Lords have a chance to consider them.

On the noble Baroness’s specific question, Article 2 is not excluded and cannot be. Section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 will always apply. None of the provisions that the noble Baroness mentioned ceases to apply to Article 2 under this Bill, including Article 13(3), the arbitration provisions, Article 5 of the withdrawal agreement and Section 7C of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act. As I say, I am happy to put this down in much more detail in writing so that all noble Lords will have a chance to consider the responses.

On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, regarding the EU negotiating mandate, I am happy to confirm that the Government are still engaging with the EU in talks, and we are clear that movement from the EU is needed that goes beyond its 2020-21 proposals. We need to be able to make changes to the protocol.

To conclude—

I know that it is late; it is very kind of the Minister to give way. Just so we are crystal clear, that means that we have formally sought EU member states to seek a new mandate from the Commission.

I am sure that the noble Lord will forgive me if I do not give a running commentary on the negotiations. I have set out the Government’s position, and I do not really want to be drawn beyond it.

I am sorry to interrupt my noble friend, but when he replies to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, will he answer the question not just whether the Government will do these things but whether they would have power to do these things? That is the question that most concerns me and many on this side of the Committee.

I am grateful to my noble friend, and I will ensure that the answers to the noble Baroness are as full and detailed as possible.

In conclusion, given the lateness of the hour and the need to make progress, I genuinely believe that the aims of the Government, the noble Baroness and other noble Lords who have spoken in the debate this evening are broadly aligned. There might be differences of approach, but we do not believe that the amendments are required. I will write to the noble Baroness in detail and, in that spirit, urge her to withdraw her amendment.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, including the Minister who responded. I obviously look forward to the detailed answers following the submission of my speech, outlining the questions to him. What the noble Lord, Lord Deben, has just expressed, and it is the thread running through the contributions made by noble Lords this evening, is the fear of the power that Ministers will have through the regulations. That will have a damaging impact on Article 2, perhaps by default, but it is the worry and the concern of both commissions in Northern Ireland. I understand that they have a statutory duty under the dedicated mechanism to deal with these issues, but it might be useful for the Government to enter into discussions. I do not know whether that is possible, because one is the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive and the other is the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Office, but it might be useful, because of their joint responsibility, to have further discussions with them in relation to these issues.

Because of the lateness of the hour, I look forward to the answers from the Minister. I believe that the problem lies with the further powers in the regulations that are yet to be revealed to your Lordships’ House. At this stage, however, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment, with the proviso—dependent on the answers received—that I might bring some of these issues back on Report.

Amendment 15A withdrawn.

Clause 9 agreed.

Clause 10: Meaning of “regulation of goods”

Amendment 15B not moved.

Clause 10 agreed.

Clause 11 agreed.

House resumed.

House adjourned at 10 pm.