I must inform the House that the reasoned amendments have not been selected. Before I ask the Foreign Secretary to move Second Reading, I reiterate how important it is for Members who wish to speak in the debate to be here at the beginning to hear all the opening speeches, to stay in the Chamber for the vast majority of the debate and certainly for the winding-up speeches, and to be there in good time. It is very discourteous not to follow those rules, especially on an important debate such as this.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
We are taking this action to uphold the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which has brought peace and political stability to Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland protocol is undermining the function of the agreement and of power sharing. It has created fractures between east and west, diverted trade and meant that people in Northern Ireland are treated differently from people in Great Britain. It has weakened their economic rights. That has created a sense that parity of esteem between different parts of the community, an essential part of the agreement, has been damaged.
The Bill will address those political challenges and fix the practical problems the protocol has created. It avoids a hard border and protects the integrity of the UK and the European Union single market. It is necessary because the growing issues in Northern Ireland, including on tax and customs, are baked into the protocol itself. Our preference remains a negotiated solution, and the Bill contains a provision that allows for negotiated agreement, but the EU has ruled out up-front making changes to the text of the protocol.
I will make a bit more progress and then allow some further interventions.
We continue to raise the issues of concern with our European partners, but we simply cannot allow this situation to drift. Northern Ireland has been without a devolved Government since February due specifically to the protocol, at a time of major global economic challenges. Therefore, it is the duty of this Government to act now to enable a plan for restored local government to begin. It is both legal and necessary.
This Bill fixes the specific problems that have been caused in Northern Ireland while maintaining those parts of the protocol that are working. It fixes problems in four areas: customs and sanitary and phytosanitary; a dual regulatory model; subsidy control and VAT; and governance. On customs and SPS, the Bill creates a green and red lane system. All those trading into Northern Ireland will be part of a trusted trader scheme. Goods destined for Northern Ireland will not face customs bureaucracy. Goods for the Republic of Ireland and the EU will go through four EU-style border procedures. All data from both the green and red lanes will be shared with the EU in real time as the goods depart from Great Britain. This means that the EU will have this data before the goods arrive in Northern Ireland, ensuring that the EU single market is protected.
I thank the Secretary of State for bringing this forward and for her comprehensive understanding of the position of many people in Northern Ireland. As someone who has had businesses contacting me for those who have openly stated that they are from a nationalist tradition and yet feel afraid to voice complaints to their own MP for fear of reprisals, I speak with confidence in assuring the Secretary of State that Northern Ireland as a whole needs this Bill not simply for cultural identity, which is imperative, but for financial viability for small businesses due to the effects of the EU’s vindictive approach to block VAT and state aid. This Bill really is long overdue.
I was talking about the data that we are sharing with the EU. I am pleased to say that we already have this system in place. We are giving demonstrations to businesses and the EU to show how it works, and I am happy to make those demonstrations available to Members of Parliament as well. Any trader violating the lanes will face penalties and would face ejection from the scheme.
I have an immense amount of sympathy with what the Foreign Secretary is saying, and it does seem to me as though the EU is not being particularly constructive in trying to get the solution that we all want to see. But many of us are extremely concerned that the Bill brazenly breaks a solemn international treaty, trashes our international reputation, threatens a trade war at a time when our economy is flat, and puts us at odds with our most important ally. Can she say anything to reassure me in my anxieties on these points?
As I said at the outset, our preference is for a negotiated solution, and we have sought that for 18 months, but as recently as last weekend the EU has refused to change the text of the protocol. That is why there is strong legal justification, as set out in our legal statement, for us taking this action. Our priority, as the United Kingdom Government, has to be political stability within our own country. While we put this Bill through Parliament, we will continue to seek a negotiated solution with the EU, and there are provisions in the Bill to deliver that. I would strongly encourage my right hon. Friend to raise this with the EU directly and to encourage a negotiated solution, because there is a solution to be achieved. We have laid it out very clearly with our red and green proposal, but we do need the EU to agree to change the text of the protocol. That is the fundamental issue that needs to be addressed.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. The Government’s legal position prays in aid the international law doctrine of necessity, but the International Law Commission says that where a state has itself contributed to the situation of necessity, that doctrine cannot be prayed in aid. Given that the Prime Minister signed the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol, in the knowledge that it would give rise to precisely the difficulties of which the Government now complain—we debated it on the Floor of the House—does the Secretary of State not see that there is a pretty big hole in the legal advice she has been given?
We set out the case extremely clearly in the legal advice, and the doctrine of necessity has been used by other Governments in the past where there is a severe issue and the other party is unwilling to renegotiate that treaty. That is the position we are in with the Northern Ireland protocol. What I would ask the hon. and learned Lady and other Members on the Opposition Benches is this: given that the EU refuses to reopen the Northern Ireland protocol, and issues around customs and tax are specifically baked in, what is their solution for dealing with the real issues in Northern Ireland? We have looked at all the alternative solutions, and the only effective solution is this Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, in the absence of the EU being willing to negotiate a new protocol.
My right hon. Friend could also point out that the protocol itself contains provisions for it to be changed, and the EU refuses to contemplate using those provisions. May I also point out that at the time we signed the protocol, we did not know the shape of the trade and co-operation agreement, and it was reasonable to expect the EU to give mutual recognition of products and standards, including SPS standards, as it has with New Zealand, for example? The EU refuses to give us those provisions. The problems in the protocol would be much less if the EU had given us a better trade deal.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the protocol is not set in stone. That is why for the past 18 months this Government have sought to achieve negotiated changes to the protocol. In the absence of the EU being willing to change the text, the only way to resolve this matter is for us to legislate.
I am going to make more progress, and then I will take more interventions.
We fully understand and respect the legitimate concerns of the EU that the single market should be protected. Our solution does just that. The Bill will also establish a dual regulatory regime so that businesses can choose between meeting UK and EU standards. That removes the barriers to goods made to UK standards being sold in Northern Ireland and it cuts the processes that drive up cost for business. It prevents unnecessary divergence between two parts of the UK internal market. Anybody who trades into the EU single market will still have to do so according to EU standards.
The Bill will also ensure that the Government can set UK-wide policies on subsidy control and VAT, overcoming constraints that have meant Northern Ireland has not benefited from the same support as the rest of the UK. For example, at present people in Northern Ireland are not able to benefit from the VAT cuts on solar panels that the Chancellor announced in the spring statement.
These are essential functions of any 21st-century state, but they are especially important in Northern Ireland, where the UK Government play an outsized role in the local economy. We will maintain the arrangements in the protocol on VAT, which support trade on the island of Ireland while ensuring that Northern Ireland can still benefit from the freedoms and flexibility available in Great Britain.
Does the Secretary of State understand why so many people would accuse this Government of the most rank hypocrisy? First, this is a predictable outcome of the agreement that they negotiated when they did not give a fig for the situation in Northern Ireland, frankly. Secondly, if they were serious about negotiations, they could be using article 16. Thirdly, at the very same time that the Prime Minister is gladhanding G7 leaders in Bavaria and extolling the virtues of a rules-based international system, his own Government at home are riding a horse and coaches through a rules-based system. Does she understand the concerns we have? What kind of reputation will the UK have on the global stage as a result of this proposal?
As I have made clear, the Belfast/Good Friday agreement should have primacy. The fact is that it has been undermined over the past two years, as we can see from the fact that the institutions of Northern Ireland are not up and running. That is why the Government need to act, and we are doing so in a reasonable and legal way.
I entirely accept my right hon. Friend’s desire to achieve a negotiated settlement if at all possible; I know how much work has gone into that. To return to the legal point, she will know that the application of the doctrine of necessity requires both the legal tests to be met and the evidential base to be there, because it is largely fact-specific to show whether those tests have been met. I know that the Government have been working hard to assemble that evidential base, but can she tell us when it will be available to the House so that we can form a judgment as to whether those legal tests are met and, therefore, proportionality and necessity are met? It would be helpful to have that before we come to a conclusion on the Bill.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. There are clearly very severe issues in Northern Ireland, including the fact that its institutions are not up and running, which mean that the UK has to act and cannot allow the situation to drift. I do not think that we have heard what the Opposition’s alternative would be, apart from simply hoping that the EU might suddenly negotiate or come up with a new outcome.
Over the past six years, I have given several alternatives, including as a shadow Minister. The Secretary of State talks about the institutions. Can she give the House the details of the agreement she has secured from the political parties in Northern Ireland that they will return to Stormont on the completion of the Bill—or on the completion of Second Reading, at any point during the Committee stage, or on Third Reading? What in the Bill has secured that? What role is there for anybody in Northern Ireland, given that the powers go to the Minister of the Crown?
I note that the hon. Lady has not come up with any alternatives to the Bill to move the situation forward. The approach we have taken, with the four areas that I am talking through, is to identify what the practical problems are for the people of Northern Ireland and to come up with solutions that address those problems while protecting the EU single market. It is our expectation that the passage of the Bill will result in the institutions being re-established.
I will make progress on talking through the elements of the Bill, but I will be happy to accept further interventions later.
The Bill will ensure that the Government can set UK-wide policies on subsidy control and VAT, which will overcome the constraints that have meant that Northern Ireland has not benefited from the same support as the rest of the UK, as I mentioned. It will also maintain the arrangements in the protocol on VAT that support trade on the island of Ireland, while ensuring that Northern Ireland can still benefit from the freedoms and flexibilities available in Great Britain.
The Bill will remove the role of the European Court where it is not appropriate, including its role as the final arbiter of disputes. That is in line with normal international dispute-resolution provisions, including in the trade and co-operation agreement. The Bill will also enable courts to seek an opinion from the European Court on legitimate questions of the interpretation of EU law, which will ensure that it can still be applied for the purposes of north-south trade.
The Belfast/Good Friday agreement is based on consent from both communities. All Unionist parties have cited the European Court as a main cause of major democratic deficit. Together with VAT and state aid rules, it causes Unionists to feel less connected and less part of the UK. This is not a hypothetical issue; the European Court has already become one of the most controversial elements of the protocol and threatens to disrupt everyday lives. The EU has brought infraction proceedings against the UK in five areas that cover issues such as parcels and transporting pets. To be absolutely clear, the Bill changes only the parts of the protocol that are causing the problems and undermining the three strands of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
I have a very short question, which is simply this. The Foreign Secretary says the Bill is legal, but lots of people disagree with her, including lots of very eminent lawyers both in this country and elsewhere. Which body will arbitrate on the decision as to whether this Bill is legal?
We have published our Government legal statement, which clearly states the reasons why this Bill is legal and the necessity of pursuing this Bill. I return to my point about the lack of alternatives being proposed by the Opposition. We have exhausted all the other avenues, and this remains the course of action that is actually going to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland and re-establish the institutions.
There is a lot of talk about international law, but can I take the Foreign Secretary to paragraph 3 of article 2 of the UN charter? It says:
“All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.”
That is incumbent on us and the EU, and the EU needs to engage with us and negotiate so that peace is not threatened.
My hon. Friend is right. It is very clear from the legal advice that one of the issues is that the EU will not change the text of the protocol even though, when the protocol was negotiated, it was very clear that it was not set in stone and should be subject to change because of the very unique situation in Northern Ireland.
We are very clear that there are elements of the protocol that are working and that we do want to maintain. We will maintain the conditions for north-south co-operation and trade, and uphold the common travel area. We will maintain the functioning of the single electricity market, which benefits both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The Bill provides specific powers to implement technical regulations as part of our solution, and today we launched a consultation with businesses to make sure that the way it is implemented works for the people of business in Northern Ireland. We will continue consulting with businesses and the EU over the coming weeks to make sure that the implementation works.
One of the fundamental purposes of this long-awaited Bill is to uphold the critical Good Friday agreement, which as the whole House knows completely underpins the maintenance of peace and political stability in Northern Ireland. That being the case, for those who follow this matter closely, including in the United States, will the Foreign Secretary confirm that one of the strongest advocates for action on this has been Lord Trimble, the Nobel laureate, who helped negotiate the Good Friday agreement in the first place?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We all know how hard-won peace and political stability in Northern Ireland was, and we all know how important it is that the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is upheld and is not undermined. That is the discussion I have been having with colleagues in the United States and around the world, and those who have experienced the situation in Northern Ireland fully understand how important it is that we act and that we cannot allow this situation to drift.
I know there are those across the House who want to give negotiation more time. The problem we face is that we have already been negotiating for 18 months. We have a negotiating partner that is refusing to change the text of the protocol. Meanwhile, we have a worsening situation in Northern Ireland. So it is firmly the view of this Government that we need to act. We are pursuing this legislation as all other options have been exhausted.
Our first choice was and remains renegotiating the protocol text with the EU. This is in line with the evolution of other treaties, which happens all the time. For example, both the EU and the UK are currently renegotiating changes to the energy charter treaty. Given the unique nature of Northern Ireland and the unprecedented nature of these arrangements, it was always likely that flexibility would be needed. In fact, that flexibility was explicitly acknowledged in the protocol itself, but despite the fact that we have been pursuing these renegotiations we have not seen the flexibility needed from the EU.
As recently as this weekend, the EU said it will not renegotiate the text of the protocol, and Members across the House will have seen that the EU put forward proposals last year and again a fortnight ago; it is worth pointing out that those proposals will leave the people and businesses of Northern Ireland worse off than the current standstill arrangements. Its proposals would make the situation on the ground worse, adding further to the tensions and stresses; goods going solely to Northern Ireland would still face customs paperwork and sanitary and phytosanitary certificates.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this Bill is borne out of necessity: necessity to act in our national interest, to provide a permanent solution to a temporary measure, to preserve the Belfast agreement, and to preserve the constitutional settlement that keeps Northern Ireland as part of the UK? It is a necessity to prevent a democratic deficit and to use international law to safeguard and protect our essential interests while protecting those of the EU.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We still face a situation in which the EU has refused to change the text of the protocol, and its proposals do not even address many of the issues of concern—over governance, subsidies, manufactured goods and VAT. Without dealing with those very real issues for the people of Northern Ireland we are not going to see the balance of the Belfast Good Friday agreement restored, and we are not going to see the cross-community support we need to get the political institutions back up and running.
The Foreign Secretary knows that the three things that need to be resolved are the friction in trade; repairing the harm to our constitutional position within this country; and erasing the democratic deficit at the heart of the protocol. The Foreign Secretary has fairly outlined the myriad steps the Government have taken; if this Bill is required, they can have our support in resolving these issues, but she will also hear a lot of opposition from Members of other parties on this side of the House. In hearing that opposition from colleagues sitting to my right and left, can she identify even one of them who advocated using article 16 or the provisions of the protocol, or have they simply no interest in trying to resolve the issues affecting the people of Northern Ireland today?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Those who advocate further negotiation with the EU need to persuade the EU to change its negotiating mandate so the text of the protocol can change, because we know that those specific issues, including on the customs bureaucracy and VAT, can only be addressed by addressing the text of the protocol itself.
I want to come on to the specific point the hon. Gentleman made about article 16. Of course we have looked at triggering article 16 to deal with this issue; however, we came to the conclusion that it would not resolve the fundamental issues in the protocol. It is only a temporary measure and it would only treat some of the symptoms without fixing the root cause of the problems, which are baked into the protocol text itself. It could also lead to attrition and litigation with the EU while not delivering sufficient change.
I want to be clear: we do not rule out using article 16 further down the line if the circumstances demand it, but in order to fix the very real problems in Northern Ireland and get the political institutions back up and running, the only solution that is effective and provides a comprehensive and durable solution is this Bill.
I suspect that when the Foreign Secretary was campaigning for Britain to remain in the European Union, she never in a million years thought she would be standing here proposing a Bill of this sort. In light of the comment she just made about article 16, why are the Government not proposing to use the legal method to raise these questions with the European Union through the treaty they signed, rather than claiming necessity? The Foreign Secretary has yet to give me a single example where the British Government have claimed necessity for abrogating a treaty they have negotiated and signed.
The reason why I am putting the Bill forward is that I am a patriot, and I am a democrat. Our No. 1 priority is protecting peace and political stability in Northern Ireland and protecting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. Nothing that the right hon. Gentleman has suggested will achieve that end.
I will finish off my remarks.
The only way for us to uphold the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and fix the problems in Northern Ireland is to pass this legislation. We have heard all kinds of complaining from the Opposition side about the solution that the Government are putting forward, but no alternative solution that will deliver.
I want to be clear that this is not my preferred choice, but, in the absence of a negotiated solution, we have no other choice. There is no need for the EU to react negatively. It will be no worse off as a result of the Bill. These issues are very small in the context of the single market, but they are critical for Northern Ireland.
The Foreign Secretary knows that I have grave concerns about her Bill, but may I ask her coolly to reflect on praying in aid patriotism as a defence of it? Is she seriously impugning the patriotism of colleagues across the House who have concerns about her Bill? I find that a false conflation.
I was directly responding to the point made by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) about why I campaigned one way in the referendum and am now working to ensure that the Brexit negotiation that we achieved works for the people of Northern Ireland. That is because I believe in the Union of the United Kingdom and in the relationship between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and I want to resolve those issues.
All I am pointing out to colleagues across the House is that I have negotiated in good faith with the European Union, but it has refused to change the text of the protocol. I have looked at all the options—including triggering article 16—to see whether they would work to resolve the serious issues in Northern Ireland, and I have come to the genuine conclusion that they will not.
Will the Secretary of State commit that never again will a Government stand at that Dispatch Box and change the Act of Union in a way that is detrimental to this United Kingdom that we all adhere to and all admire? Will she also confirm that more than 300 hours have been spent in negotiations with the EU and that it has resisted any change whatsoever, such is its animosity towards Northern Ireland?
The very clear reason why we are acting now is that there has been a refusal to change the text of the protocol, which is causing real problems in Northern Ireland. As I have said, these issues are very small in the context of the single market, but they are critical for the people of Northern Ireland, and it is in their interests that we are acting in putting through the Bill.
Once the legislation is enacted, we can draw a line under the issue and unleash the full potential of our relationship with the EU. Fundamentally, we share a belief in democracy, in freedom and in the right of all countries to self-determination. We are natural allies in an increasingly uncertain and geopolitical world.
I will not give way any more—the House will be pleased to hear that I am almost at the end of my remarks. We want to work with the EU for the betterment of not just Europe but the world, and we want to focus all our efforts on tackling external threats, such as Putin’s Russia. Once this legislation is passed, we will have a solution that helps to restore the balance between the communities, and that upholds the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. That is the purpose of the Bill, and I commend it to the House.
Less than three years ago, the Prime Minister stood at the Dispatch Box seeking to persuade the House to support the withdrawal agreement that he negotiated with the European Union. It was, he said,
“a great deal for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.”—[Official Report, 19 October 2019; Vol. 666, c. 579.]
He urged each of us
“to show the same breadth of vision as our European neighbours”
with whom he had struck the agreement. He reassured us that
“Above all, we and our European friends have preserved the letter and the spirit of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.”—[Official Report, 19 October 2019; Vol. 666, c. 571.]
His deal, he argued, was
“in perfect conformity with the Good Friday agreement.”—[Official Report, 19 October 2019; Vol. 666, c. 583.]
Today, 18 months after it came into force, the Government are taking a wrecking ball to their own agreement.
I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the very good proposal, made a few moments ago by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), that we should trigger article 16. Do Her Majesty’s official Opposition agree with that proposal? Does the shadow Secretary of State believe that article 16 should be triggered now?
The most important thing in all this is peace, and getting power sharing up and running. Will the right hon. Gentleman acquaint the House with the discussions that he has had with the DUP on the solution to the problem, given that the DUP refuses to rejoin power sharing unless the protocol is dealt with? I am sure that he has discussed this with the DUP.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. He knows that he is well able to ask to intervene again on the shadow Secretary of State. It undermines our debates if we come up with endless points of order that interrupt them. It is not a fair thing to do. The hon. Gentleman will try to catch my eye later; I suggest that we try to respect each other in the Chamber.
I will not; I will make some progress.
The Government are bringing the Bill to the House because they object to the text that they negotiated, and the choices that they freely made. They are asking each Member of the House to vote for a Bill that flouts international law. That proposition should never be put to hon. Members. The Bill is damaging and counterproductive. The strategy behind it is flawed. The legal justification for it is feeble. The precedent that it sets is dangerous and the timing could hardly be worse. It divides the United Kingdom and the European Union at a time when we should be pulling together against Putin’s war on the continent, and it risks causing new trade barriers during a cost of living crisis.
Negotiate—just as Labour did to get the Good Friday agreement. We negotiate. We do not break international law and alienate our partners and allies not just in Europe but across the world, and the right hon. Gentleman should know better.
As we debate the Bill, we should ask ourselves some simple questions. First, will it resolve the situation in Northern Ireland? Secondly, is it in the best interests of our great country? Thirdly, is it compatible with our commitment to the rule of law? Let me take each of those in turn.
I will not at the moment.
Let us deal with Northern Ireland first as context. None of us in this House doubts that the situation in Northern Ireland is serious. Opposition Members need no reminder of the importance of the Good Friday agreement, which is one of the proudest achievements of a Labour Government, together with parties and communities across Northern Ireland and the Irish Government in Dublin. It was the result of hard work and compromise, graft and statesmanship, a relentless focus on the goal of peace. It was born six months after Bloody Sunday. For more than half my lifetime, Northern Ireland endured the pain and violence of conflict and division. More than 3,500 people were killed. Thousands more were injured. Cities and communities were riven by intolerance and division. I remember what that conflict brought to my city, from the Baltic Exchange attack to the Docklands bombing. Above the door over there and other doors into this Chamber are plaques to Airey Neave, Ian Gow, Sir Anthony Berry, Robert Bradford and, most recently, to Sir Henry Wilson.
Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since that hopeful Easter in 1998. Since then, we have seen transformational progress. A generation has grown up in a new Northern Ireland, harvesting the fruits of a hard-won peace. That legacy demands that all of us act with the utmost responsibility and sensitivity. We need calm heads at this moment and responsible leadership.
We recognise that the operation of the protocol and the barriers and checks that were inherent in its design have created new tensions that need to be addressed. Unionists feel that their place in the UK is threatened, and we must listen to all concerns on all sides. We all want to see power sharing restored. The UK Government, the European Union and parties across Northern Ireland need to show willing and act in good faith. However, at its most fundamental level, the Bill will not achieve its objectives. The House cannot impose a unilateral solution when progress demands that both sides agree. This is not an act of good faith, nor is it a long-term solution.
Only an agreement that works for all sides and delivers for the people and businesses of Northern Ireland will have durability and provide the political stability that businesses crave and the public deserve. Instead, the Bill will make a resolution more difficult. By breaking their obligations, the Government dissolve the little trust that remains; by taking this aggressive action, we make it harder for those on the other side of the table to compromise. On that basis alone, the Bill should be rejected.
I recognise the comments that the shadow Secretary of State has made about the Belfast agreement and the need for consensus. He is aware that there is not a consensus in support of the protocol; there never has been one, from day one, in Northern Ireland. I gave time—a lot of time—for the negotiations to progress, but that did not work because the EU fundamentally refuses to change the text of the protocol. If the shadow Secretary of State is serious about getting a solution that works, will he go to the EU and join the Government in making the argument that the EU needs to agree to a negotiation in which it is prepared to change the text of the protocol?
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s experience in these matters, and indeed when the protocol was being negotiated in the first place. May I say that I met EU ambassadors in London last week and made that very point? I point him to the speech that I made last week, in which I highlighted exactly what he has just said.
I do not think that anyone in this House can doubt the right hon. Gentleman’s personal commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, after the remarks that he has made. As someone whose father was nearly blown up in the Grand Hotel, I share that passion, but the problem that the right hon. Gentleman has to grapple with is that he wants a negotiation. What if the EU will not negotiate? What would he do then? That is the position that we are in. We cannot elevate the protocol to be more important than the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. That is the necessity we face.
I accept the sincerity with which the hon. Gentleman makes his remarks. Let me just say that they have said that trust is at an all-time low. The question for this House is whether the Bill maintains or assists trust, given that ultimately this will be an agreement and it will be negotiated.
My right hon. Friend is making a brilliant speech. Is he aware of comments by the US trade representative Ambassador Tai, from Speaker Pelosi and indeed from a host of our American allies in Congress? They have been very clear with us that there will be no US-UK trade deal unless there is a durable way forward on the Northern Ireland question. Not only does this reckless approach risk destroying relations with the EU, but it puts a deal with America at risk.
My right hon. Friend is exactly right. I have been to Washington on three occasions in the past six months, and I can say that across the political divide, Republicans and Democrats have raised the issue. On my most recent visit, they were aghast; they had not seen the content of the Bill at that stage, but they were aghast at the proposition. Perhaps the Northern Ireland Secretary might tell us what our American friends and allies have said in relation to the Bill now that they have seen the draft.
My second question is whether the Bill is in the best interests of this country. As we stand here today, Britain faces the worst cost of living crisis in decades. Inflation is at more than 9%, bills are rising, energy costs are soaring and supply chains are under pressure. It beggars belief why, at this time, the Government would choose to risk new frictions in our trading relations with the EU. They cannot get away with abdicating responsibility for this reckless conduct. If we choose to break a contract, we cannot plausibly expect the other side to take no action in response. We cannot claim that we did not foresee the consequences. Of course the European Union would respond, just as we would if the situation were reversed. I will wager that the Foreign Secretary would be one of the first people to complain if the boot were on the other foot.
A game of brinkmanship with the European Union will only add to our economic problems, but this is not just about economic concerns, important though they are. We must also see the bigger picture. For four months, the Putin regime has fought a bloody war against Ukraine. As a Parliament, we have been united in our support for Ukraine and our staunch opposition to Russia’s aggression. NATO allies and European partners have stood together. How can this be the right moment to deepen a diplomatic row? How can this be the right time to tell our friends and partners that we cannot be relied on? I cannot help noting that some Conservative Members told us that the situation in Ukraine was too serious—that this was not the right time to change Prime Minister. Apparently, however, it is not serious enough to prevent us from starting a diplomatic fight with some of our closest allies.
Thirdly, is the Bill compatible with international law? [Hon. Members: “ Yes.”] Quite simply, the Bill breaks international law. It provides for a wholesale rewrite of an international treaty in domestic law. One of the most troubling aspects is the dangerous legal distortion that is used to justify it. The doctrine of necessity is not an excuse for states to abandon their obligations. It exists to do precisely the opposite: to constrain the circumstances in which states can legitimately claim that their hand has been forced. It requires this action to be the “only way” possible to resolve the issue, but the Government have not used article 16 and still say that a negotiated solution is possible. It requires a grave and imminent peril, but the Government have chosen a route that will involve months of parliamentary wrangling to fix issues such as unequal VAT rates, which no reasonable person could consider a matter of grave peril. It requires the invoking state not to have contributed to the situation of necessity, but the problems are a direct result of the choices that the Government made when negotiating with the European Union. If they were not, we would not need to change the text of the protocol at all.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech, particularly on the legal points. He has listed all the problems with the Government’s legal note of advice. Does he, like me, find it interesting that, whenever any of us raise these points, no Conservative Member is capable of answering them?
If I heard him aright, the right hon. Gentleman indicated earlier that the Government should have used article 16. He said, “They have not yet used article 16”, indicating that they should use it before going down this road. It was, however, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), who I think is the shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, who said that triggering article 16 would “prolong and deepen” uncertainty in Northern Ireland and pose another huge risk to stability there. Does this now mean that the Government should have triggered article 16, or that they should not—or maybe that there is a disagreement, or maybe that it will not be decided until after the passage of the Bill?
I think that the right hon. Gentleman is putting words in my mouth. Article 16 arises in relation to the defence that the Government suggest: the doctrine of necessity—that is, they have not used it and the point of using it is that, at the very least, it would be legal.
“Pacta sunt servanda”. Agreements must be kept. This is the essence of international law: the solemn promise of states acting in good faith and upholding their commitments to treaties that they have agreed. How would we react if a country we had renegotiated with did the same thing and simply disregarded the commitments we had mutually agreed on? I do not doubt that, if an authoritarian state used necessity to justify its actions in breaking a treaty in the manner the Government are proposing to do through this Bill, the Foreign Secretary and many of us across this House would condemn it.
Since the right hon. Lady became Foreign Secretary, the Foreign Office has issued countless statements and press releases urging others to meet their international obligations. They include Iran under the joint comprehensive plan of action; China under the joint declaration of Hong Kong; and Russia under the Budapest memorandum. In just the last fortnight, the Foreign Office under her leadership has publicly called on Bolivia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nicaragua, South Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia to meet their international obligations. Hypocrisy is corrosive to our foreign policy and I know that Members from across the House share these concerns.
I take this point from my right hon. Friend’s mention of the Budapest accord: when the UK signs a document, it really needs to stand by it. We did not stand by the Budapest accord either. We did not make sure that the text was proper before we brought it to Parliament, and that is one of the reasons we have the problems we have today, is it not?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When we use the word “honourable” across this House, it means something. It is about the integrity of this place and about the pre-eminent position that this Parliament and this country find themselves in on matters of international affairs. That is why this is such a sombre moment.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a thoughtful speech and these matters deserve thoughtful consideration, but could he take advantage of his time at the Dispatch Box to tell us whether he would change the protocol? If so, how would he change it? How does he think the process of negotiation, which has failed so far, would achieve those changes?
The shadow Secretary of State has made much of the Government abandoning their obligations, but surely the obligation in the protocol was designed from the EU’s point of view to protect the EU single market. How does this Bill not give that guarantee to the EU, when goods going into the Republic will be checked, when there will be severe penalties on those who try evade those checks and when any firms producing in Northern Ireland will have to comply with EU rules when they are sending goods to the Republic? Surely that safeguards the single market and the obligations will be met.
Let me just make some progress, because I have been on my feet for a long time and lots of hon. Members want to contribute to the debate.
Our country’s reputation is a matter beyond party. It is hard won and easily lost. When this Bill was first mooted, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) asked
“what such a move would say about the United Kingdom and its willingness to abide by treaties that it has signed.”—[Official Report, 10 May 2022; Vol. 714, c. 38.]
The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) said in a thoughtful piece on this legislation last week that our country
“benefits greatly from our reputation for keeping our word and upholding the rule of law...We should be very wary indeed of damaging that standing.”
The right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) said,
“I don’t see how…any member of parliament can vote for a breach of international law.”
Lord Anderson and Lord Pannick, who are among the most distinguished lawyers in the country, have called this Bill a “clear breach” of international law that
“shows a lack of commitment to the rule of law and to a rules-based international order that damages the reputation of the UK.”
And Sir Jonathan Jones QC, formerly the most senior lawyer in Government, has described the legal justification for the Bill as “hopeless.” This is, of course, the same distinguished lawyer who resigned last time the Government proposed legislation in violation of their own treaty commitments. On that occasion, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had the temerity to tell the House the truth about the Government’s plan to break international law in a “limited and specific way.”
This Bill breaks the withdrawal agreement in a broad and extensive way while maintaining the pretence that it is somehow compliant. I am not sure what is worse—to be open about breaking the law or to dress up a treaty violation with this flimsy and transparent legal distortion.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a thoughtful speech. Will he confirm to the House that he has actually read the Northern Ireland protocol? If he has read it, will he remind the House of what article 13.8 says about the ability to amend or even supersede the protocol entirely?
The right hon. Gentleman has, like me, been in this House for many years. This is too serious an issue for any shadow Minister or Minister not to have spent the whole weekend working hard on the Bill, as he knows. He also knows that we all come to this House hopeful of reaching agreement, but very conscious of the lawbreaking that is going forward, so of course I have read it.
Undermining international law runs counter to Britain’s interest, damages Britain’s moral authority and political credibility, and risks emboldening dictators and authoritarian states around the world. It serves the best interests of those who want to weaken the rule of law, and it is unbefitting of this great country.
This Bill not only contravenes international law but affords the Government extraordinary powers and denies proper respect to the role of this House. Fifteen of the 26 clauses confer powers on Ministers. The Hansard Society, not an organisation known for hyperbole, has called the powers given to Ministers “breathtaking.” Professor Catherine Barnard of Cambridge University has called these powers “eye wateringly broad.”
Ministers may use these powers whenever they feel it appropriate. Clause 22 allows them to amend Acts of Parliament, and clause 15 gifts them the power to disapply other parts of the protocol, potentially including the article on democratic consent in Northern Ireland. Ministers could use secondary legislation to change not just primary law but an international treaty. This is a power grab so broad it would make Henry VIII blush.
Clause 19 allows Ministers to implement a new deal with the European Union without primary legislation. Do Conservative Back Benchers really want to give any Foreign Secretary that power? This is brazen Executive overreach. It is an act of disrespect to Parliament and all MPs should reject it.
I must make some progress, because I am very conscious that we will run out of time.
As I have outlined, the Bill is damaging and counterproductive, and it is also unnecessary. We want to see checks reduced to an absolute necessary minimum, and there are practical solutions if we work to find them. Let us lower the temperature and focus on what works.
For months, we have been urging the Government to negotiate a veterinary agreement with the European Union that could remove the need for the vast majority of checks across the Irish sea on goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. New Zealand has such an agreement. Why cannot we have one? I do not believe that it is beyond the ability of a British Government to negotiate one. That could be the basis of other steps to reduce friction, including improving data sharing. I am not one of those people who believe that only the UK Government need to show flexibility; the EU has been too rigid as well. However, the only way forward is to work hard on negotiation and compromise. I believe that with hard work and determination, with creativity and flexibility, we can overcome those challenges.
This Bill is not the way forward. It will exacerbate the problems it hopes to solve. It will gift Ministers unaccountable powers. It will divide us from our friends and allies in Europe when we should be united. It damages our country’s reputation. It will break international law. The rule of law is not a Labour or a Conservative value; it is our common inheritance. Since Magna Carta in 1215, it is no exaggeration to say that it is one of the greatest contributions that our country has made to the world. No party owns it. No Government should squander it. Britain should be a country that keeps its word. Let us stand for that principle and vote against this Bill tonight.
As will be very obvious to everyone here, there are many people who want to contribute to this debate. I do not want to put a time limit on immediately. I think one will be necessary, but it would be greatly helpful if Back-Bench colleagues could confine their remarks to a maximum of 10 minutes, and I think they will be quite popular if they manage to say anything in rather less than that. I call Simon Hoare.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Ten minutes is the time usually taken to make opening remarks, and popularity is something that I have always shunned.
The shadow Foreign Secretary is right: at the heart of this is trust or the absence of it—or, as she leaves the Chamber, the absence of Truss. Is the protocol perfect? No, it is not. The question, therefore, is not whether but how changes should be made. There are many ways to achieve change, but this Bill is not one of them.
The Office of Speaker’s Counsel has provided a legal opinion to all members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, and it raises enormous concerns about this Bill’s legality. The Foreign Secretary and others have tried to conflate—they have fallen into the trap of conflating—the resurrection of devolution and the protocol. Those are two very separate and different workstreams, and we need to decouple them. Treaty making is reserved to this place; devolution is the duty of the politicians of Northern Ireland. We can and should be able to see the resurrection of one and negotiation on the other, but to fall into the trap of conflating them, the result of which is this Bill, is very sad indeed.
This is not a well thought-out Bill, it is not a good Bill and it is not a constitutional Bill. The integrity of the United Kingdom can be changed only via the Good Friday agreement. The protocol and trading arrangements do not interrupt or change the constitutional integrity of the UK, so I do not agree with those who try to position this as a constitutional Bill.
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I want to make a few more points.
This Bill represents a failure of statecraft and puts at risk the reputation of the United Kingdom. The arguments in support of it are flimsy at best and irrational at worst. The Bill risks economically harmful retaliation and runs the risk of shredding our reputation as a guardian of international law and the rules-based system. How in the name of heaven can we expect to speak to others with authority when we ourselves shun, at a moment’s notice, our legal obligations? A hard-won reputation so easily played with—
I think it is probably a failure of both sides, but a presumption of, “If I don’t get my own way on everything, I’m going to take my ball off the pitch; I’m going to act unilaterally, off my own bat” is not the way to do it. As a former distinguished Minister at the Northern Ireland Office, my right hon. Friend knows as well as I do that most Northern Ireland outcomes are based on compromise—on give and take, and on finding the place and the path of least resistance.
This has been a failure of statecraft. I do not believe that the Bill passes the international test of necessity. It has to pass all the tests set out in the statute, and it does not. What, then, is this Bill? Is it a bargaining chip to try to browbeat the EU? Is it a bribe to right hon. and hon. Members in the Democratic Unionist party to get back around the table at Stormont?
The hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) made a point on this subject earlier, but as a result of the protocol we have a democratic deficit in Northern Ireland. Many of the laws that now regulate how we trade with the rest of the United Kingdom are made by a foreign entity over which we have no say whatsoever, and our VAT rates are set by that foreign entity. There should be no taxation without representation. I do not need to be bribed to ask for what is the right of my people: democracy.
That is a point with which I have much sympathy, and which Committee members discussed with the Commission when we were there last December. The Commission is aware of that. Norway has Ministers of its Government in Brussels to discuss such things week in, week out. The EU and, as the right hon. Gentleman will know, Northern Irish business organisations are really keen to identify platforms whereby that democratic deficit can be in some way addressed. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman entirely. I am tempted to say to him, “Don’t shout at me; shout at the Ministers who advocated for the protocol and for us to sign and support it.”
I am going to make some progress, if I may.
I suggest that we have to be the party of the rule of law, or we are nothing. It is sad that we have to be reminded of that. This a power grab, with all these Henry VIII clauses. If we were being asked to pass powers to Ministers so we could polish an already superlative protocol, we might have some faith, but they have admitted that the results of what they negotiated have caught them by surprise—that they did not understand the import of what they were signing up to, or they did not quite understand the terms or the meaning of the words. We are told that they were surprised that the other side would expect us and them to fulfil the obligations we had negotiated.
Given our deep understanding of the complexities and difficulties of the politics of Northern Ireland— I have little or no doubt that we can all unite on that—I suggest that to enter into something so lightly without understanding precisely all the details, and then to say, “We’re having to do this because we didn’t expect the other side to do it in the way that they want us to do it,” is for the birds. It is totally bonkers. The Government told us that, having reached a difficult compromise on the final text of the protocol, they expected the EU to do something else. With all the history, all we relied on was expectation.
These Henry VIII clauses really will not stick. Seventeen of the clauses give unspecified powers to Ministers. Was taking back control about this Parliament handing powers to the Executive to use for unspecified purposes? Even worse, one clause tells us that powers will be used to change powers that might have been changed in the Bill if those changes are subsequently thought to have been wrong or ill-advised. That is not only someone marking their own homework, but someone copying somebody else’s homework and then claiming all the credit themselves.
My hon. Friend was obviously not listening, because I made it very clear at the start that the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom is not touched by the protocol. The constitutional integrity of Northern Ireland within our United Kingdom is contained within the clauses of the Good Friday agreement—that is the only way. Anybody who tries to position this protocol—
I will not, but I know the hon. Gentleman will understand why.
The argument of necessity is clearly not made. The Prime Minister himself wants to see this done by negotiation, and I agree with him. There is the option to trigger article 16 if the Government think that that is necessary. If the situation is as bad as some Ministers would have this House believe, one has to ask why they have not used the emergency brake of article 16, but have instead suggested a calm and tranquil Sunday afternoon walk through a bicameral system of legislative progress—something that will take 10 months. Either the data is as bad as they tell us it is—incidentally, it is not—in which case rapid action is required, or we are just going to do this, which suggests to me that this is all gamesmanship and muscle flexing. Belfast port is now handling a record amount of cargo; last year, it handled a record 25.6 million tonnes. The food and drinks sector is benefitting. More Irish businesses are buying stuff from Northern Ireland, which is good for Northern Ireland plc.
The Henry VIII clauses are wrong, the purpose of the Bill is wrong, and the necessity for it is not proven. I ask this question sincerely of my hon. and right hon. Friends on the Conservative Benches. We are talking about playing fast and loose with our international reputation; playing fast and loose with our adherence to the rule of law; an Executive power grab with Henry VIII clauses; and pandering and giving way to some sort of political brinkmanship on one side of the very sensitive divide in Northern Ireland, which we cannot afford to treat as a plaything. If the Labour party were on the Government Benches and doing what is contained in this Bill, what would our response be, as Conservatives? We would say that this was a party not fit for Government. We would say that it was a party that does not understand or respect our traditions, and that does not understand the importance of reputation. For a fellow Tory to have to point that out to Tories is shameful. I ask my hon. and right hon. Friends to think about what this does to our party’s reputation and to our nation’s reputation, because both are in peril.
I rise to speak in line with the basis of our reasoned amendment, namely that we believe that this Bill breaks international law.
We have already had to stumble our way through the consequences of a Brexit deal that was supposedly oven-ready. Quite frankly, what is proposed in this legislation is no better. The fact is that, if this Bill does not break international law, it is an act preparatory to doing so.
I will start my remarks by being as helpful as I think I can be to the Government. First, I hope I can understand and at least empathise with some of the concerns of people in Northern Ireland over how aspects of the protocol are working or, as they would view it, not working. Secondly, I do not consider it unreasonable in and of itself that, in the light of experience, the Government should seek to try to renegotiate aspects of the deal that has taken effect. However, I am firmly and clearly of the view that this is absolutely not the way to go about trying to achieve that objective.
I am bound to observe that, although we are here to talk about a Bill on the Northern Ireland protocol, the issues here do not only affect Northern Ireland. We are subject to a withdrawal agreement that does not work for Scotland or, I would contend, any other part of the United Kingdom. There is much rhetoric from the Government about our precious Union, but it is a Union under the stewardship of a Government who did not pay a great deal of attention to the concerns or priorities of the majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland who opposed Brexit. If relations are to be rebalanced across these islands, whether that is cross-community in Northern Ireland or even cross-Union, some recognition of those points by the Government is long overdue.
I was very fortunate to have the hon. Gentleman in my constituency, where I gave him the opportunity, which I know he enjoyed it, to meet some of the Unionist community groups, the fishermen and the elected representatives. Every one of those people, as he will remember well, conveyed to him the unfairness of the Northern Ireland protocol and the impact it was having on fishing and on the community. He will know that the local people he met were very fearful of a future where the Northern Ireland protocol was retained. Does he understand those issues, and will he express that in the Chamber as well?
I recall that visit with great fondness, particularly the discussions we were able to have in Portavogie, and I am extraordinarily grateful to him and to everybody I met when I was last in Northern Ireland for the chance to discuss these matters. As I have said, I certainly hope I can empathise with and understand some of the issues raised there; if he will allow me to make some progress, he might see where there are perhaps areas of agreement and also, inevitably, some areas of divergence.
It seems to me that the fundamental issue of debate is whether the EU would move on the implementation issues that it claims are the only problem. For the EU, it is not a question of renegotiation, but of implementation. It has said that it believes that customs formalities can be reduced by about 80%, and the same with sanitary and phytosanitary checks, and that the expanded trusted trader scheme could solve many of the problems. How confident is the hon. Gentleman that those things will be delivered, given how long this has been going on for and the affect already evident in Northern Ireland?
It certainly appears to me that there is a potential landing zone between what has been proposed by the European Union and what has been proposed by the UK Government—indeed, there is a bit of an overlap. I would offer to come along with Ministers, but they might feel that reinforcements had arrived and somehow weakened their position. Nevertheless, there ought to be a landing zone here for those of goodwill and good faith.
Even as a supporter of Scottish independence, I find it utterly inconceivable that any Unionist Government would have signed up to the kind of arrangements that placed a trade border down the middle of the Irish sea while denying they were doing any such thing. All the issues inherent in the protocol could have been avoided had the UK Government maintained a modicum of statecraft and respect for all parts of the Union, acknowledged the limitations of the mandate they had from the Brexit referendum and remained in as close alignment as they could with the single market and customs union, thereby minimising the economic harms we have seen to the UK since then and ensuring that no part of that precious Union was left behind. Yet even now it seems that the Government have not learned from their mistakes. The Scottish Government were not consulted by the UK Government before they took this action. I believe I am right in saying that the UK Government did not even afford the Scottish Government the courtesy of a phone call in advance to advise of these plans.
It has also been reported that the UK Government did not consult their top legal adviser—the First Treasury Counsel, Sir James Eadie—on the legality of their move. So we have a UK Government who are in contempt both of international law, as we have seen in other matters, and domestic law. Aspects around the Prime Minister’s current travails are bad enough, but to stand up and use the full authority of a ministerial office to say that which is not gets right to the heart not just of the problems being presented by the protocol in its current form but of the fitness of the Prime Minister, or anyone aspiring to replace him.
Well, it seems to me that whether it disadvantages or not is not something that Her Majesty’s Government get to decide. While I am clear that there are problems with the protocol, clearly there are aspects of it that are working very well, as indeed those on the Treasury Benches have admitted. I will set out some of the examples, particularly over trade, where it is not having the impact that we are told, in all aspects, that it is. I come from the point of view that trust has been broken between the UK Government and the people of all these islands, as well as between the UK Government and our international partners. That gets right to the nub of the issues about trying to renegotiate it.
We should not really need to say this, but it is absolutely vital that the UK Government should be able to respect the international obligations that they enter into freely. Lord Butler, who was head of the civil service for 10 years, has said that this country has repeatedly criticised states like Russia and China for breaking the rules-based international order and yet now holds that it is perfectly justified in breaching international law itself. It seems that in this Bill we are going from a “limited and specific” breach to something that is potentially extensive and egregious. General Sir Richard Barrons, the former chief of joint forces command, who served in Afghanistan, Iraq and Northern Ireland, has said that
“what the government is proposing is short-sighted tactics which will do much harm strategically in the wider world. In fact what is being done is particularly stupid.”
He went on to warn that these moves will empower our adversaries as
“it will undermine us with our enemies by giving them the opportunity to accuse us of hypocrisy when we call them out for breaking the rules-based international order. It will also undermine us with our allies who will doubt whether they can rely on us to keep to an agreement, keep to our word.”
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with a great deal of interest. He is right to defend international law and international treaties. Did he raise the concerns he has just expressed when the European Union was busy breaking those treaties—for example, over subsidies to Airbus?
My hon. and learned Friend says it very eloquently in one word: whataboutery.
We have been brought here by 40 years of political dysfunction in the Conservative party and the various neuroses it has had over Europe. The exceptionalists of the “punch above our weight” brigade to be found extensively, but not exclusively, within the European Research Group, where research seems to be at a premium, have led us to this point, in the process shredding any reputation that the UK might have preserved either for good, stable government or adherence to international norms.
Whatever the bluff and bluster, and personal agendas that might be at play—I notice that the Foreign Secretary is no longer in her place—it is of course the UK’s exit from the EU rather than the protocol that created this difficult situation, because there were only ever three options that would allow this particular circle to be squared: a return of a border on the island of Ireland, close alignment between UK and EU regulatory standards to reduce the need for checks, or checks to be carried out at the main Northern Ireland ports. The further that there is a diversion from the single market and the customs union, the harder the border then eventually becomes.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be confusing me with a representative of the Government of Ireland; that is an interesting historical diversion that I would be more than happy to discuss with him later, but I am not exactly certain how germane it is to this particular discussion. It seems a little bit recondite to say the least.
The Government have presented a precis of the legal advice. The Law Society of Scotland has identified a number of provisions in the Bill that it believes to be inconsistent with the UK’s international law obligations. Because of the amount of time available and the fact that we are only on Second Reading, I do not intend to go into those points in any great depth or delve unnecessarily into the horrors of the empowerment of Ministers that the Bill represents—the Henry VIII powers. However, I just specifically highlight the issues that the Bill creates given that article 4 of the withdrawal agreement states expressly that the UK cannot legislate contrarily to its commitments through primary legislation.
We now get on to necessity, which is ultimately the justification that the Government are using. As I understand it, that rests on two key points: first, that there is effectively, when viewed from London, no detriment to the single market from these measures; and secondly, that this underwrites the Government’s wishes to protect the UK single market and the Good Friday agreement. That argument was neatly eviscerated by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) in an earlier intervention, but there are three points that instantly leap out at me. First, as I have said, whether or not there is detriment is a largely subjective measure. Whatever unilateral assertions might be made on this, whether or not there is detriment requires to be determined in another manner.
Secondly, making an invocation of necessity must not seriously impair an essential interest of another party, and it is quite hard to argue that this could not at least be at risk of happening. Thirdly, it is not particularly credible now to cite the protocol as harming the single market or the Good Friday agreement when it was cited by HM Government as a means of protecting both those things. The Prime Minister wanting to override a deal that he himself was happy to claim credit for, in terms of having got Brexit done, during his 2019 election campaign is not the strongest basis for sustaining that argument.
With regard to the economic effect, Northern Ireland has clearly lagged behind the rest of the UK in economic performance in recent decades. For some reason, it is currently outpacing every other part of the UK, except, perhaps predictably, London. There must be some reason why that might be, and I do not know whether anyone can help me with it, but perhaps there is a clue—
If the hon. Gentleman were to examine the economic performance in Northern Ireland, he might find that, surprisingly, it is the service sector that has increased, by seven times more than the manufacturing sector, and of course the service sector is not covered by the protocol at all.
Manufacturing also seems to be doing quite well, as I recall. Perhaps having a foot in both markets and easier access to both, in contrast to counterparts on the other side of the north channel, might also be a reason for that.
A survey by the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce shows that 70% of businesses now believe that that unique trading position with preferential access to both the EU and UK single markets presents opportunities for Northern Ireland, with the number of businesses reporting a significant problem dropping from 15% to 8%. While I would not seek to diminish in any way the problems that those 8% feel, that is perhaps an indication that many of the problems, at least initially, were because of the short lead-in time that was given and the lack of preparation and clarity ahead of the big changes that came in January 2021.
To come back to my fundamental point, we need a protocol. The nature of Brexit means that there needs to be a protocol. It does not need to be exactly the same as this version, but what we absolutely do not need, in the middle of a cost of living crisis, is the prospect of increased trade frictions through needless conflict and a developing trade war with our largest and closest overseas market. That is what I very much fear this legislation, if enacted and utilised, would do.
I believe that the way forward is through negotiations. Like the man asked to give directions, I would not be starting from this point, for a variety of reasons, and I need not detain the House on that. We need negotiations based on trust, good faith and co-operation. The UK Government would stand a much better chance of success if they were driven by that, instead of by this piece of legislative brinkmanship, and if they were to pursue measures that for once were motivated by a genuine desire to deliver the best possible outcomes out of this mess for all peoples on these islands, rather than simply pandering to the agendas of those in the tiny subset of the population who might have an influence over who the next leader of the Conservative and Unionist party might happen to be—a party that no longer seems to be very certain what it is here to conserve or to unify.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate, although I have to say to the lone Minister sitting on the Front Bench that I do not welcome this Bill. I fully understand and share the Government’s desire to uphold the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. I understand and share the desire to keep the Union of the United Kingdom. I recognise the frustration and difficulty when the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive are not in place and operating. I also share the Government’s desire to get that Assembly and Executive back operating for the good of the people of Northern Ireland. I do not believe, however, that this Bill is the way to achieve those aims.
In thinking about the Bill, I started by asking myself three questions. First, do I consider it to be legal under international law? Secondly, will it achieve its aims? Thirdly, does it at least maintain the standing of the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world? My answer to all three questions is no. That is even before we look at the extraordinarily sweeping powers that the Bill would give to Ministers.
The Government’s claim of legality, as we have heard, is based on the doctrine of necessity in international law. The Government, as the Foreign Secretary said, have published a legal position, and that described this term “necessity” in the following way:
“the term ‘necessity’ is used in international law to lawfully justify situations where the only way a State can safeguard an essential interest is the non-performance of another international obligation…the action taken may not seriously impair the essential interests of the other State(s), and cannot be claimed where excluded by the relevant obligation or where the State invoking it has contributed to the situation of necessity.”
Let us examine that. First, if the necessity argument is to hold, this Bill must be the only way to achieve the Government’s desires, yet the Government’s legal position paper itself accepts that there are other ways. For example, it says:
“The Government’s preference remains a negotiated outcome”,
which was reiterated by the Foreign Secretary in her opening speech. The paper also acknowledges that another way to deal with this issue lies in the existence of article 16. The Government’s preferred option is negotiation, and then there is a second option, which is article 16.
Article 16 is referred to in the legal position paper, but when I read that I thought it was referred to in a way that seemed to try to say that the existence of article 16 somehow justifies the introduction of this Bill. Article 16 does not justify this Bill; the very existence of article 16 negates the legal justification for the Bill.
Let us also examine some of the other arguments for invoking the necessity defence. That defence cannot be claimed where the state invoking it has contributed to the situation of necessity. Again, in their legal position paper, the Government set out their argument that
“the peril that has emerged was not inherent in the Protocol’s provisions.”
I find that a most extraordinary statement. The peril is a direct result of the border down the Irish sea, which was an integral and inherent part of the protocol that the Government signed in the withdrawal agreement. It is possible that the Government might say, “Ah well, we knew about that, but we did not think the DUP would react in the way that it has.” I say to the Minister that the Government should have listened to the DUP in the many debates that went on over the withdrawal agreement, because it made its position on the protocol very clear at that point, and it was not positive.
Finally, necessity suggests urgency; “imminent peril” is the phrase used. There is nothing urgent about the Bill. It has not been introduced as emergency legislation. It is likely to take not weeks, but months to get through Parliament. As the former Treasury solicitor Jonathan Jones said in The House magazine,
“If the UK really did face imminent peril, you might think the government would need to deal with it more quickly than that.”
My answer to all those who question whether the Bill is legal under international law is that for all the above reasons, no, it is not.
Question two is whether the Bill will achieve its aims. I am assuming that the aims are either to encourage the DUP into the Northern Ireland Executive, or that the Bill is a negotiating tool to bring the EU back round to the table. On the first of those, so far I have seen no absolute commitment from the DUP that the Executive will be up and running as a result of the Bill. There were rumours that that might happen on Second Reading, but as far as I can see it has not happened. If my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary wants to have a discussion with me about negotiations with other parties in this House on various matters, I am happy to do so.
If the Bill is a negotiating tool, will it actually bring the EU back round the table? So far, we have seen no sign of that. My experience was that the EU looks carefully at the political situation in any country. As I discovered after I had faced a no-confidence vote—and despite having won that vote—the EU then starts to ask itself, “Is it really worth negotiating with these people in government, because will they actually be there in any period of time?”, regardless of the justification or otherwise for its taking that view. I suspect those in the EU are saying to themselves, “Why should we negotiate in detail with a Government who show themselves willing to sign an agreement, claim it as a victory and then try to tear part of it up after less than three years?” My answer to the second question as to whether the Bill will achieve its aims is no, it will not.
My final question was about the UK’s standing in the world. The UK’s standing in the world, and our ability to convene and encourage others in the defence of our shared values, depends on the respect that others have for us as a country—a country that keeps its word and displays those shared values in its actions. As a patriot, I would not want to do anything to diminish this country in the eyes of the world. I have to say to the Government that this Bill is not in my view legal in international law, it will not achieve its aims and it will diminish the standing of the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world. I cannot support it.
I am grateful to the Back-Bench speakers so far, who have been very considerate of others in the length of their speeches, but I will after the next speaker have to introduce an eight-minute time limit in order to be able to give everybody equal access.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on Second Reading of this very important Bill. At the outset, it is important to make the point to all right hon. and hon. Members that this is not simply another Brexit-related Bill. Nor is it a technical Bill to remedy problems that have arisen since January 2021, albeit that it will have that effect.
Fundamentally, the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill seeks to finally and fundamentally reset and restore Northern Ireland’s relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom, given the devastating impact of the protocol on the economic, constitutional, social and political life of Northern Ireland over the past 18 months. Many in this House will remember our opposition to the protocol, and it is an honour to follow the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May). She rightly flagged up our opposition from the outset to the protocol. It gives me no pleasure to say that we warned that it would be bad for Northern Ireland and that it would not work. That assessment has been more than borne out in reality.
The Northern Ireland institutions were restored in January 2020. The former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), is in his place and he was very much involved in bringing about the New Decade, New Approach agreement. At the heart of that agreement was a clear commitment by the UK Government to protect Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market, and that it would be respected. On that basis, my party re-entered power sharing.
We kept our side of the bargain and we were patient. We waited and waited for the Government to take action to protect our place in the internal market. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland did refer to measures to be introduced to the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 that would have at least partly dealt with the problem, alongside other measures to be proposed to a Finance Bill, but those measures were not brought forward, so still we waited.
Last July, when I became leader of the party, I warned that if the Government failed to honour their commitment in New Decade, New Approach, we would have a real difficulty, because the consensus that is essential to ensure that power sharing is maintained in Northern Ireland is being undermined.
The right hon. Gentleman has not said anything up to now that is any way factually challengeable. On the presumption that the Bill secures its Second Reading this evening and begins its parliamentary progress, in the interest of serving those people in Northern Ireland who look to the Executive and Stormont to meet their daily needs, will he instruct his party colleagues who are MLAs to return to the Executive, get it back up and running, discharge their democratic duty, and serve all the communities in Northern Ireland?
I will come to that point, but I simply ask the hon. Gentleman: if I were to do that, would he then support the Bill? I heard nothing in his contribution to suggest that he would.
Last July, I made it clear that:
“The Irish Sea Border is not just a threat to the economic integrity of the United Kingdom, it is a threat to the living standards of the people of Northern Ireland”,
and so it has proven. The impact of the additional cost of bringing goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland is contributing to the cost of living situation in Northern Ireland. It is driving up the cost of food in our supermarkets, it is driving up the cost of manufacturing, and it is making it difficult for businesses to operate effectively.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. Many of my constituents, and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends, have experienced that as consumers and businesses. This is about not just businesses, but every citizen of Northern Ireland.
It is also about the democratic deficit. My Members, who were elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly and are Ministers in the Executive, are expected to preside over the imposition of regulations over which they have no say. They have no democratic input into how those regulations—the ones that regulate how we trade with the rest of our own country—are put in place. How can any hon. Member defend a situation where part of this United Kingdom is treated in such a way that its elected representatives have no say in many of the laws that regulate our trade with the rest of the United Kingdom? That is simply unacceptable and it is part of the problem.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, as I have said in this place many times, about aspects of the Joint Committee. This Bill that he is agreeing with, however, similarly gives absolutely no power to anybody in Northern Ireland—him, his party or anybody else— but gives it all to the Secretary of State. On that basis, how can he support it?
If enacted, the Bill will restore confidence in Northern Ireland, will restore the consensus essential to operate power sharing, and will therefore give back to the elected representatives in Northern Ireland the power to take the decisions that they have not been able to take.
I also say to the House that it is a bit rich to hear hon. Members arguing for devolution and the restoration of power when this House, on a number of recent occasions, has overridden devolution and the Northern Ireland Assembly and has enacted powers contrary to the desires of the elected representatives in Northern Ireland.
I believe that this Bill is essential to the restoration of political stability in Northern Ireland. It will provide a framework for the free movement of goods within the UK internal market in line with the Government’s commitment in New Decade, New Approach. It gives reasonable protection to the EU single market; it does not have an impact on the EU and the integrity of that market. In fact, it protects the integrity of that market as well as the integrity of the United Kingdom’s internal market. I see no reason why this House should not bring forward measures to do that, when it is clear and evident that the protocol has disrupted the integrity of the UK internal market.
I know that the right hon. Gentleman gives a lot of thought to these issues and does not arrive at opinions lightly. He is arguing that the Bill as it stands will give Northern Ireland the things it wants—I think that is his main point—but what will happen if he is wrong?
I am not suggesting that the Bill is perfect. It is rare for legislation that passes this House to be perfect in every sense and not to require subsequent amendment. The benefit of the Bill is that it empowers Ministers to make change where change is necessary to ensure the proper functioning of the UK internal market, which is an entirely valid thing for this Parliament and Government to do.
Furthermore, as a Unionist, I make no apology for saying that it is important to me that the Bill will restore Northern Ireland’s place within the Union. Some right hon. and hon. Members have referred to the rule of law, yet the High Court and the Court of Appeal in Belfast have stated clearly that the protocol subjugates article 6 of the Act of Union, which is an international agreement —it is the fundamental building block of the Union.
Article 6 states clearly that I, as a Northern Ireland citizen and a member of this United Kingdom, have the right to trade freely within my own country and that there should be no barriers to trade between the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. In putting in place the Irish sea border, the protocol has broken article 6 and made me a second-class citizen in my own country, because I do not have the right to trade freely with the rest of the United Kingdom. I am simply asking for my rights as a British citizen.
The Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee shakes his head, but if he found his constituents in a position where they were unable to trade freely with the rest of their own country, he might be as annoyed as I am and he might actually have something to say about it.
My right hon. Friend is putting forward an excellent case for how to do away with the Northern Ireland protocol through this legislation. Does he agree that it removes the direct jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and brings it back here, and that it should be the people of this House, and of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, who make those decisions, not Europe?
I believe in fairness and that when there is a dispute at an international level, the court of one side should not be left to be the arbiter of that situation. That needs to be rectified.
On the implications of the Bill, I make it clear that in our view, it will provide for the restoration of the equilibrium that is essential in Northern Ireland—the cross-community consensus that is at the heart of the Belfast agreement and that is absolutely necessary to ensure the proper functioning of the political institutions. As was evident in the May elections, not a single Unionist Member elected to the Assembly supports the Northern Ireland protocol, so there is no cross-community consensus in favour of it.
This House can bury its head in the sand and pretend that there is no instant solution to the problem. It can say, “Let us just wait for the EU to finally agree to change its negotiating mandate,” but what about Northern Ireland in the meantime? I want to see the political institutions restored, but I am not able to do it if my Ministers are required to impose a protocol that harms Northern Ireland. I am not prepared—my party is not prepared—to engage in an act of self-harm to Northern Ireland’s part of the United Kingdom. We are simply not prepared to do that.
Therefore, is it the will of this House that it wishes to see Northern Ireland languishing without political institutions able to operate because there is no cross-community consensus while we argue the rights and wrongs and the legalities of this situation? Unfortunately, I do not have a situation for my people whereby we can talk all night and debate this Bill and its legality in international law. I happen to believe there is a necessity, and the necessity is peace and stability in Northern Ireland.
This House and this Government are charged with the responsibility of ensuring peace and stability in Northern Ireland. That is the necessity, and I do not see and have not heard in this House from anyone opposing the Bill what their solution is beyond saying, “Let’s have more negotiations”—negotiations with an EU that refuses to change its negotiating mandate and will not change the text of the protocol. I have to say to right hon. and hon. Members that refusal to change the text of the protocol simply means that we will not get a solution that will achieve the cross-community consensus required in Northern Ireland, and I believe the Bill offers a solution.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept, as he said earlier, that a serious democratic deficit exists at the moment in the making of laws by European institutions—in the Council of Ministers, by a majority vote, behind closed doors? None of his voters has any opportunity to intervene whatsoever, and it is done in a manner completely inconsistent with proper democratic procedures. Is that not the absolutely right reply to my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare)?
I thank the hon. Member for that intervention and for the excellent work he has been doing in helping to bring about the progress we are making towards the restoration of the political institutions in Northern Ireland.
As I come to a conclusion, let me say that much of what will happen in the coming period in Northern Ireland will be shaped by attitudes and decisions in this House. If this Bill convincingly passes all its Commons stages in its current form and the Government continue to develop the regulations required to bring to an end the harmful implementation of the protocol, that will of course give substantially greater confidence that new arrangements are on the way, which in turn would provide a basis to take further steps to see the return of our local institutions.
Therefore, I appeal to Members of this House who genuinely want to see the institutions restored and up and running in Northern Ireland again to prioritise the interests of Northern Ireland over any narrower ideological reservations they may have about this Bill. I urge them to recognise the vital nature of this Bill now progressing rapidly through its legislative stages in the Commons before the summer recess, and of ensuring not only that it receives substantial support in this House, but that it is not subject to either wrecking amendments or other amendments that would dilute the framework and impact of the Bill.
In conclusion, much harm has been inflicted on the Belfast agreement and its successor agreements. Time is now short to ensure that we arrest this situation, and the only way to do that, finally and fully, is to deal with the protocol and to see Northern Ireland once again focus on moving forward together. We want to see the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive restored, and that can be achieved when there is a sustainable basis for doing so. We will continue to be condition and not calendar-led as we look forward to this Bill now making rapid progress. I commend the Bill, and we will be supporting it in the interests of Northern Ireland and the integrity of the entire United Kingdom.
It is a pleasure to speak after the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson).
Powerful and legitimate arguments are being made about the legal basis of this Bill, and I am sympathetic to them. Whatever the motivations and goals behind the Bill and whatever the reasons why we are at this point, it is important to look at what is practical and most likely to succeed regarding the Northern Ireland protocol and what will ensure that we show the people of Northern Ireland we are handling this issue with balance and an even hand. There are real and significant issues, as we have just heard, with the protocol—customs checks east-west and regulatory challenges to name but two. While I do not accept that the protocol is a constitutional threat to the UK, it is clear that it creates many complex challenges.
I acknowledge those issues, but there is significant support for the Northern Ireland protocol. Business organisations across Northern Ireland have been engaging in good faith with Government for over two years and looking at myriad ways to improve the deal. Their view is that the needed stability and balance can be achieved only through a negotiated settlement, and they want to preserve the opportunities of the protocol. They also want to protect the strong position of the Northern Ireland economy, which has now been shown in multiple reports to be performing among the best in the country.
There are major concerns that the advantages as well as the disadvantages of the protocol could be lost with this Bill, and that the Henry VIII clauses are there to remove almost all of the protocol should Ministers want to do so. A majority of MLAs also articulated this view in a recent letter to the Government. They accepted that changes need to be made, but they are clear that they want a negotiated approach. Voters across Northern Ireland, many of whom support the need for change, also want a UK-EU negotiated solution: 74% of voters support that.
I fear that this Bill is a kind of displacement activity from the core task of doing whatever we can to negotiate a better protocol deal for Northern Ireland. I also fear that it risks creating an impression to Unionism that a black-and-white solution is available when the reality is that, once this Bill has been dragged through the Lords and the courts and after EU responses and reprisals, compromise will ultimately be needed. Our sole focus should be on how we shift the EU into a negotiation to get the changes needed for Northern Ireland and from the right hon. Member’s party.
We risk toxifying further the discussions we are having with the EU and member states, and we risk prolonging instability for Northern Ireland business, not to mention putting the whole of the UK at risk of trade and tariff reprisals. We also risk further entrenching the view of many middle-ground voters in Northern Ireland that the desire to finish Brexit by removing the protocol is against their best interests. This issue of winning hearts and minds is important to bear in mind as we seek to persuade and cajole people to stick with the Union.
We should be looking at how we persuade the EU to make the changes needed by Unionism. We should be looking at how we encourage the Northern Ireland parties to work together on joint priorities and the EU to understand that it is in its interests to provide much greater political focus on this issue. What else can we do in other parts of the UK-EU relationship to encourage the bloc to shift? Our challenge is to push the EU to move beyond the flexibilities it is proposing and to change the text, but we also need to be realistic about how changes will be made. It will be by more suspensions, more grace periods and turning the eye, and compromises seem more likely than wholesale rewriting. Northern Ireland is very used to these types of deals—shades of grey rather than black and white.
We know that patient, quiet work can deliver. We have already seen this happen on medicines. The EU has now changed the protocol, and the Government have secured uninterrupted supplies to Northern Ireland. Not only that, but Northern Ireland’s crucial pharma sector has access to both markets. There is no reason why the medicines deal cannot be replicated across agrifood and customs if the political will is there on both sides. However, to do that we need the highest-level focus, leader to leader, with a political negotiation focused on Northern Ireland and challenging the approach the EU took over the May years.
The announcement yesterday on more joint working with France in other areas could lead to a space in which we can push forward with a crucial member state the changes needed on Northern Ireland, but it is worth bearing in mind that, from the readout of the Macron-Johnson meeting, the Northern Ireland protocol was not raised yesterday.
We also need to work out how to encourage Dublin. We need its help to get the EU to shift. Ireland should have done more to help when we needed an exit mechanism on the backstop, but we now need to get Dublin, and also the parties in Northern Ireland, to focus on a resolution. We need a new, intensive UK, Northern Ireland, Irish and EU process. That is how we will get the east-west checks resolved so there is no border down the Irish sea. That is how we will fudge issues on regulation. That is even how we might get to fix legal oversight. But we need a sustainable solution.
The task in Northern Ireland is, as ever, to secure broad consensus and that means that Government, as well as addressing the concerns of Unionism, also have to reflect on the concerns of all communities and the growing centre ground. A new intensive Northern Ireland focus in the negotiation process is the only way to ensure that this fragile but high-performing part of our country is handled with the utmost care, balance and respect.
Order. First, I remind everyone that, if you were not in at the beginning—you know who you are, and, even more importantly, I know who you are—do not stand because you will not get in. Secondly, everybody participating: please do come for the wind-ups.
The Bill is proof, if ever it were needed, that Brexit is not done. It was always going to be difficult to reconcile leaving the EU with the challenge of an open border and so it has proved. Let us be absolutely frank from the start: our relationship with the European Union is now in a very bad place. Perhaps that has something to do with the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) because, before he became Prime Minister, he promised he would never ever put a border in the Irish sea. When he became Prime Minister, he promptly did that. He described the protocol, when he negotiated it, as in perfect conformity with the Good Friday agreement. He then said that there would be no checks on goods going from GB to Northern Ireland. That was not true and it is probably one of many reasons why so many people do not trust the Prime Minister, including many EU leaders.
What can we conclude from that process? Despite the fact that the impact assessment made it very clear that there would be checks—what would happen—the Government either did not fully understand the protocol they had negotiated, thought it would not be a problem, mis-sold it, or always intended to resile from it later. Whatever the explanation is, it does not reflect terribly well on Ministers.
But having made that point, we are where we are and we have a problem. The problem is that the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive are not functioning and all of us should be worried about that. I should have said at the beginning that it is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) because I think he spoke extremely wisely.
As the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) pointed out, I suppose in the Government’s eyes, the test of the Bill is, will it work to bring the institutions back up and running again? None of us knows for sure the answer to that, but in the meantime the Foreign Secretary is taking a very big gamble and in the process in my view she is trashing Britain’s international reputation as a country that can be trusted to keep its word.
I do not propose to dwell on the detail of the Bill—others have done that effectively—but it is just not the way to solve the problem. I oppose it because it will lead to a prolonged stand-off with the European Union, it will prolong the problems the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), who speaks for the Democratic Unionist party, has just referred to, it will worsen relations and, if everything goes horribly wrong, we could end up in a trade war with the EU at a very difficult time for us economically and when we have a real war on our hands between Russia and Ukraine. So we have to find another way of resolving this, and that requires the UK and the EU to sit down and negotiate.
I have heard all the arguments from both sides—“It’s the other lot who are not doing the talking; we are willing” and so on and so forth. They can carry on blaming each other until the cows come home but, as long as they do that, both sides will be failing to fulfil their political responsibility to find a political solution to what is a political problem. At the heart of this is the question: how do we protect the integrity of the single market while not interfering unreasonably with goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland? That is why the protocol refers to goods “at risk”. That is the key phrase that we have to bear in mind.
I think there are some pretty easy places to start. For example, on supermarket deliveries travelling from Cairnryan to Larne, to shops that are only in Northern Ireland, what exactly is the risk of those goods undermining the integrity of the single market? As far as I can see, there is none, so why should they require an export health certificate? In the 18 months for which the grace periods have been extended, can anyone point to a single example of the integrity of the single market having been undermined? I am not aware of one.
I genuinely cannot fathom why the EU is so insistent on requiring a customs code to be provided by supermarkets and others. What is it going to do with the statistics? Is it actually going to publish stats on the movement of baked beans and baby food between GB and Northern Ireland? We are aware of the other problems—seed potatoes, organic products, divergence on certain ingredients. In making that point—
I am not going to give way, as I want to keep to time.
Of course there are products where it can reasonably be argued that there is a potential risk. I wish we had spent the time talking about those products, one by one, because if there is a good case I am sure the Government will respond. While the EU says it has offered to reduce paperwork, it is important to remember that it is a reduction compared with the full application of the rules; it is an increase compared with what is currently the case because of the extension of the grace periods. That is why I have said to the EU and all I have spoken to that the EU needs to move to make this negotiation work. Surely we can reach some agreement on SPS checks on the basis that almost all the food produced in Britain is produced to exactly the same standards as it was while we were members of the EU.
I find this very frustrating because we hear Simon Coveney say on the radio, when the idea of a green lane is put to him, “We have proposed something very similar”. Well, why cannot the two parties get on with the negotiation to make this happen? Heaven forbid, if we can negotiate the Belfast/Good Friday agreement—an astonishing achievement, the phrase of my good friend my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—are the Government really incapable, with the EU, of negotiating for a prawn sandwich to cross the Irish sea without a lot of accompanying paperwork? This cannot be beyond the wit and ability of politicians.
In my view, this is a Bill borne of desperation rather than principle. It is a Bill trying to solve a problem that is entirely of the Government’s own making. It does Britain’s international standing no good whatsoever. And it will make the negotiation, which is the only way this is going to be solved in the end, harder rather than easier. There are so many more pressing things for us to be talking about with the EU—our biggest, nearest and most important trading partner still—not least the war in Ukraine and not least climate change. The current crisis in the Government in respect of Northern Ireland arises from a practical problem and requires a practical solution. We need those old virtues of patient diplomacy and negotiation, which take as their starting point the purpose of the rules, which is to protect the integrity of the single market, rather than the rules themselves. Frankly, it is now time for the Government, together with the EU, to get back around the table and sort this out.
I am grateful to be called so early.
May I start by saying to the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) that I agree with all that stuff about the trade issues? They have been on the table for ages. I will just go over one small point. During the breakdown in negotiations when my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) was Prime Minister, I happened to take a delegation, including Lord Trimble, to see the then chief negotiator. I put to him the fact that the whole issue around trade across the border was easily settled, as long as we were able to trust each other on things like phytosanitary foods and veterinary checks, which the EU does with New Zealand. He completely agreed and said it would be possible, but then it came to another agreement and we have plunged ever since.
It is wholly feasible not to have these ludicrous checks and ludicrous requirements for customs codes to be banged across to the EU, or for the Court of Justice to sit to rule over what is going on in Northern Ireland. It would have been agreed then, under a thing called mutual enforcement, where both sides take complete responsibility for the enforcement of transgressions in the other’s area when it comes to Northern Ireland. That would have solved that problem straight.
Here is the problem: the EU has point blank refused to negotiate that. Here is the point about the protocol. I am not saying that the protocol should go completely. I am saying it should be changed—that is the whole point. When I read it before we originally voted on it, I read clearly what its main purpose was. Article 1, paragraphs (1) and (3) make it clear that the primacy in all this is the Good Friday/Belfast agreement. Upholding that is critical—of course it is.
I served in Northern Ireland. I never want anyone I know to go back to a thing like that again. I lost people in Northern Ireland. It is part of me as much as it is of those who live there. We do not want to go back there. Therefore, the Good Friday agreement must be prime; by the way, it is an international agreement. So we have a problem. We are talking about breaking international agreements, but we have a clash between international agreements. Which one is prime? Paragraphs (1) and (3) of article 1 make it clear that maintenance of the balance in the Good Friday/Belfast agreement is prime. If that is the case, I do not believe—I accept I am not a lawyer; I say to the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, who is on the Front Bench, that that is a badge of pride for me, although I am sure that others would argue differently—[Interruption.] Of course. I always hear him argue and I love it. I have read the text of this. I do not believe this legitimately will break international law. There is a good reason. If the Good Friday/Belfast agreement is so prime in the protocol, it was agreed from the word go that what affected that badly would make this thing fall.
The rest of the protocol is important. The protocol was never seen as permanent. First, it was negotiated under article 50, which means that it cannot be permanent of its own right. Secondly, article 13(8) of the protocol makes it clear that it can be changed in whole or in part. So what is the problem? It is not working—change it. It could have been changed ages ago. In fact, last year, I asked for article 16 to be triggered simply so we could start that process immediately.
The point that I want to make is that the Good Friday/Belfast agreement is critical. It is about safeguarding that first, and then there is no hard border, the EU single market and the UK’s territorial integrity. The last one has clearly been badly damaged and we cannot have that reign any further. Northern Ireland is clearly an important part of the United Kingdom, so it must be treated as an important part of the UK, as much as my constituency is. That is critical. Actually, the protocol specifies that that is one of the priorities. So here we go again: why would the EU not change the mandate? It set a narrow mandate that said that it would deal only with issues that affected the running of the protocol. It did not allow its negotiator to have a mandate that would change article 13(8) of the protocol in whole or in part. We are here today with this because we are only going to be able to force this to happen through this Bill.
There are those who say, “Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate.” Negotiation is not an end in itself. It has a purpose. At some point, you have to leave the room because it no longer works and, until the other side makes a change, you cannot simply go back. That is the real problem that we face. The only time the EU will sit up and look at this is when it realises that the British Government are determined to make this change come hell or high water. If the EU will not agree to the necessity for this, we will have to make it.
I believe that the Government are acting reluctantly. I have listened carefully to what the ex-Justice Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), has said about the efficacy of this in international law. He will speak shortly and we will want to hear what he has to say.
Quite simply, the most important thing is that the EU—including, I might say, Ireland—wakes up to what the challenge really is. The process at the border was wrongly and damagingly weaponised during the negotiations. We got locked down in the original negotiations and ended in this position because it was seen as a stick to beat the dog. The dog was Brexit Britain, and the EU was going to use it no matter what to ensure that it could not be clean. It is time to recognise that that has to stop. So I support the Bill tonight not on technicalities, but on the reality as it has turned out.
I am surprised to see the right hon. Gentleman wanting to interfere further on “Brexit means Brexit.” Is he not the one who told the House in October 2019 that this matter had been
“debated and thrashed to death”
and said that if anything else needed debating about it, he
“would love to know what it is”?—[Official Report, 22 October 2019; Vol. 666, c. 853.]
When was the epiphany?
I read the protocol—that is why. I do not know whether the hon. Member did. In the protocol, it is clear that if it does not work, it will be changed
“in whole or in part.”
He should have read it, and he would have understood. The whole point is that we can change it. The protocol has always been clear: the seeds for its own major change are in it. [Interruption.] I made no resolution on it. I was absolutely right to do so, and I would repeat that. [Interruption.] Whether he wants to hear what I have to say is another matter altogether. He had his moment in the sun and he lost, so I will move on.
I say to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench that we are here out of necessity because of how the EU has behaved, and, I must say, because of how the Irish Government have behaved. Some people, such as the Irish Taoiseach, have been good—he has been much more reasonable—but quite recently the Irish Foreign Secretary celebrated the diversion of trade that was taking place. That contravenes article 16 and makes it clear that the protocol has to be changed. I read the treaty, but I do not think that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) did.
I do not believe that the Bill breaks international law. It is a clash of international treaties, and the most important international treaty is the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. Maintenance of that is critical. I want to see the DUP back in power sharing. I understood the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) to say that he would head in that direction and get back into power sharing once the Bill was through the Commons. I hope so, and I will hold him to that. Let us get the Bill done as quickly as possible, because only then will the EU realise that we mean business.
These few years have been frustrating and damaging for Northern Ireland, and the Bill adds to that. They have been bad for the economy—for businesses that need stability, not brinkmanship—and for relationships in each of the Good Friday agreement’s three strands: within Northern Ireland; between the north and south of Ireland; and between east and west. More than that, the Bill is being seen as part of the Government’s departure from the Good Friday agreement’s values of compromise, partnership and the rule of law. The Bill recycles the same distortions and half-truths that the people of Northern Ireland have been listening to for the last six or seven years of the Brexit debate, and there is still a failure to reconcile the dilemmas that Brexit forces and the choices that the UK Government have made with the reality of our geography.
Some truly mind-bending arguments have been put forth to justify the Bill. It is said that the Bill is about consent and consensus, when in fact the majority of people in Northern Ireland have not consented to Brexit in any form, and a majority of voters and MLAs reject the Bill in the strongest terms. We are told that it is about protecting the Good Friday agreement, while the UK Government and people whom we all saw scuttling away from Castle Buildings when the Good Friday agreement was being forged—they screamed in the windows for the first few years, while we tried to implement it—are in the middle of body-slamming a cornerstone of that agreement.
We have also heard that the Bill is about rights. If it is truly about rights, the women of Northern Ireland, the LGBT community of Northern Ireland and the minority ethnic community of Northern Ireland would like a word. We have heard that it is about the alleged damage to our economy, when every credible business organisation in Northern Ireland is calling for the retention of the protocol. Business after business lauds the potential of dual market access, and Northern Ireland is the only UK region outside London managing to achieve post-pandemic GDP growth.
We are told that the Bill is about a democratic deficit. That is being protested against by removing the entirety of Government from the people of Northern Ireland, and it will apparently be solved by handing over Henry VIII powers that allow the Government to ride roughshod over everybody in Northern Ireland. I am old enough to remember the time when Brexit was supposed to be about parliamentary sovereignty. We have been promised that, and we were promised sunlit uplands, but people in Northern Ireland are getting the gaslit uplands, given that there has, for years, been a cynical campaign to distort the causes and effects of the protocol.
I understand entirely the hurt and frustration of many ordinary Unionists. They have been catastrophically misrepresented by the Democratic Unionist party, and by the Prime Minister, who insisted—[Interruption.] The DUP has been saying all those words for three, four, five years, and we ended up with the protocol. Some of us are here to try to clear up the mess that was created, while the DUP voted down every option that could have prevented the sea border. Unionists and others are wrong to think that the solution is breaking international law and walking away from partnership and compromise.
I hope that the DUP will understand—I mean this in the best possible way—that hundreds of thousands of us in Northern Ireland who do not identify as Unionists constitutionally compromise every single day; we live in a reality where the governance lines do not directly match up with our identity. We do that because it suits the majority of people, and because Northern Ireland is not a place where hard, sharp lines of sovereignty work, or where the winner can take all. It is a place where governance survives in the shades of grey, as the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) said.
I am glad that some very plausible solutions, including on sanitary and phytosanitary arrangements and veterinary deals, are being mentioned, because for some reason, they disappeared off the agenda. We are told, “I would do anything for Northern Ireland, but I won’t do that. I won’t agree to a simple, negotiated solution that could remove 70% or 80% of checks.” There is no doubt that the protocol can be smoothed and its operation can be improved; everybody says that. As I have said before, nobody in Northern Ireland loves the protocol, but the better options were voted down. As with everything that is worth doing in Northern Ireland, that improvement will be achieved through partnership and compromises, not by imposing unmeetable red lines. That would remove the people of Northern Ireland from the single market, and that has no support.
Instead of doing the hard work and levelling with the people of Northern Ireland, the Government, to whom the DUP has shackled itself, are choosing to distort and deflect. They are using the “stabbed in the back” narrative; they are saying that this is all the fault of remainers, the EU, the Irish, and those who are not patriots, but we know that this is about the DUP. The hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) mentioned Eamon de Valera, and that reminded me of a quote that has echoed down through Anglo-Irish relationships from the last century. Lord Edward Carson, who had been the leader of Unionism, said in the other place, as he reflected in disillusionment on the shambles left by the Conservative party on the island of Ireland,
“What a fool I was. I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into power.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 December 1921; Vol. 48, c. 44.]
The only difference between then and now, when we have this miserable, deceitful Bill before us, is that we are talking about maintaining the Conservative party in power and propping up a failing, discredited Prime Minister. This is also perhaps about the Foreign Secretary currying favour with the malevolent European Research Group and once again pulling the wool over Unionism’s eyes.
I suspect that we cannot stop the Bill—people will troop through the Lobby and support it—but Members should understand that people on the island of Ireland, and further afield, are watching the Government. They will have to work through the implications of dealing with a Government who are in a very bad place morally, and who are in contravention of the culture of lawfulness that many of us have worked very hard to cultivate in Northern Ireland. The Government’s approach is fundamentally altering the dynamics of relationships on the island.
Having spent the last six years having the same argument time and again, I do not believe that the Conservative party has it in it to put the people, businesses and economy of Northern Ireland first. I implore my colleagues on the Opposition Benches: please, unshackle yourselves. Work with us—your neighbours, colleagues and friends—on the negotiated solutions that we all know are possible. We have solved bigger problems before; these solutions are available. End this toxic debate. That is what the people of Northern Ireland want. They do not want to have to hear about this day after day on the radio. They want dual market access, and they want our economy to prosper; and that is entirely achievable, with good will.
The status of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom derives initially from the Act of Union 1800, the sixth article of which provides that, in matters of trade and in treaties with foreign powers, the
“subjects of Ireland shall have same the privileges…as…subjects of Great Britain.”
The 1800 Act was augmented, as we know, by the Belfast/Good Friday agreement of 1998, which declares that
“it would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of a majority of its people”.
As hon. Members have said today, the Belfast agreement is fundamental to the maintenance of peace in Northern Ireland, and preserves its constitutional status. The fact that the agreement is crucial is acknowledged in the Northern Ireland protocol, which says that the protocol
“is without prejudice to the provisions of the 1998 Agreement in respect of the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and the principle of consent”.
The essential point is that the protocol, which is part of an international treaty, explicitly acknowledges the primacy of the Belfast agreement—another international treaty.
The agreement, however, has been undermined by the protocol. It is absolutely clear that the arrangements set up by the protocol are having a detrimental impact on life in Northern Ireland and on the privileges of its people. As we have heard, there are burdensome checks on goods passing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, and that has created a border in the Irish Sea between constituent parts of the United Kingdom, which cannot be acceptable.
As we heard from the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), people in Northern Ireland find it difficult to secure many goods that they have traditionally been able to purchase, and there has been a diversion of trade away from mainland Great Britain and towards the European Union. The disruption has also impacted the democratic institutions of Northern Ireland. The Assembly has not been reconstituted since the elections earlier this year, and the Executive remains suspended. This is a worrying and potentially dangerous state of affairs, especially given the sensitive political history of Northern Ireland.
The Assembly will, in due course, have the right to decide on it, but that will be after the passage of four years.
Both the UK and the EU recognise the practical problems of the protocol and its impact on Northern Ireland. Both recognise that those problems should, if possible, be resolved by negotiation, and hon. Members in all parts of the House have repeated that today. Everybody would like the issues to be resolved through negotiation, but for that to happen, it would be necessary for the EU to change the negotiating mandate given to Vice-President Šefčovič—and that it refuses to do. As we heard from the Secretary of State, there have been extensive negotiations over 18 months, and they have been fruitless.
The Government have a clear duty to take action to restore the privileges of the people of Northern Ireland, so that they are equal to those of people in the rest of the UK, and to respect the primacy of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. The action that the Government have taken is to introduce this Bill, which does not, as has been suggested, tear up the protocol; on the contrary, it respects and protects the integrity of the EU’s single market and the openness of the land border, both of which are matters in which the EU and the Irish Republic are concerned. There will still be checks on goods arriving in Northern Ireland but destined for the European Union, through a red lane arrangement.
The Bill explicitly protects the EU single market against the movement across the Irish land border of goods on which the correct EU tariffs have not been paid, or which do not comply with EU regulatory standards. It also provides explicitly that no land border infrastructure or checks or controls on the borders may be created. In every respect, that satisfies the European Union’s concerns.
The Bill also complies with the United Kingdom’s obligations under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. It preserves the status of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom by restoring the equality of the privileges of its people with those enjoyed by the people of the rest of the United Kingdom.
The Bill is wholly necessary. Without it, the peace process established by the Belfast agreement will be dangerously compromised. It is a crucial but proportionate Bill, and it deserves the support of the House.
Anybody in the House who takes legislation seriously ought to start from the presumption that operating tactically is a dangerous process. It is short-sighted and for the short term. However, in the context of Northern Ireland, it is not simply foolish, but very, very dangerous. We know about the forces that have been unleashed in Northern Ireland in recent times. The rhetoric in the election in Northern Ireland only a matter of weeks ago and the rhetoric over weeks and months from the UK Government have heightened tensions in that context. This is dangerous and the House should take that on board.
I do not want to be alarmist. We have to move towards taking a much more serious, much more rational view. The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) and a number of others made the point about article 13.8 of the protocol. They are right to say that there is scope for amendment under that article. However, that has to be done through negotiation and agreement, and on the basis of getting back to the negotiating table.
We know that if we put a shotgun to the heads of any of the parties in this situation, we will get a negative response. That applies to the DUP and other parts of the community in Northern Ireland. We have to take people with us. Frankly, however, it also applies to the bilateral relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union. If we are not involved in serious negotiation to look for common-sense solutions, we will fail the people of Northern Ireland.
There is a bigger risk: the situation could be traumatic for people across Northern Ireland. If we enter into a really serious breakdown in our relations with the European Union, things will be dramatically worse for the people of Northern Ireland—as they will be for my constituents and those of every Member of the House—so we need rational politics.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) made some sensible points. It has long been the case—this has been obvious from the beginning—that once we began to move towards Brexit, the solution that guaranteed respect for the Good Friday agreement could be reached in only one way. It could not be done by having a hard border across the island of Ireland and it should not be done by having a hard border down the Irish sea. It has to be done through some form of negotiated solution that respects the fact that the two potentially different systems have to be brought as close together as possible.
A sanitary and phytosanitary agreement is obvious. We start from the same premise. No Members from the governing or Opposition parties are arguing that we should deteriorate our SPS conditions in Great Britain. We therefore need a negotiated SPS agreement, as was achieved with not only New Zealand, but Switzerland. They are two different models, but a uniquely UK-EU model would be perfectly practical. Let us move on that and look hard at the practical details. If we take the heavy rhetoric away and see these problems as practical ones that can be solved by good will, we can move the situation on.
There have also been some powerful voices among Government Members about the legality of the Bill. That should worry hon. Members across the Chamber. It is not good enough to compare the Good Friday agreement with the protocol, as though one somehow has to go and the other does not. We have to maintain international law under all circumstances. When I say to people in other countries that we have an expectation of very high standards, I am right to say, “It is because my country also respects those very high standards.” That, actually, is true patriotism. Real patriotism comes from such measures, not simply from jingoistic flag waving. Let us say that it really matters that we are a law-abiding country, because if we are not, frankly, we let ourselves and the world down. We have to confront that serious issue tonight.
I appeal to right hon. and hon. Members to take this issue very seriously and to my friends in the DUP on the same basis, because it will affect all of us—the people in Northern Ireland and in the rest of Great Britain—if we get this wrong. There are some really difficult issues. They can be solved, but they will not be solved by the Bill, even if we amend it. We need to get back to the negotiating table and deal with the practical issues. That is the sensible way forward.
I have sat diligently through the entire debate, and I think that the House is soberly and carefully examining an issue that is not just about Brexit or our relationship with the EU, but which goes to the heart of the exceptional nature of Northern Ireland and its position in our great United Kingdom. That arrangement was reached a century ago, whether we like it or not. The consequences of Northern Ireland’s exceptional position have made this particular issue so vexed and complicated.
I was in Government when the final withdrawal agreement was negotiated. We all remember—I certainly do with great clarity—the need for there to be an agreement with the EU for us to be able to chart a way forward, not just in terms of our withdrawal and the period of grace that we had for a year after that, but our subsequent trade agreement. For me, that is of paramount importance.
I therefore come to this debate after very careful and measured thought. As an unalloyed pro-European, I still believe in the importance of Britain’s role with our friends in Europe and the importance of maintaining strong bilateral arrangements, and I do not want to see us doing anything hastily that could jeopardise that important continuing relationship. That is why we should heed very strongly the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), who was the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—he worked diligently to bring back that Executive, with great success—about the need for Franco-British bilateral discussions to proceed at pace. In my considered view, that will be how we unlock the sort of negotiation that everybody in the Chamber wants.
Hon. Members are right to talk about the need for negotiation, but the reality is that there is no negotiation. We cannot even call it a negotiation because Maroš Šefčovič, in working for the Commission, needs political direction from the EU and its member states—most notably, France—to be able to even call his discussions with the United Kingdom a negotiation. That is the reality.
Although masterly inactivity is sometimes absolutely the right way for nation states to proceed, I am afraid that that is not an option for us here. A nation should pursue masterly inactivity when it has a position of advantage and I am afraid that we do not have that, because our essential interests are under threat. We have identified our essential interests as the
“maintenance of stable social and political conditions in Northern Ireland, the protection of the 1998 Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, the effective functioning of the unique constitutional structures created under that Agreement, and the preservation and fostering of social and economic ties between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom”.
Here is the point I want to make, in the short time I have: a lot has been said about necessity, as if it requires imminent peril or an immediate threat facing us just outside the door. Nobody is saying that we face that, but necessity in this context does not require that degree of imminence; it requires a degree of real threat, and growing evidence of a real threat to our essential interests. I would argue that there is such growing evidence. Clearly north-south is entirely unaffected—the respect we are showing for the single market is clear—but there is a growing problem when it comes to east-west. The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) put it very well when he talked about the prawn sandwich argument.
I have to say that at a time when there seems to be violent agreement among all the parties of Northern Ireland, and indeed among all of us in this Chamber, the full implementation of the protocol is not what we want to see. Nobody wants that. What on earth are we all arguing about?
My right hon. and learned Friend speaks wisely about these topics, as ever. He refers to the doctrine of necessity and the tests that must be met. I think he will agree that, whether it be imminent or emerging, there has to be evidence that the high threshold is met. Does he think that, in common with the approach adopted in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, if there is evidence so pressing as to justify a departure from an international agreement, with the risks that that involves, it should be brought back to this place for the House to decide in a vote? As was then suggested in that Bill, on the evidence available, there should be a parliamentary lock on the use of that important step.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful case. His amendment to that Bill was adopted by this House in 2020; I thought it was a sensible mechanism to allow this House of Commons to have its final say with regard to the implementation of these measures based on clear evidence.
My point is simply that this is not a matter of law or a question of legality. There is a respectable argument that can be deployed by the British Government to assert necessity, but this is not about the law; it is about the evidence that the Government will need to marshal to demonstrate that point. The Government’s responsibility is to be a good steward of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement.
I am afraid I cannot give way any further.
It is paramount that article 1 of the protocol, which says that it
“is without prejudice to the provisions”
of the Good Friday agreement, means that the Good Friday agreement definitely—in my view, as a matter of law—takes precedence. Any Government who fail to act or who sit idly by and ignore the concerns of Opposition Members, the wider community or the wider interests of our kingdom are therefore failing in their duty.
I have listened very carefully this afternoon to the leader of the Democratic Unionist party, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), and his party. I would like further clarity as to whether in referring to the passage of this Bill he meant its clearance through this House, as opposed to through the other place before it returns here for a final consideration.
I was very clear: I want to see progress being made in the passage of this Bill through the House of Commons. I want to see steps being taken that give us the certainty that we will see this legislation moving forward and that Parliament will enact it. In those circumstances, we will respond positively.
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I know that he speaks about the issues with conviction and passion. As a friend of the Union—as a Unionist to my bones—I say to him and his party that it is time to act. It is time for us to come together if we are to restore the stability that the mainstream opinion of people in Northern Ireland, for whom politics is not their everyday preoccupation, is crying out for. What the right hon. Gentleman, his party and I must agree on is that the United Kingdom must be the source of that stability. If we fail to be the source of stability, people cannot be blamed if they vote with their feet—or vote in another way, God forbid.
That is why I am taking part in this debate: because as a Unionist I feel a responsibility for the stewardship of the United Kingdom that I love. I think Northern Ireland is as British as Wales, where I come from, and Swindon, which I represent. It is in the interests of all Conservatives to remember that, however tactically difficult the issue might be, and however inopportune a moment it is to have to make hard and fast decisions, the issue is of such importance that inaction is not an option. Tonight, I urge colleagues to vote for the Bill in the hope and expectation that we will see real progress and the stability that the people of Northern Ireland and the people of Britain want and deserve.
The Bill unilaterally sets aside significant provisions of the Northern Ireland protocol, an international agreement for which the Prime Minister was quite happy to take credit when he claimed in the 2019 election campaign that he would “get Brexit done”. The Foreign Secretary has said that the Bill is needed to protect the Good Friday agreement, but dismantling the protocol against the will of the majority of people in Northern Ireland also risks undermining that agreement. She said that the protocol needs cross-community consent. Indeed it does, but does she have consent from both communities for this Bill? I doubt it.
Scant consideration was given to the Province by Brexiteers before the referendum, nor was consideration given thereafter to the fact that the majority in Northern Ireland, as in Scotland, voted to remain in the EU. It is the UK’s exit from the EU, rather than the protocol, that has created the difficult situation for Northern Ireland. That was recognised by the then First Minister Arlene Foster when she demanded a special trading arrangement for Northern Ireland shortly after the referendum—a request for special treatment that she and her party now repudiate.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) has already highlighted, there were only three choices: a border on the island of Ireland; close alignment between UK and EU standards to reduce checks, including a veterinary agreement; or checks carried out at Northern Ireland ports. The return of border infrastructure in Ireland was seen as an unacceptable threat to peace, but it was the Prime Minister’s choice of a hard Brexit with maximal divergence from the EU that inevitably left checks on Irish sea crossings as the only remaining option.
The issues posed by an Irish sea border were clearly highlighted in the Government’s own impact assessment, which undermines the claim of sudden necessity and means that the Prime Minister’s December 2019 claim that there would be
“no question of there being checks on goods going NI-GB or GB-NI”
was disingenuous, to say the least. The UK Government state that there is no need for checks, as current UK regulations are close to those of the EU; indeed they are, but the Government are proposing a bonfire of EU regulations and are already negotiating trade deals that would allow lower-standard foods and goods to be imported into the UK.
The Prime Minister cites economic failure and the outcome of the recent Northern Ireland elections as justification for tearing up the agreement, despite a clear majority of Assembly Members supporting the protocol in principle, and despite recent economic data showing Northern Ireland outperforming Great Britain. Business surveys by the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry show that two thirds of local businesses have now adapted to the protocol, and 70% claim that they see advantages in their dual position, which is something that the rest of us in the UK have lost.
My hon. Friend is quite right that there is an advantage to business and to the economy of Northern Ireland. Interestingly, last week the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland could not tell me whether the Government had done any economic analysis whatever.
The Minister for Brexit Opportunities has said that introducing a border for imports in the United Kingdom
“would have been an act of self-harm.”
If that were to happen, it would make it even more obvious that the Northern Ireland protocol was an economic advantage to Northern Ireland. It would not be doubly hampered—first by this, and secondly by the completion of Brexit borders.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is without question that issues with, in particular, the implementation of the protocol remain: 29% of businesses are still experiencing some difficulties, although the number of businesses facing serious problems has dropped from 15% to 8% since last year. That improvement over time suggests that some of last year’s problems could have been avoided if businesses had been given more than a matter of weeks to get ready for last January.
I think we all recognise that supply chains from GB producers and manufacturers would certainly benefit from technical improvements, especially improvements to reduce the burden on goods that are for sale purely in Northern Ireland, but while the EU proposed mitigations last October—including an express lane for exactly those kinds of goods—the UK Government have not engaged in any discussions since February, so talk of 18 months of solid negotiation is nonsense. Despite the remaining challenges, Northern Ireland business leaders have made it clear that while they seek improvements, they do not want the protocol to be removed.
The loss of trust in the UK Government to honour their commitments is already holding back participation in Horizon Europe to the detriment of research teams across the UK, especially in Scotland, where they had disproportionate success in attracting EU funding. Disapplying almost half the protocol undermines a key part of the withdrawal agreement, and, as others have said, runs the risk of provoking a trade war with the EU, further exacerbating the cost of living crisis. The EU would then be likely to place tariffs on UK exports, and, given that Scotland produces the UK’s leading food and drink exports—whisky and salmon—Scottish businesses would bear the brunt of such retaliatory action.
It is vital that the UK and the EU get back round the table with all the stakeholders from Northern Ireland to discuss practical improvements to the implementation of the protocol, reducing the friction and intrusion to a minimum while keeping the economic benefits for the Province. Solutions can be achieved only with willingness, trust and good will, but, sadly, those are now in very short supply, and unlikely to be improved by the Prime Minister’s plan to wreck an international agreement that he signed less than three years ago.
This Bill stands behind the Union, and the Union itself is dependent on the sovereignty of the United Kingdom Parliament. These are fundamental constitutional issues, on which the Bill rightly insists. The European Union has been intransigent about the protocol, which undermines the Good Friday agreement. Furthermore, its intransigence is motivated by considerations that are completely contrary to our right as a third country, and it refuses to change its mandate. It has no right to insist that in relation to a third country, such as the United Kingdom, it should exercise European jurisdiction over Northern Ireland, through the European Court, now that we have left the European Union. The European Union would no more allow any part of the national territory of any one of its member states to be governed by other countries which are not members of the European Union than, for example, the United States would allow Texas to be partly governed by Mexico, or Canada to exercise legislative control over parts of the United States. It is simply inconceivable.
As for the question of our parliamentary sovereignty, section 38 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020—in particular, subsection (2)(b),which expressly provides that we can override direct effect and direct applicability notwithstanding European law in relation to Northern Ireland—enables us to take the necessary constitutional steps to dispose of parts of the protocol in our national interest, and, in doing so, enables us to save the Good Friday agreement. In respect of the democratic deficit—on which I had an exchange with the leader of the Democratic Unionist party—the European Scrutiny Committee, which I chair, revealed in its March report that since we left the European Union, European legislation relating to Northern Ireland has been turning into a motorway. The Bill will allow us to prevent that from happening, in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom as a whole.
One example of EU law that is on the way to being imposed on Northern Ireland was presented to the European Scrutiny Committee just last week, but there is a whole stack of them piling up. This is only one of a continuous stream of regulations, and is known as the construction products regulation. It will become the law of Northern Ireland. It consists of 120 pages and seven annexes. This has to stop, and so does the peril of the democratic deficit that goes with it. It must be borne in mind that such legislation—and there are at least 40 examples in the pipeline—is made by majority vote of all the 27 countries in the European Union, made in the Council of Ministers of the EU, and made behind closed doors and without even a transcript. That is how the United Kingdom was being subjugated by the EU since 1972.
As for international law, there are numerous precedents in which our pre-eminent judges, such as Lord Denning and Lord Diplock, have made it completely clear that international treaties are subject to parliamentary supremacy, and similar principles were enunciated by the judges in the recent unanimous decision in the case of Miller. The principles that underlie this Bill are sovereignty, our national interest, and the need to protect Northern Ireland as part of the Union and, in particular, the Good Friday agreement. That is why the Bill is so necessary.
We have been prepared to negotiate over the past two years and more, but our attempts have been rebutted by intransigence and the EU’s refusal to renegotiate its mandate. We had to draw the line. Ultimately, this has become a matter of necessity consistent with international law itself. Indeed, in 1937 Mr de Valera himself repudiated the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921 in fundamental respects when setting up the constitution of the Republic in its own national interest. We want good working relations with the Republic and with the European Union, but not at their price. It is well reported that one of the key EU negotiators indicated at the outset of the negotiations on these matters that the price of Brexit would be Northern Ireland. That will not be the case, and this Bill will ensure that it does not happen.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash). He brought to mind the importance of the warning that George Orwell gave us not to confuse nationalism with patriotism, which I think we all need to bear in mind during this debate. He wrote:
“One prod to the nerve of nationalism and the intellectual decencies can vanish, the past can be altered, and the plainest facts can be denied.”
Let me, in the time that I have today, try to do justice to what Orwell warned us about.
This situation has been caused by Brexit, because it was Brexit that led to the need for us to negotiate the Northern Ireland protocol. If we do not acknowledge that, we cannot start to deal with the problems that we have created ourselves. I say “ourselves” because this Government knew in advance of the problems that would arise in these circumstances. When, on 19 October 2019, the Prime Minister stood up and told us of a deal that would “heal this country”, he was not being truthful about the consequences that they themselves predicted. The question before us now is this: will the Bill make finding a solution to these problems easier, or will it inflame further an already delicate and difficult situation?
We know that the Government need the bogeyman of Europe to distract people in this country from its domestic woes, but the people of Northern Ireland deserve better from all of us. If the Government were really doing their job, they would put Northern Ireland at the centre of this conversation. They would start by bringing more of the Northern Irish communities into the conversation and the negotiation, and then go to the European Union to hear what it was saying. However, that is not what we are seeing at present.
There are five examples, from this legislation alone, of how the Government are not being intellectually decent. They cannot tell us why the Bill is a necessity—why they need this power rather than the powers that they have already been given in article 16 of the protocol to act to safeguard the UK. That, surely, was about remedying the situation, but the Bill will drive a coach and horses through the proposals that we currently have.
The Government could also start with article 16, rather than making us drag this proposal through Parliament over many months before they would get the remedies they are talking about, if they really cared about the people of Northern Ireland. If this Bill is a necessity, why is it giving Ministers huge sweeping powers that will change the rules on state aid and allow the UK courts not to send questions about the interpretation of the protocol to the European Court of Justice? The EU has never refused the UK permission to bring in a measure under the article 10 state aid rules, yet somehow this is what the Government think they need to do for the people of Northern Ireland.
The Bill will also give sweeping powers to Ministers to do things in terms of the EU protocol without any consultation with the people of Northern Ireland and without any agreement with this House at all. Why do the Government say that they need the powers under clause 19 to implement a new power or protocol without bothering to go through the parliamentary process? After all, we went through the withdrawal agreement in a few weeks and we went through the trade and co-operation agreement in a day. What is it about scrutiny in this place that this Government are frightened of? Why do they have to bring a sledgehammer to crack a nut by giving Ministers these wide powers? As the Treasury Solicitor himself said, clause 18 is the “do whatever you like” power. Others call it a Charles I power. If Ministers can do that in Northern Ireland, what will they do to the rest of the UK?
Everybody in this House must recognise that this Bill’s implications go further than Northern Ireland. When we trash our reputation on international agreements, we trash our opportunities to make the trade deals that our constituents will depend on and we risk the spectre of a trade war when this country is already dealing with the consequences of the increase in the cost of living directly caused by the impact that Brexit is having on food prices in our country—let alone the message that we send to President Putin when we try to stand up to him in one place but in another say that international rules of law do not matter.
The people of Northern Ireland are being let down by this legislation, as are the people in every constituency in this country. The failure to find a solution that puts the people of Northern Ireland front and centre of negotiating a solution for their future lets down everybody in this Chamber. We can and should do better. Everybody in this House knows that, but will we have the bravery to listen to George Orwell, to stand up to those scoundrels who quote patriotism when they mean nationalism, and finally to put doing the right thing first? I fear that in this place we will not, but I have hopes for the other place. I certainly know that many of us will not stop standing with the people of Northern Ireland and the people in our communities who will be affected by this legislation and by the implications—[Interruption.] And we will stop laughing at the British public when they are frightened about what this place is doing, and start asking what we can do to make things better. Naming those problems is a starting point. When we have people who are addicted to power and addicted to using Europe as a bogeyman, rather than solving those problems, it behoves all of us to say that enough is enough.
While I understand the reason for his absence, I rather wish that it had been the Prime Minister and not the Foreign Secretary who introduced this Bill tonight, because when he took office the Prime Minister told us that he had an “oven-ready” deal and I believe I am right in saying that he said there would be a border down the Irish sea over his dead body. The withdrawal agreement and the protocol were freely entered into. The Prime Minister and David—now Lord—Frost brought that document back in triumph and campaigned on it in the 2019 election campaign. It subsequently went through this House with a large majority. I know that only too well because I was sitting in the Chair you are sitting in now, Mr Deputy Speaker, when I announced the result of that vote. But the Government were warned that the deal was flawed. My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) and others pointed out, before it went through this House, what was wrong with it. They indicated the dangers of the border down the Irish Sea, but they were not heeded. That is why we are here tonight.
This Bill breaches the Vienna convention on legal treaties. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) spelled that out very clearly. There is no doctrine of necessity that applies in this case. Article 16 exists as a backstop—if I am allowed to use that word—and the case in law simply cannot stand up. That means that the Bill we are proposing to put through this House tonight will be a gross breach of international law if it is enacted and implemented.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in what he is saying about the Bill. Does he agree that the UK Government will not be able to complain if the European Union chooses to cherry-pick and undo something unilaterally, because that is the precedent the Government are now setting? Anyone can do what they want.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I think the rather more dangerous point, which has already been made tonight, relates to the damage that this will do to our reputation for integrity and the position that we will find ourselves in when we criticise President Putin for breaking international law, which of course he does over and over again.
I gently suggest to my young friend that, if I had not thought it was a fair comparison, I would not have made it.
I feel very strongly that we are going down an extremely dangerous path. I believe passionately in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and we have to get back on track, but we are not going to make Maroš Šefčovič’s job any easier by lumbering him with this legislation. I am sure that it will ultimately get through this House—whether it gets through the other place is another matter—but I hope very much indeed that an agreement can be reached before it becomes law. That agreement has to be reached by negotiation; that really is the only way forward. Some of the proposals in the legislation—such as the red and green routes—are sound and can be implemented. There is every indication that the European Union is willing to accept not all but at least some of those kinds of proposals, and I believe that that is the way forward. I do not believe that the Bill is the way forward and that is why, sadly, I shall not be supporting it tonight.
I welcome this Bill, which is long overdue. It delivers on some of the promises that were made to get devolution restored in Northern Ireland but on which no action has been taken for the last 18 months. It is important for people to understand that it is essential for the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland that the protocol issue is dealt with. That is because the very basis of devolution in the Belfast agreement is destroyed by the protocol. Unionist parties believe that the protocol is designed for the destruction of our place within the United Kingdom, that it is damaging our economy and hurting individuals, and that if the Assembly is up and running and the protocol is not dealt with, Unionist participation in the Assembly would mean that we had to facilitate the implementation of the agreement and acquiesce in other parties facilitating and implementing the protocol, which we believe is designed for our destruction. No other party in this House would enter a coalition arrangement—don’t forget, this is a mandatory coalition; we have to be there—where it was obliged to support, facilitate and undertake policies to which it was totally opposed. That is why devolution will not be restored until the protocol issue is dealt with.
Much has been said today about having flexibilities in the checks on goods, but it is not just about that. The whole issue of the protocol is that it undermines democracy in Northern Ireland. It imposes foreign law on Northern Ireland and on companies that do not even trade with the EU. It is not necessary for them to comply with that law, yet the protocol requires them to do so.
It is worth noting that not one Unionist party has approved the protocol. We are all united against it. The protocol has virtually created an economically united Ireland, and the EU is party to driving that forward with the Republic of Ireland in the negotiations, which has created a major problem. Not one constituency in this Parliament does not have people who are finding it difficult to supply goods to businesses in Northern Ireland.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Only the Social Democratic and Labour party has suggested tonight that there are no problems with the protocol. Every other party now accepts that, to one degree or another, there are problems caused by the protocol, which is one of the issues we have faced in these negotiations. The Irish Government, through their Foreign Minister, have patronisingly come to Northern Ireland to tell us, “You don’t really know what you’re talking about. There isn’t a problem.” Of course that has fed through to the EU negotiators, which is one reason why it is important that we have this Bill.
I have listened to Labour Members ask, “What about article 16?” The first people to squeal if the Government had invoked article 16 would have been the Labour party. The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) talked about consulting the people of Northern Ireland, but she did not care too much about consulting on abortion. Now she is, as a Labour Member, appealing to the toffs down the other end of the building to defeat this Bill.
Would the right hon. Gentleman be opposed to bringing more representatives of the Northern Irish political parties into the joint working groups to solve this problem? Is he actually saying that he does not want a voice in this and that he just wants to shout?
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) for setting the parliamentary precedent that we are now allowed to refer to the House downbye as the “House of toffs.” I think that is a rather good suggestion.
I do not know whether “noble toffs” is acceptable, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Members have argued that surely we can do this by negotiation, so let us look at the record. The EU has said not once or twice but every time that it will not renegotiate the text of the protocol. The EU has said it every time it has visited Northern Ireland and every time it has met Government representatives. In fact, the EU has now gone further and is taking us to court to impose more checks.
The result of removing the grace periods would be to increase the number of checks per week for goods coming into Northern Ireland from 6,000 to 25,000. This is hardly flexibility from the EU. Indeed, the EU recently wrote to the Government to demand checks on not only goods but people on ferries or airplanes from GB into Northern Ireland. The EU is demanding that people’s personal baggage is searched to make sure they are not bringing in sandwiches or whatever else. Constituents told me this week that such searches have already started in Cairnryan. This is not flexibility but a hardening of attitude by the EU.
Whether by triggering article 16 or through negotiation, we all know what the outcome will be, and that is why the Government have had to take this unilateral action. The Government are not abandoning their obligations. In fact, they are honouring their obligations in two ways. First, they are honouring their obligation to the EU in so far as the single market will be protected by the goods going through the red lane, by the imposition of fines on firms that try to avoid the checks and by the requirement on firms in Northern Ireland that want to trade with the EU to comply voluntarily with all EU regulations. That safeguards the EU market, so we are living up to our obligations to the European Union.
At the same time, the Government are living up to their obligation to the people of Northern Ireland, because the green lane or free lane—or whatever they want to call it—enables goods to come into Northern Ireland without any checks. It does not require the imposition of EU law on the 95% of firms in Northern Ireland that do not trade with the Irish Republic, and it ensures that judgments on whether the law has been broken are made by courts in the United Kingdom, albeit with reference to decisions made by the European Court of Justice.
If one looks at this Bill objectively, rather than through the eyes of those in this House who think we should have remained and still want to act almost as agents of the EU, it will help to restore devolution, it will ensure the integrity of the United Kingdom and it will protect the European single market.
Everyone in the House this evening should remember what this is all about. It is about protecting the Good Friday agreement of 1998—nothing more and nothing less. As a mere lad born in 1966, I lived through those times on this side of the pond. To have peace on that island after so long was a prize worth having by all.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) said that this was about the situation in which Northern Ireland finds itself, of having regulation without any representation at all. The Northern Ireland protocol contains many articles and provisions, and I assume they have an important basis. Article 1 says most clearly:
“This Protocol is without prejudice to the provisions of the 1998 Agreement in respect of the constitutional status of Northern Ireland”.
Article 13.8 could not be clearer:
“Any subsequent agreement between the Union and the United Kingdom shall indicate the parts of this Protocol which it supersedes.”
Article 16 is the safeguarding clause. Let us not forget that only one party has thus far reached for article 16, and that was the European Union to try to stop us having life-saving vaccines. That is who we are dealing with here.
Article 164(5)(d) of the withdrawal agreement says what the Joint Committee can and cannot do. The Joint Committee can agree to change the text of the protocol to address deficiencies or to address situations unforeseen. There are Members of this House who will say, “Well, you signed it. It is international law.” That is fair enough, but the draconian way in which the EU has interpreted its rights under this protocol is disproportionate. How can it be that goods crossing from GB to NI, which is a mere rounding error in the entirety of trade within the European Union, suffer a full 20% of checks? That cannot be proportionate or reasonable.
I will tell Members why we are in this situation. It is because of animosity towards Brexit. This is about punishment because the EU can. We got to this stage because of the legal straitjacket that the Parliament of 2017 to 2019 put us in, when Members of this place did all they could to make sure that the cards were stacked in the hands of the EU and against this place, and we had a very poor game to play. Do not forget that EU officials were quoted as saying that Northern Ireland was the price to pay for Brexit.
Where do we go from here? We have had 300 hours of negotiation by Lord Frost and our Foreign Secretary. What does Maroš Šefčovič say? He says, “I have no mandate.” Well, please, EU, give us somebody who has that mandate. Let us have that negotiation, because this cannot continue.
We have heard much this afternoon about necessity, and I feel that the clause of necessity has most certainly been reached. The usual doctrine of our constitution says that subsequent legislation is more important than or overwrites previous legislation, but we need to ask ourselves something really important. What is the most important legislation? Is it the constitutional Act of Union 1800? Is it the Good Friday agreement, which has brought peace to the island of Ireland? Those things have been set aside—particularly the Act of Union—by the Court of Appeal in Belfast. Or is it more important to somehow save the dear European single market from the threat of an errant pork pie? That is what we are looking at.
The EU should take great comfort from those on the Government Front Bench. I have heard the Foreign Secretary and others say throughout that this Bill will protect the single market, including with powers against those who may seek to undermine it. We will have full legal measures to stop those who want to break the rules. The EU should take every comfort that it needs from that, because this has nothing to do with upsetting the single market.
I believe that there is a little bit of timidity in this Bill, and I would have preferred it to go further. I see some difficulties with the red and green lanes, because if the EU does not trust us now, I find it hard to believe that it is going to trust us in the future. We need mutual enforcement, where we trust it and it trusts us. That is what people do across borders.
We are the Conservative and Unionist party. I look across the Chamber to my Unionist friends and say: I am with you. I will fight for this Union, and this Bill will help.
I have to say that there are elements of this debate that feel a bit like a bad sequel. We thought that the Brexit debates were behind us, but instead we see a Government intent on reopening old wounds to save their own political skin, rather than looking forward and solving the issues facing the country now. People are in crisis here and now. The cost of living crisis is real, but what is the Government’s response? Rather than spending time focusing on that, they are reneging on an international agreement and risking plunging us into a trade war with our biggest trading partner. As a result, the Bill will only increase blocks and barriers against imports and exports, and that in turn will cause prices to rise even further. That is the last thing that farmers, fishermen and families up and down the country want.
Businesses in Northern Ireland do not want it, either. The UK Trade and Business Commission, of which I am a member, has taken evidence from people and businesses in Northern Ireland over the last year. One leading service provider told us that unfettered access to both the UK and the EU single market has benefited the Northern Irish economy. Another witness told us that support for the protocol is growing in Northern Ireland precisely because it protects the Good Friday agreement and brings economic opportunities. It is for that reason that the majority of Members of the Legislative Assembly support the protocol.
That said, no one is suggesting that there are no issues. We knew that we would have to go into further negotiations. Let us start with a sanitary and phytosanitary agreement. Doing that is going to be difficult, but how do we do it without basic trust between both sides? I ask the Minister: how does breaking international law increase trust between negotiating partners? It does not. We knew that this was going to happen, because the Treasury highlighted in its 2019 impact assessment what the protocol would do. It said that the protocol would be disruptive, particularly to Northern Ireland businesses. It is extraordinary that it is only now that the Government seem to care about cross-community consent, because most people in Northern Ireland voted against Brexit, and even more voted against the hard Brexit chosen by this Government, and yet the Government went ahead anyway. To be fair to the DUP, it voted against the withdrawal agreement. It was clear before the Prime Minister signed it that the protocol did not have cross-party consent.
What has materially changed since then? The answer is the Prime Minister’s position. And so what does he do? He breaks the law—again. This is an egregious breach of international law. Article 25 of the International Law Commission’s text on internationally wrongful acts of state allows a breach of international obligations only where it is
“the only way for the State to safeguard an essential interest against a grave and imminent peril”.
Others have already explained why this is not the only way. Furthermore, article 25 states that necessity may not be invoked when
“the State has contributed to the situation of necessity.”
How can anyone claim that we did not know? The Government signed the agreement and it was debated to death in this place all through the Brexit years. To suggest that this is new information is doublespeak—it is straight out of Orwell’s “1984”. Moreover, despots across the world will be delighted. How on earth can we hold others to account when we are tying ourselves up in knots, trying to find loopholes to get out of the agreements that we sign? This is how banana republics act, not Great Britain. The world looks to us. Can they trust us, they ask, when they want to make trade agreements with us? It is that trust that is being eroded today in this Bill.
This is being noticed on the ground. It would be remiss of me to not mention my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord), who joined our Benches today. Like many in this House, including Government Members, I was there, knocking on doors, and this came up—trust in this Government, trust in this Prime Minister. This Government breaking international law is par for the course.
This Bill is a disgraceful course of action, and I and the Liberal Democrats will vote against it, because we are a party of law and order. We believe in the international rules-based order. The Government should withdraw this Bill and get on with tackling the cost of living emergency and safeguarding the interests of the whole of our nation.
May I begin, just as the Foreign Secretary did, with the Good Friday agreement? There is common cause across the House that that is the sacrosanct treaty that we in this place really must uphold. Obviously, where there are competing treaties, there have to be mechanisms to decide between them, as DUP Members have said.
As the Foreign Secretary said in her piece in yesterday’s Financial Times:
“The protocol was not set in stone forevermore on signing. It explicitly acknowledges the need for possible new arrangements in accordance with the…(Good Friday) Agreement.”
As she has said, our first preference is to renegotiate the text with the EU. We have been working at that for a year and a half, but we have not been able to do it. The EU has not been engaging, as recently as this weekend, she said. To quote another piece, written by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill):
“A good deal of the blame lies with the needlessly rigid and inflexible approach adopted on the EU side.”
I could not agree more. We really need to get negotiation going, and I will speak about negotiation for most of the rest of my speech.
This is a Second Reading debate—nobody expects the Bill to be rammed through the Commons, let alone Parliament, in short order. I understand the arguments that have been put forward throughout the House, including by many learned and senior colleagues on the Conservative Benches, but I will not stand here and undermine and circumscribe the Government’s negotiating position with the EU.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) questioned whether the Bill is a bargaining chip; if we are to have a negotiation, I would rather have as many bargaining chips as possible. I tried to intervene on him during his speech but he would not take my intervention. The fatal mistake that the previous Parliament made between 2017 and 2019 was that too many Members tried to circumscribe the Government’s negotiating position, to undermine our position and to take the EU’s side. The current Leader of the Opposition and the former Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), posed with the EU negotiating team, undermining what the Government were trying to do.