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Stormont Brake

Volume 828: debated on Thursday 2 March 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of how the Stormont Brake mechanism in the new Windsor Framework will work in practice in relation to European Union legislation.

My Lords, the Stormont brake gives the Northern Ireland Assembly a powerful new safeguard. If the brake is pulled, the United Kingdom can veto new EU goods laws that would have significant lasting effects on the everyday lives of the people of Northern Ireland. The brake has been introduced by fundamentally rewriting the dynamic alignment provisions of the treaty; that is a permanent change and ends the automatic ratchet of EU law.

I thank the Minister for that Answer but, for absolute clarity, would the brake be exercised when 30 MLAs sign a petition of concern, or would it be subject to a further vote in the Assembly on a cross-community basis? When will we see the legal text showing how the brake will operate in practice—or has it already been prepared and shown to others?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness. Of course, she and I both served on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, and she continues to serve on the European Affairs Committee’s Sub-Committee on the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland. As far back as our first report, we highlighted the problems created by the democratic deficit in Northern Ireland, which the Government’s proposals now seek to address.

The noble Baroness asked some specific questions about the process. Of course, the Command Paper and supporting documentation set out the framework. There are some details that are yet to be filled in and will be dealt with in legislation; they will follow consultations with the Northern Ireland parties, which my right honourable friend the Northern Ireland Secretary intends to begin almost immediately.

My Lords, the Minister said that the Stormont brake will apply to future laws. Can he tell us whether it will apply to the existing superstructure of EU laws that applies to the EU single market and customs codes for goods in Northern Ireland? Does the Stormont brake apply to the existing superstructure of EU laws in Northern Ireland?

As my noble friend—he is my noble friend—will be aware, one of the effects of the Windsor Framework is to reduce very significantly the amount of EU law that will be applicable in Northern Ireland. I think the figure is something like 1,700 pages of text have been removed. Northern Ireland will now be subject to less than 3% of EU law. On my noble friend’s specific question, the brake will apply to new laws that fall within the existing protocol or amendments to laws that fall within the existing protocol.

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Ritchie highlighted the complexity of the Stormont brake. The Minister rightly indicated that he will hold consultations with the political parties in Northern Ireland. Can he tell the House about the nature of those consultations? As he knows, the purpose of this mechanism is, as he has told us, to address the so-called democratic deficit in Northern Ireland because of the working of the single market. However, does he not agree that the greatest democratic deficit is the continued suspension of the Executive and the Assembly in Northern Ireland? He may rest assured that those of us on this side of the House will support the Government in all their attempts to restore those institutions for the benefit of all the people of Northern Ireland.

I am grateful to the distinguished former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for his tone and his comments. On the nature of the engagement, I can assure the noble Lord that my right honourable friend intends to speak to the Northern Ireland parties directly in the coming days. That will be followed by technical engagement at official level and further political engagement—but we intend to move rapidly on this because we recognise its importance.

I agree entirely with the noble Lord about the absolute necessity and priority of restoring the institutions. It is the Government’s hope that the Windsor Framework will now allow us to move forward in a way that allows the institutions to be fully restored and works to build a better Northern Ireland for everybody. Speaking as somebody who believes passionately in the union of the Great Britain and Northern Ireland, let me say that the surest foundation for strengthening the union is a Northern Ireland that works.

My Lords, in agreeing very much with what my noble friend the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, have just said, do not all those in Northern Ireland who have been elected to the Assembly now have a duty to meet and discuss together the historic achievement of the Prime Minister, which will not be bettered, so that we can move forward as a United Kingdom?

I very much agree with the sentiments behind my noble friend’s question. As I have indicated, the Secretary of State will speak to all the Northern Ireland parties in the very near future. I agree with my noble friend about the achievements of the 1998 Belfast agreement; as we approach its 25th anniversary, it is important that we seek to move that forward. He is absolutely right.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, for her Question. I fully accept that both the SDLP and the Alliance Party have difficulties with the Stormont brake. On the other side of the argument, the Centre For The Union published overnight its eagerly awaited text, which argues that, in principle, it is sympathetic to the Stormont brake. That is an important moment in this struggle to see the return of Stormont.

There is a lot of concern about how the brake might work in practice. I want to put a question to the Minister. Over the past two years, Northern Ireland has been much dominated by the efforts initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Frost, who is in his place, to introduce derogations from the operation of the original protocol. As far as I can see, most of those derogations are now embodied in the new deal, but this was done to effect stability and was done unilaterally. Now that there is an international agreement that underpins the actions of the British Government with respect to the Stormont brake, surely it is logical that, when a decision is not unilateral but is based on the international agreement, the British Government can be relied on to pursue again the objective of stability in Northern Ireland as firmly as they have done over the past two years—and in rather more favourable international circumstances.

I thank the noble Lord. I must call him my noble friend, because we go back so many years. He makes very important points. I thank him for his contributions on these subjects, not only today but over a number of months and years. Of course, he is right to highlight the importance of stability, to which I referred in an earlier answer. That is the surest foundation for the union and for strengthening Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom.

On the broader point, he referred to derogations. So much of what we have had to do through grace periods and easements has now been made permanent because of the Windsor Framework. That allows us to move on. In a similar vein to my noble friend Lord Cormack, I hope that one of the consequences of this is that we can now move forward, not just in Northern Ireland but in our broader relationships with friends, partners and colleagues in the European Union.

My Lords, I, too, welcome the agreement and hope that it will lead very soon to a return to a functioning Assembly and Executive—for if there is no Stormont, there is no Stormont brake. Given the very real concerns of the Alliance Party and the SDLP, can the Minister say whether the Government intend to introduce a review mechanism to assess how the Stormont brake is working in practice once it is up and running?

Of course, and I recognise that different parties will have different views and concerns. One purpose of the engagement that my right honourable friend will undertake in the coming days will be to establish what they are and where we can find agreement. As I said in my Answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, the framework—the clue is in the name—sets out the framework for the Stormont brake, but there are some details to be filled in as to how things are codified. There will need to be legislation in this area setting out things in more detail, and I am sure that will be part of it.

My Lords, the framework sounds like an improvement. However, as we here well know, the legal text is what counts. Some of us who have read the EU legal text have some concerns. Not publishing that legal text as quickly as possible allows rumour and distrust to grow, so I would urge it.

When the Minister says that 1,700 pages will be removed, how many laws and regulations does that include? Although 1,700 pages sounds a lot, you need only look at our legislation table to know that that could be one law and half a regulation, depending on how long it is. We want specifics, or we do not know what we are being asked to consider as positive or not.

The noble Baroness will not be surprised to hear that I cannot tell her off the top of my head the precise number of EU laws that remain within Northern Ireland. As I said earlier, it is below 3%. That 3% is those laws which are essential for Northern Ireland’s privileged access to the single market, on which so many sectors, especially agrifood and dairy, continue to rely. At the outset, the noble Baroness referred to the agreement as a whole. I am in no doubt that this is a substantial improvement on the existing protocol and something that everybody should get behind.