I beg to move,
That the draft Windsor Framework (Democratic Scrutiny) Regulations 2023, which were laid before this House on 20 March, be approved.
It is my usual practice to take as many interventions as I possibly can during a debate; however, this debate is on a statutory instrument and is therefore time-limited, so although I will take interventions, I will not take as many as I normally would. I will, with the leave of the House, try to mop up all the questions raised at the end of the debate.
The Stormont brake is at the heart of the Westminster framework. It addresses the democratic deficit, restores the balance of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and ends the prospect of dynamic alignment. It restores practical sovereignty to the United Kingdom as a whole, and to the people of Northern Ireland in particular.
As someone who served in the Province during the troubles and saw at first hand the pain and anger endured by all communities, may I ask whether my right hon. Friend agrees that the Windsor framework not only restores the balance of the Belfast agreement but offers the Province much greater prosperity by way of inward investment—and greater prosperity helps most situations?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. We are just coming up to the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which has built peace and stability across Northern Ireland. I hope very much—as, I believe, does every single politician from Northern Ireland—that the next 25 years of the agreement, helped along by this Windsor framework, will bring to Northern Ireland an age of prosperity the like of which we have never seen before.
It is not often that I am called before the others, but it is always a pleasure.
The Secretary of State and I will have some differences of opinion on this, but does he understand our frustration about the Windsor framework, or, as we Unionists call it, the Windsor knot? It is not a deal that enjoys or receives Unionist support, because the United Kingdom is giving the European Union sovereignty over the courts and power over Northern Ireland. Let me say respectfully to the Secretary of State, because I am a respectful person, that it has been shoved through the House by the Government, the Conservative and Unionist party—with some dismay, I now question the word “Conservative”, and where is the “Unionist”?—in a format that does not allow for scrutiny or due processes. Members on both sides of the House should take note of that and should vote against this statutory instrument, because it introduces a gravely important constitutional issue, and we are very concerned about it.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words, with which, however, I fundamentally disagree. I am a Unionist, and proud to be a Unionist. I believe that each of the four nations of our wonderful country makes it stronger, and I also believe that this is a massive step forward in terms of progress for not only Northern Ireland but the Union as a whole.
I disagree entirely with what the hon. Gentleman has said because the framework actually adds to the democratic scrutiny that is available. As one of Michel Barnier’s former advisers put it, the mechanism
“does amount to a clear veto possibility for the UK government, directive-by-directive, at the behest of a minority in the Northern Ireland Assembly.”
I think that people who know what they are talking about understand that this is a very, very good deal.
The right hon. Gentleman talks of prosperity. Seed potato growers in my constituency tell me that the framework is extremely welcome, because it means they can have access to the Northern Ireland market and in turn, via this mechanism, to the Republic of Ireland market. That is about the prosperity of my constituency, but perhaps this may lead to access to the Spanish and French markets, which could be useful in the future. I therefore believe that we should support the framework.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his very, very pro-Unionist comments. He is entirely right. Through the protocol, seed potatoes and a host of other products were no longer available in Northern Ireland. The Windsor framework solves those issues and opens up market opportunities.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way to me. I thought I was going to have to do a whole lot of squats just to get in.
One of the criteria for using the Stormont brake, and for signing the Petition of Concern, is that Members of the Legislative Assembly
“must be individually and collectively seeking in good faith to fully operate the institutions, including through the nomination of Ministers and support for the normal operation of the Assembly.”
Does this mean that Jim Allister will be precluded from signing the petition?
I commend the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend for the work they have done. Does it not show that when we build bridges, when we show pragmatism, when we work with our continental colleagues, we can provide results? Does my right hon. Friend agree that, along with AUKUS, the Paris summit and indeed the Budget, this is a return to the statecraft that we want to see in No. 10?
I will continue for a bit, if I may. I will give way in a moment.
We all believe, as democrats here, that in a democracy people should have a say over any change in the laws under which they live, but under the old protocol, that was not the case. Changes to laws were automatically imposed on Northern Ireland whether it wanted them or not, and, like many other Members, I as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland considered that to be an unacceptable state of affairs. The Stormont brake not only ends that situation, but ensures that changes made to rules and regulations have the consent of both communities, thus asserting a fundamental principle of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has made all this progress hugely possible through his hard work. Does he agree that wherever we are starting from, it is clear to everyone who compares the Northern Ireland protocol with the Windsor framework that good progress has been made, that the framework is an improvement, and that it is strongly welcomed by most of the communities in Northern Ireland, and for that reason we should support it today?
The Secretary of State is making a powerful case about democratic scrutiny. In that spirit, will he confirm that in order to support the Windsor agreement, he will use his powers as Secretary of State to retain all the existing EU law that would otherwise be deleted by the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill by the end of this year? The European Union has written to us today warning us that if he does not do that, the agreement will be in doubt. This is not to do with the Stormont brake; it is the existing legislation that will be deleted by the sunset clause. The Secretary of State has the power to retain it. Is he going to do so, in order to support this legislation?
I fear that today we will respectfully have to agree to disagree. My right hon. Friend has described the brake on multiple occasions, including in BBC interviews, as a veto. Given that, if Stormont pulls the brake, UK Ministers may still not exercise the brake in exceptional circumstances—so it is down to ministerial fiat—and given that, even if they do, the EU can object and it will be referred to independent arbitration, where the UK could lose, that is a route to arbitration, isn’t it? That is not a veto. Will he accept that?
One, it is a veto; two, it is a route to arbitration; and three, it removes any element of the European Court of Justice being relevant in this decision. So I think we have actually delivered on some of the things that my right hon. Friend and I have campaigned on over the years.
In respect of grounds for seeking to apply the brake, in response to my written question to the Foreign Office on exports to Northern Ireland through the port of Holyhead, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) replied:
“The Green Lane is open to all UK businesses where they import or sell goods that are not ultimately destined for EU market. This includes goods travelling from Wales to Northern Ireland in transit through the Republic of Ireland, using the procedure”.
Can the Secretary of State confirm that that is indeed the case and elaborate, now or by letter, on how that procedure will work?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, which I did not hear completely. The green lane will be open for goods travelling into Northern Ireland for consumption in Northern Ireland. There is a red lane for goods going into the Republic. If I misheard his question, I will write to him to clarify, if that is okay.
The Secretary of State is of course right to say that any political entity within a wider economic structure should have a say or some way of expressing its view on the rules and regulations of that economic structure. With that in mind, will the British Government be bringing forward a Senedd and Holyrood brake when it comes to the UK internal market?
Will my right hon. Friend reconfirm, first, that the Stormont brake stops and gives total control to the Assembly in Northern Ireland on any new EU law or regulation; and, secondly, that this deal has made huge strides on seed potatoes, VAT, state aid, customs and all the aspects of the protocol that we in this House have debated for so long?
I think I should now continue with my speech, so that I can explain all this to the House.
The brake is triggered if 30 Members of the Legislative Assembly from two parties object to an amending rule or regulation. These MLAs can be from the same community designation, so they can, in theory and in practice, come from two Unionist parties, or indeed two nationalist parties. The exercise of the brake will require no other process and no vote in the Assembly. Once the brake has been pulled, the law will automatically be disapplied in Northern Ireland after two weeks. The EU can challenge the use of the brake only through international arbitration, after the law has been suspended, where the bar to overturn it will be exceptionally high.
The Stormont brake is one of the most significant changes that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has secured. It is a robust change that gives the United Kingdom a veto over dynamic alignment with EU rules but, just as importantly, the regulations we are debating today put the democratically elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland in the driving seat when it comes to whether and when that veto will be used.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. Could he answer, very clearly, this one simple question? Is it not the case that every single lorry that departs from the port of Cairnryan to Northern Ireland will have to have customs declaration papers for every product on that vehicle? Is it right that a vehicle travelling from one part of the United Kingdom to another part of the United Kingdom continues to be treated in that way?
When my right hon. Friend appeared before the European Scrutiny Committee yesterday, he promised to deliver the list of the 3% of EU laws he says will remain as a consequence of this process. Can he please tell us where that list is?
I gave the majority of that list in the course of those proceedings, and I said that I would write to my right hon. Friend, which I will do.
The old protocol had some measures that were aimed at giving it democratic legitimacy. The UK had a vote over any new laws that the EU wanted to add to the protocol, but that veto did not extend to amendments of laws that were already there, and crucially, there was no role for the Northern Ireland Assembly in deciding whether and when to use that veto. Of course, it contained the democratic consent mechanism, an important means of giving the Assembly the right to end the application of articles 5 to 10 of the old protocol. Those measures were important, and the Windsor framework maintains them, but they were not, in themselves, enough to address the democratic deficit.
I wonder if my right hon. Friend could clarify something for me. He has spoken about the green channel for goods movements from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. This is a genuine question. As I understand it, the Northern Ireland economy produces around £77 billion-worth of goods, of which £65 billion-worth go to the rest of the UK. Is it not the case, though, that everything manufactured in Northern Ireland would have to meet EU standards, even if it is going to the rest of the UK?
I have made it perfectly clear that we are maintaining 3% of EU law in Northern Ireland. This is the bare minimum to maintain Northern Ireland’s access to the single market, which just about every business I have spoken to in Northern Ireland, and that has made representations on this, is delighted to be maintaining. Indeed, I have been lobbied by individual Members from Northern Ireland to maintain access to both the UK market—the fifth largest economy in the world—and the EU market for goods.
I fully support what my right hon. Friend has done here. The Prime Minister and the whole of the Northern Ireland team have done a great job. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Windsor agreement enables a huge opportunity in Northern Ireland not just to be a precious part of our United Kingdom but to be the target of enormous amounts of foreign direct investment because it will have the advantage of being an integral part of the United Kingdom as well as having open access to EU markets?
We are maintaining that 3% of EU law. My right hon. Friend has helped to answer the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) posed.
There will be a binding statutory obligation in domestic law on Ministers to pull the brake when a valid notification is provided by 30 MLAs. These regulations will add a new democratic scrutiny schedule to the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to codify the brake in domestic law. The UK Government must—let me repeat that: they must—notify the EU when a valid notification of the brake has been provided by MLAs. This is an important new function for Members of the Assembly, and it is vital that they exercise this new function with the right information and expertise. After consulting with Northern Ireland parties, these regulations provide for a standing committee of the Assembly to properly scrutinise the relevant rules.
I am treating today’s vote as a recognition of the wider package and voting for it, with the Government.
The democratic scrutiny committee is new to the Assembly and will require a lot of resources, as will the necessity of engaging with Brussels on the development of new law from first principles. Will the Secretary of State have a conversation with the Assembly about the potential for new resources, to make sure it can fully do this job?
I very much look forward to having that conversation with a fully functioning Assembly and Executive.
Some have described this as a consultative role for MLAs, but it is not. It is a robust power for MLAs to stop the application of amended EU rules, a power that neither the UK Government nor the European Union can override, provided that the conditions in the framework are met.
Some have claimed that the EU must have some means of blocking the brake. These regulations demonstrate that the process is entirely one for the United Kingdom. The process is firmly and unambiguously within strand 1 of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. There is no role for any institution outside the United Kingdom, whether that be the EU or anyone else, in determining whether the brake is pulled. It will be for the UK alone—for its sovereign Government, alongside elected MLAs—to choose whether the brake is pulled.
Some also claim that the Government might simply ignore the brake. These regulations make it clear that the Government have no discretion. MLAs cannot be ignored. Valid notifications of the brake must be notified to the European Union. The Government’s actions will be subject to all the normal public law principles attached to decision making. For the avoidance of doubt, the regulations are clear that the prospect of any remedial measures by the EU cannot be a relevant factor in the Government’s determination.
It is not enough simply to allow MLAs to temporarily halt the application of a rule, but then allow the United Kingdom Government simply to override them when the joint committee decides whether the rule should be permanently disapplied. So these regulations go much further and provide a clear, robust directive role to determine whether the Government should use their veto or not. Unless there is cross-community support in the Assembly, Ministers will be legally prohibited from accepting an amended or new EU law that creates a regulatory border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, except in exceptional circumstances.
Let me be clear: “exceptional circumstances” means just that. The threshold for that exception is unbelievably high, and a Minister invoking exceptional circumstances must be able to defend that decision robustly and in line with normal public law principles. What is more, a Minister must account to Parliament where they have concluded that exceptional circumstances apply, or where they consider that a measure would not create a regulatory border. This represents one of the strongest statutory constraints on the exercise of ministerial functions under a treaty ever codified in our domestic law.
I thank the Secretary of State for setting out how the brake will operate. Will he join me in urging those considering these proposals before the House today to note that, for many years, people said it was impossible to have an application to stop the ratchet of EU law and to keep Northern Ireland in the Union?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I was also told that this would be an impossible ask. Throughout my time in the European Parliament and, indeed, as chairman of an illustrious body of MPs in this place, I never thought this would be achievable, yet the Government have managed to achieve it.
These regulations could scarcely make things clearer. The overwhelming presumption is that, unless the Assembly says yes, the Government must say no.
Finally, as with any international agreement, if the EU considers that the UK has improperly pulled the brake, it may choose to initiate a dispute, but we need to be clear that any dispute could only arise after the rules have been disapplied in Northern Ireland, and the resolution of that dispute would be for an arbitration panel. The European Court of Justice would have no role in resolving a dispute.
These regulations make the case for functioning devolved institutions in Northern Ireland even more compelling. The measures will become operable only when the institutions are restored. Denying the people of Northern Ireland will not only deny them the basic right to an effective, stable Government but will deny them full democratic input into the laws that apply to Northern Ireland, and that denial cannot be justified.
These regulations give domestic legal effect to this democratic safeguard and restore the UK’s sovereignty. We should consider carefully how we vote on this measure, without which Northern Ireland would continue to have full and automatic dynamic alignment with EU goods rules, with no say for the Northern Ireland Assembly and no veto on amending or replacing those measures. That is an intolerable situation, and I urge all hon. and right hon. Members to vote to end that full and automatic dynamic alignment. I therefore commend these regulations to the House.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), the leader of my party, said in January that any protocol deal struck between the UK Government and the EU would, by definition, mean real progress in mitigating the problems caused by the original deal that they negotiated. He pledged that, in those circumstances, Labour would support such a deal. We will honour that pledge today. While the Government have once again been distracted by rebellion and infighting within their own party, thanks to the Labour party they can be sure that the national interest will be served today.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point. For the last quarter of a century, the House has proceeded in relation to the peace process in Northern Ireland—and today is about the peace process, let us be quite clear about that—on the basis of bipartisan or non-partisan politics. For that reason, my party will be joining his and the Government in the Lobby.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention and for coming to a similar view to the Labour party. He is a Scottish MP, and I want to express my sympathies with those affected by the incident that is unfolding in Edinburgh, where a ship has capsized, injuring, we believe, 15 or more people. Our sympathies are with him and with the people of Scotland today.
The Government have said that today’s vote is the main vote that the House will get on the Windsor framework. My speech will focus on why Labour supports the deal overall, but I will begin with the Stormont brake, which is the subject of the regulations before us today.
The democratic deficit was always one of the hardest parts of the protocol deal to reconcile. Of course, businesses and most people in Northern Ireland want to continue accessing the European market as well as the internal market, but the cost of this access was having no say on the rules that had to be followed. The Stormont brake will give representatives a say once devolved government is restored. It is impossible to argue that this is not an improvement on the current situation.
Thirty MLAs from two parties will be able to trigger the brake, but just as important is the new Committee of the Assembly that will scrutinise new laws affecting Northern Ireland. There are understandable concerns about how the brake will work in practice, but the best way of stress-testing it is through experience, and we can get that experience only by restoring Stormont. We all want to see Northern Ireland’s devolved Government back up and running—I know that is what DUP Members want to see, too.
I will state the obvious before going further: Northern Ireland’s economy has huge potential and is doing well. The Prime Minister eloquently explained why on his last visit to Northern Ireland, but he did not need to do so, because everyone who lives in or runs a business in Northern Ireland already knows. The challenges posed by the protocol go much deeper than market access, and that is what needs the most attention during this period of tortuous renegotiation.
My hon. Friend was right to acknowledge that Unionism had legitimate concerns about the operation of the protocol. Does he agree that anyone looking at this objectively would say that those have been addressed, both by the EU and the UK Government? Further to that, the fundamental point is that businesses in St Helens—in logistics, the medical sector, manufacturing and agriculture—would give their right arm to have the opportunity that Northern Ireland has to access both markets.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention and pleased that he recognised the legitimate concerns of the Democratic Unionist party. All of us, right across the UK, want to see a devolved Administration in Northern Ireland up and running. That is what the purpose of this whole tortuous process has been, and we hope we can get this resolved soon.
The right hon. Gentleman makes the argument for why he should have voted against the protocol in the first place. Labour Members did oppose the protocol when it was imposed, but he voted for it. There are a lot of Members on the Government Benches whom I listen to with great interest, because they often contribute a lot of thoughtful insight into the way we debate, but let us just reflect on what he said in the run-up to the Brexit referendum and the promises he made to this country. This all came from his website, and I read it with great interest. First, he said that there would be more growth in the economy. Secondly, he said that Brexit would rebuild our fisheries. Thirdly, he said that food would be cheaper. Fourthly, he said that our power would be cheaper. Fifthly, he said that we would have fewer unhelpful regulations—if that was the case, we would not be here debating this measure today, would we? Sixthly, he said that we would get a US trade deal. Seventhly, he said that our balance of payments would improve. There are many people who should be contributing to this debate, in a thoughtful way, but I am afraid that he is not one of them.
The challenges posed by the protocol go much deeper than market access, and that is what has needed most attention during this tortuous period of renegotiation. The Unionist concerns were mostly twofold, the first of which was that there were impediments to the flow of goods traveling across the Irish sea. Some products and shipments were more affected than others, which was having a disruptive effect on supply chains and the ability of retailers to keep their stores stocked in a manner familiar to pre-protocol shoppers. That, of course, led to the second source of concern: the existential impact that those impediments have to the free flow of goods within the United Kingdom, and what that means for Unionism.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government have made tremendous progress with the Windsor framework on veterinary, sanitary and phytosanitary measures? The securing of human medicines for the long term and the direction of travel on securing veterinary medicines up until the grace period ends shows what can be achieved through dialogue. It shows us all that we should be strongly supporting this framework deal.
It does show that negotiating and talking delivers more than rowing, but it also shows that people should think carefully about what they vote for in the first place.
It is a right enshrined in treaty that anyone in Northern Ireland who wants to identify themselves as British should be able to do so without impediment. I understand that, of course I do. If produce made in Sussex faced checks at the border with Hampshire, I would have something to say about it. I have also asked myself this: if the protocol checks were taking place between Ireland and Northern Ireland, instead of in the Irish sea, would nationalist communities be demanding action today? I believe that they would. So the demand for action is warranted; it is based on real concerns, not confected ones. The mystery to me has always been why the Government took so long to act. Why did they wait until the devolved authorities had collapsed before seeming to care?
By the time I was appointed to this job, the DUP had been voicing concerns about the protocol for well over six months—they were ignored. A month before I was appointed, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) had published an article calling for article 16 to be triggered—it was met with silence. Then, in February, the Executive was collapsed, followed four months later by the Assembly. In all that time, there were no visits by the Prime Minister, and no meetings with party leaders, either in Northern Ireland or in Downing Street. Not a single statement was made to this House. As a result of that neglect—believe me, it is neglect—we are now faced with two problems. The first is solving the technical issues created as a direct result of the original protocol, negotiated by the Government and voted for by every Conservative Member. That protocol, I remind the House, was created, negotiated and hailed as a “great deal for Britain” by this Government at the time. Lest we forget, it was voted for by every single Member on their Benches, including those affiliated to the European Research Group faction.
Secondly, that period of neglect created a political problem that this Government are paying the price for right here today. Put simply, when the DUP was raising concerns about the protocol from within the devolved institutions, it was ignored by the Government in Westminster. When the DUP collapsed those institutions, it was rewarded with a prime ministerial visit and, ultimately, the renegotiation of the protocol. The message from the Government could not be clearer; the learned behaviour of dealing with this Government is that if you act functionally within the devolved Administration, you are ignored, but if you act outside the Administration, you are unignorable. In this period, the other Northern Ireland parties have been denied their place within the Government as well, through no fault of their own. So if you disrupt and act outside the structures of government, you get all the attention in the world. You even get a Prime Minister travelling abroad on your behalf to renegotiate a deal we had hitherto been told was not renegotiable.
This is not only about neglect or ignorance. Does the shadow Minister recognise that Tony Blair, the former leader of the Labour party, said that we cannot move forward without Unionist participation in this process and this framework? Bertie Ahern, another former instrument in the peace process, also said that we cannot ignore Unionism. Does the shadow Minister agree that Unionism cannot be ignored, and that our point of view has to be core to the whole issue of how we find a process to go forward?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention and for the opportunity to have this exchange, as it gives me the opportunity to say something. I can only speak for the Labour party, and for myself as the shadow Secretary of State, in saying that his party, as with every other party in Northern Ireland, will never be ignored by my party or a future Labour Government. As I am about to explain, it will be most rewarded, and will have most attention and agency in political life right across the UK, from a position within the devolved authorities. I understand the point he makes—Tony Blair and others were right—but these are all leaders who gave the attention to the DUP and every other party at the point at which they needed it. They did not wait until devolution had collapsed before paying those in Northern Ireland and their parties the respect they are owed and due.
I am grateful for that, because we will be getting to it. [Interruption.] It is interesting that Conservative Members want me to speed up but they keep intervening. I will get through the speech if they allow me to get to it. The hon. Gentleman makes the most blindingly obvious point here: my party will be voting in unanimity today, but his party is getting in the way of getting this across the line, because it is his party that is split over how to vote on the issue before us today. We are acting in the national interest; the Conservatives are riven with division.
People like me aspire to government because we want to deliver positive change, but those in the DUP now have to ask themselves, because of the way they have been treated by this Government: would a return to government mean relinquishing power? This inversion of the very principle of government, this absurdity, is a direct consequence of the manner in which Northern Ireland has been treated by this Government and the other Conservative Administrations over the past 13 years.
I want to be clear to Members who represent communities in Northern Ireland on what they can expect from a future Labour Government, to answer the point of the previous intervention. Let me reassure them that we have not forgotten the lessons of 25 years ago and the tough years following the peace deal. To me, those lessons are, first, that leadership matters. Tony Blair’s first visit outside of London as Prime Minister was to Belfast. He visited five times in his first year as premier. He did not neglect Northern Ireland, and nor will my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras.
Secondly, we need to work towards a strong, trusting relationship with the Irish Government, because when our two countries work together closely, it eases the anxiety that some people in Northern Ireland feel regarding their Irish or British identities, and creates the conditions for economic progress across the island of Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the agreement 25 years ago would not have been possible without the sacrifices and statesmanship of so many, but will he acknowledge that it was John Major and his Government who started that process and that this is not a party political matter but something of which this whole House should be proud?
First, I thank the right hon. Lady for her time as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I readily acknowledge that many people made peace possible in Northern Ireland 25 years ago. We in this House will have the opportunity to debate those issues in a forthcoming general debate, and there will be plenty of opportunities to do so over in Belfast when dignitaries from across the world come to celebrate the great achievement of that time. John Major of course laid the foundations and, at the time and subsequently, all Labour leaders, including Tony Blair, paid great respect to his contribution. If I were to start listing the names of everyone, we would be here for a very long time indeed.
Thirdly, we need to have the same ambition for Northern Ireland as we do for every other part of our Union. For example, it is not good enough to roll out home heating support months after citizens in every other part of the UK have received it.
Fourthly, we should aspire to build respect among communities and be a voice for all communities here in Westminster. The last Labour Government positioned the UK as an honest broker for all of Northern Ireland, and so will the next.
Finally, Labour will never give up on Northern Ireland, however insurmountable the challenges might seem. Those involved in the negotiations 25 years ago have plenty of stories of frustration and moments of hopelessness, but perseverance is rewarded. It was then and it will be again today and into the future. It always is in Northern Ireland.
Although this deal is not perfect, it is an improvement, so in the interests of Northern Ireland and the rest of our country we will be voting for it today.
I welcome today’s debate and vote. The Windsor framework has my full support. I also welcome the fact that the Labour party, the Lib Dems and almost the SNP, I think, are supporting the Government and the Conservative party today.
Those of us who have followed this issue closely probably never expected to be here debating a renegotiation of the treaty itself. It is a testament to the Prime Minister’s determination and focus, and those of the Secretary of State, the Foreign Secretary and others, that they have been able to achieve that.
As someone who has been slightly traumatised by Brexit votes over the years, I am also delighted that this is the end chapter. Notwithstanding further improvements and changes, I think this chapter is one that probably all of us are delighted to be ending.
Some things never change, but I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his continued monomaniacal focus on this issue.
I also want to acknowledge the work done by hon. Members in Northern Ireland. Although I believe we will be in different Division Lobbies today, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) spoke powerfully about the democratic deficit and the need for cross-community safeguards, which are now at the heart of the Stormont brake. As one of Michel Barnier’s top advisers said, and as the Secretary of State has just told us, that has actually been a big victory for the Democratic Unionist party. The hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) worked harder than anybody else to finally fix the issue of seed potatoes for her farming constituents, and the hon. Members for North Down (Stephen Farry), for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) and for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) have all engaged closely with businesses and Northern Ireland enterprises to find practical solutions. I believe that huge progress has been achieved, and we now need to maximise the potential for Northern Ireland to become one of the most attractive places in the UK to invest in.
I want to finish by talking about the Union. The greatest strength we have in securing Northern Ireland’s place in the Union is the majority of people in Northern Ireland who support it. We must cherish, nurture and expand that support and consent at every opportunity. Recent polling has shown that there is huge support across Northern Ireland—above 70%—for the Windsor framework and for solving this issue, and in particular cross-community support for the access it provides to both the UK and EU markets.
I believe that if we can bank the wins in this deal and secure over time stable power sharing, we can look forward to decades and decades of overwhelming support for Northern Ireland remaining an integral part of the United Kingdom.
Perhaps I should begin by addressing the remarks made just now by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), who said that he thought the SNP was almost ready to support this. I can say to him that he is almost right. We support the agreement—we welcome it and will vote in favour of it.
The mechanism set out in the draft statutory instrument provides what looks at first glance like a reasonably effective means of scrutiny in Stormont, although I have to say that, in terms of its function as a brake, it is questionable whether the brake lever is connected to anything. Only time will tell.
On the good aspects, we welcome the fact that at long last the UK Government have engaged constructively over a prolonged period with EU partners to come to an agreement that improves the protocol. We welcome that the protocol Bill has been abandoned, as it always should have been, averting the prospect of a catastrophic series of tit-for-tat trade reactions over the protocol, which would have been disastrous for all parts of the UK. The task now is for Ministers to start repairing some of the damage that has been caused in the intervening period.
From our perspective in Scotland, although this certainly restores access for Scottish producers to the Northern Irish market, it still leaves us deprived of equivalent access to the European single market. It is not my natural disposition to be a party pooper in any way, as I am sure the House will agree, but this only serves to make an already poor situation slightly less bad. A number of questions still need to be asked about how the UK Government will continue to try to improve trade conditions for other devolved nations in the UK; whether the Government can provide clarity over how the port at Cairnryan will operate and what infrastructure is needed; whether cows and sheep being transported between Northern Ireland and Scotland can qualify for the green lane; and how the UK Government are, in more broad terms, going to tackle the food security crisis that affects us all.
Occasionally in politics we are blessed with a rare flash of candour. We had one in the Budget speech last week when the Chancellor said, to great acclaim from our Benches:
“Independence is always better than dependence.”—[Official Report, 15 March 2023; Vol. 729, c. 844.]
But we also had it from the Prime Minister when he went across to Northern Ireland to sell the benefits of this deal. I do not know whether the Prime Minister thought that, just because he was saying it in Northern Ireland, nobody in Great Britain, particularly in Scotland, would be able to hear what he had to say. He said that the framework would make Northern Ireland
“the world’s most exciting economic zone”
because of access to both GB and EU markets. He went on to say that that very special position made Northern Ireland
“an incredibly attractive place to invest”—
no less than the world’s most exciting economic zone. Just to make sure he does not feel left out, the Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), also said:
“What an extraordinary opportunity for Northern Ireland: dual access to both markets.”
Of course, that very special position is precisely what the entirety of the UK had prior to Brexit. I certainly do not grudge Northern Ireland one iota of those benefits; I just wonder why Government Members, whatever views they take on this legislation, have been so utterly determined to deprive the rest of us of them.
I believe in the real Union of the United Kingdom and the sovereignty of its Parliament here at Westminster. Articles 1 and 2 of the protocol clearly set out the principle of consent for Westminster and that the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom is fundamental. Consent and veto are different things.
We have left the EU and passed section 38 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, guaranteeing the sovereignty of the United Kingdom Parliament, yet all laws passed before we left in relation to the single market still apply to the people of Northern Ireland, subjugating them to the EU, but do not apply to the rest of the UK.
There is no such thing as Northern Ireland sovereignty; there is only constitutional Westminster sovereignty. I am afraid I do not recognise the expression “practical sovereignty” used by the Secretary of State in this debate and in the letter he wrote to the Chair of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments on 20 March. Why should 2 million Northern Ireland citizens and voters for Westminster be treated differently from, say, the 2 million people of Birmingham, Liverpool or Manchester?
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Obviously, he is a subject matter expert and I know he has passionate views on this, but, listening to him, the phrase that comes to mind—a German one, I am afraid—is “pathologische Realitätsverweigerung”, or pathological denial of reality. The simple fact is that the lived reality in Birmingham and Manchester is entirely different. We are not against another national border. We do not need some form of alignment with a neighbour for the free movement goods and services. For example, I think there is a single milk processing plant on the island of Ireland. There has to be some kind of practical recognition of the difficulties and the lived reality.
The heading of the statutory instrument that we are discussing in this motion is “Constitutional Law”, and I am sorry to say that what my hon. Friend says—some reference to pathological something-or-other—makes absolutely no sense in relation to constitutional law. We in this country operate a constitutional law that confers sovereignty upon the Westminster Parliament. That includes the people of Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Northern Ireland, and it should do so equally.
Since Brexit, more than 640 laws, as we see each week in the European Scrutiny Committee, which I chair, have been passed already for Northern Ireland by the EU Council of Ministers: behind closed doors, in Brussels, by majority vote, without even a transcript. Can we imagine laws being passed in this country, in Westminster, without Hansard—without a transcript—and by majority vote? It is unthinkable.
Very simply, because we agreed that we would bring in the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which I will come on to in a minute. That is the difference. That Bill would have dealt with the situation. We in the rest of the UK have left the EU and so are subject to our own laws and not those of the EU, as we were for the last 50 years.
As I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), this remains unfinished business. Pre-Brexit single market legislation continues in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill dealt with the unacceptable imposition of EU laws, but that Bill is now being disposed of, to my very grave concern, although it was passed in this House by a majority of 72 on Third Reading, and most of the hon. Members here today—on the Government side of the House, anyway—voted for it.
The Windsor framework does not effectively disapply EU law as such in, for example, the customs regime, because that falls within the legal competence of the EU in relation to goods. If the UK purports to use its so-called veto—the Stormont brake—on this question, the EU will be able to get round it sooner or later on the green lanes and may invoke retaliatory measures. I am afraid I am not impressed by the expression “exceptional circumstances”—words mean what just we choose them to mean, as Humpty Dumpty said. The question is who is to be master—that is all—and I believe firmly that it will be the European Union.
One of my sadnesses about this whole business is that there really was a need for proper time to discuss alternative legal arguments in consultation with the Government. There are papers that have been produced in the last 48 hours and over the last few weeks—blogs and commentaries by distinguished lawyers—that clearly demonstrate that the arguments presented by the Government are not those agreed by other eminent lawyers. This is a point of law as well as a point of fact.
I am sure the question of democratic consent and the inadequacy of the Stormont brake will be addressed by DUP Members today. That question is as important for all of us as the main principle of the Union. The procedures have been rushed, and I simply cannot accept that it is right for a statutory instrument to be approved in this House today, when there is not yet a legal decision in the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee—that will not be until Friday, so we hear.
Furthermore, I now hear that the House of Lords, which is part of that Joint Committee, is not going to consider the statutory instrument until Wednesday 29 March, which is after the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee sits. The Government, in seeking approval of the statutory instrument today, are not doing so in synchronisation with the House of Lords. I find that manifestly unsatisfactory.
I am deeply concerned, too, that these procedures are not following the criteria of Standing Order No. 151 regarding the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. I think, if I may say so with great respect, that the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), should really be here today to explain its position. I was surprised to see a letter from the Secretary of State to the Chairman of that Committee dated 20 March.
As one of the few Members of this House who was born and raised in Northern Ireland, I want to make it very clear that this is not about the Secretary of State’s correspondence, but about the future of the people of Northern Ireland. The vast majority of them support the Windsor framework, as does the business community. They believe that the deal negotiated by the Prime Minister is much better than they ever thought possible. The people of Northern Ireland and, indeed, the people of the UK need to move on and focus on more important things.
I am just about to conclude by saying that this debate is about the rule of law and constitutional law, as well as the very fair points that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) has just made. I do not doubt the importance of the stability of Northern Ireland, having taken great interest in these matters for many years, but I insist that the constitutional position is not reflected by the arrangements in the Windsor agreement. I simply make this final point: the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.
I will try to be brief, Mr Deputy Speaker, but you will appreciate that there is a lot the DUP would like to say today in very limited time. The regulations we are debating, known to many as the Stormont brake, touch on many important legal and political matters.
At the outset, I thank the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and others for their continued engagement with my party and for the efforts they have made. Although at this stage we may differ in our views on the Windsor framework, I am not here to question the motivation of Ministers in seeking to make improvements, but they must—and, I hope, will—continue to work with us and others to get the further improvements that we need to enable the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland.
To be clear, I want to see the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland. My party is a party of devolution; we believe that delivering effective government for our people is the best way forward, working alongside this House and this Parliament. That is where we want to get to, but we have to get it right.
I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) about the rush to bring this statutory instrument forward. I have written to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments expressing my concern that we have not had adequate time for scrutiny of the instrument. The Government have indicated that we are not dealing just with the SI before us, but that this is also an indicative vote on the Windsor framework itself. It is therefore important that I reflect not just on what the Stormont brake does, but on where it fits in to the wider Windsor framework.
Fundamentally, for us the problem with the Northern Ireland protocol is the continued application of EU law in Northern Ireland in circumstances in which it covers all manufacturing of goods in Northern Ireland, regardless of whether those goods are being sold in the United Kingdom or to the European Union. I repeat the statistics that I quoted earlier at Northern Ireland questions: of all goods manufactured in Northern Ireland, the vast majority—some £65 billion out of £77 billion of goods manufactured—are sold in the United Kingdom. The solution must be proportionate to the difficulty, and the difficulty is the EU’s desire to protect its single market and to maintain an open border on the island of Ireland. But the price for that cannot be that Northern Ireland businesses manufacturing goods for sale in the United Kingdom are inhibited in many ways from trading within their own market.
I say to the Secretary of State, in relation to the Windsor framework, that although improvements have undoubtedly been made, we have not yet fully addressed the fundamental problem of the continued application of EU law for the manufacturing of all goods in Northern Ireland. We believe that the real solution here is similar to that proposed in the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which was that, where goods are being sold in and staying in the United Kingdom, United Kingdom law and standards apply, and where goods are being manufactured by Northern Ireland businesses for sale in the Republic of Ireland or any other EU member state, EU rules apply. That is the solution that we are looking for. The Windsor framework does not deliver that solution.
On that point, and in respect of any other improvements or changes that need to be made, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the best way to exert influence now is for Stormont to return and to be the centre of what I am sure will be ongoing improvements and iterations in this area?
I thank the former Secretary of State for his continued interest in Northern Ireland. I say to him simply that my Ministers in the Democratic Unionist party sat in Stormont for more than a year after the protocol was implemented. We pleaded with the Government—as the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), reminded the House—to intervene and do something to help us with the difficulties that the protocol was creating, but the Government did not act. I had to take action, and it was our action that brought the EU back to the table. And yes, we have made progress as a result, but more is needed.
What more is needed? To deliver the pledge given by the Government in the New Decade, New Approach agreement to protect Northern Ireland’s place within the internal market of the United Kingdom. Although the Windsor framework goes some way towards doing that in relation to the movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, it does not deal with, for example, the real potential for divergence between EU laws that apply in Northern Ireland and UK laws that apply in Great Britain when the UK decides to change regulations that were formerly EU regulations.
There is a Bill before this House that will fast-track and significantly broaden the number of UK laws that will be changed where EU law is disapplied. That creates the potential for divergence between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. It harms our ability to trade with Great Britain, it harms the integrity of the internal market of the United Kingdom, and the Windsor framework does not address that problem, which we need to see addressed. I say to the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) that I want to see Stormont up and running, but we need the Government to deliver the commitment that they made when he was the Secretary of State to protect our place in the internal market of the United Kingdom.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that because the EU will have powers over things such as VAT and state aid in Northern Ireland, it will also have powers on a drag-through basis over the whole United Kingdom? Does the whole United Kingdom not need a veto?
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. That is why we need a solution that enables the United Kingdom Government and this Parliament to regulate the entirety of the United Kingdom internal market. That is the solution. I am not saying that where Northern Ireland businesses trade with the European Union, EU standards and rules should not apply; I am saying that we can allow for that. What I do not accept is a situation where every business in my constituency must comply with EU rules even if they do not sell a single widget to the European Union. That is wrong, because it harms our place in the internal market of the United Kingdom.
The Stormont brake seeks to address the democratic deficit that I have mentioned, and to an extent, it provides a role for Stormont to pull that brake where changes to EU law occur, but I note that it does not give us any ability to deal with existing EU laws that impact on all manufacturing in Northern Ireland—laws that have been applied without our consent. To that extent, the brake cannot apply. It applies to amendments to EU law or changes new EU laws that are introduced.
I also note that in the proposed arrangements, it is available to the EU to take retaliatory action in the event that the UK Government apply a veto to a new EU law. That is a matter of concern to us in Northern Ireland, because retaliatory action could come in a number of forms. It could include the suspension of arrangements in the green lane, which would impact our ability to bring goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. We need to be clear that it is wrong for the EU to be able to intervene at that level in the free flow of goods from one part of the United Kingdom to the other. I highlight that issue as a real matter of concern to us.
Before you take this intervention, Sir Jeffrey, I remind you that you have now been speaking for nine minutes. Once you have resumed your seat, I will introduce a three-minute time limit to get as many Members in as possible. Please be cognisant of that.
My right hon. Friend will know about the exchange that the Secretary of State and I had yesterday in the European Scrutiny Committee, where he was invited to indicate that the “exceptional circumstances” in paragraph 18 in the schedule to the Stormont brake regulations would preclude a material consideration being the EU retaliatory action to which my right hon. Friend has referred. The Secretary of State was quick to agree with that interpretation. May I ask, through my right hon. Friend, whether the Secretary of State will consider reaffirming the commitment that he gave yesterday? It features in paragraph 14; it does not feature in paragraph 16. Just to be clear: the Secretary of State would not be allowed to consider the threat of retaliatory action as “exceptional circumstances” when exercising a veto.
I welcome what the Secretary of State said yesterday: that we must not allow the threat of EU retaliatory action to influence Ministers in exercising their powers under the Stormont brake. I also welcome the clear commitment the Prime Minister gave to me recently: that the application of the Stormont brake is entirely a matter for the United Kingdom. It is a strand 1 issue under the terms of the Belfast agreement and does not involve a role for the Irish Government in relation to these matters. That is a very important principle for us.
The Prime Minister has indicated to me that in this process the wishes of Stormont will be respected, but I have made it clear that in exercising the Stormont brake we are simply applying in our terms the potential of a veto by the United Kingdom Government on one aspect of EU law. This does not deal with all of the problem, and that is the difficulty we have. The continued application of EU law in Northern Ireland is what creates the problem in our ability to trade within the internal market of the United Kingdom.
It is important that the Government of the United Kingdom take stock of where we are now. I understand that the Foreign Secretary is to attend the UK-EU Joint Committee on Friday to sign off the Windsor framework, and that today’s indicative vote in this House will be used as the justification for doing so. Surely though, our shared objective, as espoused earlier by the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), is to see the political institutions in Northern Ireland restored; we need therefore to continue to engage with the Government to get this right.
My party is committed to doing that. We are committed to continuing to work with the Secretary of State and with the Prime Minister, but that has to be about delivering on the commitment given to protect Northern Ireland’s place within the internal market of the United Kingdom, and to ensure that where EU law is applied to facilitate cross-border trade, it does not impede our ability to trade with the rest of our own country in the internal market of our own country. That is the bottom line for us, and until that is resolved, I cannot give the Government a commitment to restore the political institutions. It is what I want to do, but we need to get this right. I want Stormont to be restored on a sustainable and stable basis, where there is cross-community consent and consensus, but that does not exist at the moment. We need that consensus to be restored.
For our part, we will continue to work intensively to solve these issues, doing so in the knowledge that what has already been achieved was achieved because we were not prepared to accept the undermining of Northern Ireland’s place within the Union of the United Kingdom—the economic Union of the United Kingdom. That is what we stand for. That is what we will fight for. We want to get it right, and we will work with the Government to achieve that.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State knows that I rarely rise to speak in debates that he leads, not because I disagree with what he is doing but because I think it is important that predecessors do not comment too often on their successors’ work. I know how hard the job of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is. Today though, I rise to speak because I support wholeheartedly what he and the Prime Minister have achieved and want the statutory instrument to go through with the support of the overwhelming majority of this House.
Two weeks ago, the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which I co-chair, met in Belfast to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We met in the currently empty Assembly Chamber in Stormont. We met representatives of legislatures across the islands that make up the British Isles, and we reflected on the leadership that had been required to deliver that deal 25 years ago—leadership not just for a few weeks, but for years. People made sacrifices and went above and beyond, because they were prepared to recognise that, while no deal is perfect, the result of achieving the Belfast/Good Friday agreement for the people of Northern Ireland and people across these islands was so significant that the sacrifices were worth making.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that another great virtue of this framework agreement, which is much to be commended, is that it enables us to resolve the issues in a way that does not lead us into breach of any of our international law obligations, as would have been the case had we proceeded with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill? That has to be a win for the UK’s reputation, as well as for the people of Northern Ireland.
I agree wholeheartedly. My hon. Friend always speaks with great wisdom.
When I was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, it was clear to me that leaving the European Union without a deal would have been devastating to Northern Ireland—devastating economically and devastating to community cohesion. That is why as Secretary of State and subsequently I have tried to find a way to make sure a deal was reached that we could all get behind. We reached a deal whereby the whole United Kingdom left the EU together, but that deal was not acceptable—not to those on the Opposition Benches and not to many of my right hon. and hon. Friends. I recognise and acknowledge the reasons for that: they felt it would leave us too close to the European Union, and I fully respect their view.
Then, a deal was presented to us by the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson). The deal had many faults, but I believed my right hon. Friend when he said that he wanted me to vote for it because it was important for the people of Northern Ireland. I was willing to do that, even though I knew that it would result in checks on goods in the Irish sea—that was clear in the agreement—because it was so important for Northern Ireland and because my Prime Minister asked me to vote for it.
Remember that when the Belfast/Good Friday agreement was drawn up and the Northern Ireland Act 1998 implemented, the United Kingdom and Ireland were both members of the EU. As a result, many of the issues did not have to be codified. We did not have to set out what happened to goods travelling to and from Northern Ireland, or set out rights, because those rights came from both of us being EU members. Leaving the EU means that some of those issues now need to be codified, and that can be done only through negotiation and accommodation being made by both sides. The Windsor framework demonstrates enormous accommodation on the EU side; the Stormont brake is an extraordinary thing for the EU to agree to. People around the world are looking at the agreement and congratulating my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on what he has achieved.
My question for this House is this: what is the alternative to the Windsor framework? What do we think we will get? There is nothing better on the table. This is a significant step forward, and I urge my right hon and hon. Friends to vote for it.
I confess that when I read the Windsor framework I was surprised, and pleasantly so, because as the Secretary of State told the House earlier, there were things in it that I did not think negotiation would manage to achieve. It is to the great credit of the negotiators, and to the great credit of the DUP, that they have achieved so much in this agreement. The EU has had to move a long way.
This proposal is very sensible. Leaving the European Union always confronted us with a choice in what to do about the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Apart from those who said, “That’s not my problem. Leave it to the EU,” everyone knew that some arrangement had to be put in place. The result was the protocol, but it did not work. The Windsor framework provides a way forward. In particular, the Stormont brake answers the point DUP Members make in this House about future EU legislation, because the brake is available.
Secondly, I wanted to respond directly to the point the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) made about existing EU law that continues to apply in the United Kingdom. Many pieces of EU legislation have applied in Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom for years. Have they had an impact on the ability of Northern Ireland businesses to trade with rest of the United Kingdom? No, they have not. They continue to apply in Great Britain because of EU retained law.
When the Government decide which of those pieces of retained law they want to dispose of or change through the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, they have a choice about the extent to which they want to create divergence. I suspect that, by the end of this year, many of those pieces of legislation will still apply in Great Britain, because divergence creates problems. That is the point that the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) made in a speech shortly after the referendum: divergence results in our having to make a choice.
The final point I want to make is that it is very striking that businesses will take decisions for themselves. There was a recent example: the EU decided to reduce the amount of permitted arsenic in baby foods. What did manufacturers in Britain do in response? They did not wait for the Government to say, “Well, we might or might not follow suit”; they said, “Henceforth, we will of course produce baby foods matching the EU standard”, because they want to continue to be able to sell their products. Ultimately, businesses will decide the standard that works for them. This is a very sensible measure. I congratulate the negotiators, and I really hope the House will vote for it.
I think we must avoid the danger of hyperbole, and I hope I do not disappoint my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench by saying that I do not think we can characterise this instrument as the last word that will ever be spoken on this subject. However, it does represent material and real progress, and if my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) and I had seen a similar flexibility on behalf of the European Union three years ago in 2019, history might have turned out rather differently.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has achieved considerable things with this agreement. No, it is not the last word. Yes, it is true that to any of those who prize the constitutional principles that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) has spoken of, it will always leave a lasting sense of dissatisfaction that certain rules that apply in Northern Ireland do not apply on the mainland of Great Britain. However, Northern Ireland is a special case. It was already recognised to be a special case when the Good Friday agreement was introduced, and even then by the British-Irish agreement. The full and absolute sovereignty of the United Kingdom Government was abridged by the arrangements that were put in place in 1997.
For those of us who are Unionists, there will always be an aspiration to an ever-increasing proximity between us, but the stage we have now reached is that this agreement represents a significant and major achievement by this Government. I fully believe that it requires—compels, commands—the assent of every Member on the Government Benches, for it is a serious and significant improvement on the protocol as it was agreed in 2019. Why would we not at least agree to an improvement, even if we say at the same time, “It is not the last and final word”? So, looking back at the past few years with a degree of regret—perhaps nostalgia, even, for those times—I commend most strongly and urgently to this House the virtues and merits of this important and real staging post on the pathway to what I hope, ultimately, will be a final settlement.
In the very short time I have, I will make a number of brief points. We do not like the Stormont brake, for a number of reasons. I would never have agreed the Stormont brake, because I think it damages and clouds the investor proposition; it has no specific role for the human rights or equality commissions; and the brake can be pulled before the committee can even finish its work on scrutiny. Most importantly, given the number of years I spent in Stormont, I think it is a very bad idea to give the DUP a veto over anything.
I also want to say something about some of the people in this House who will vote against this motion today—former Prime Ministers and members of the European Research Group, all of whom supported the protocol which had no Stormont brake and far more checks for businesses. They are more interested in internal Tory politics than they are in the wishes and interests of the people in Northern Ireland, and I urge the DUP to learn the lesson of the past few years. The people who the DUP Members can trust—the people who want to work with them—are sitting right here on these Benches. They are not over there on the Back Benches of the Tory party.
I thank the hon. Member for giving way. I just want to say two things: first, the people we trust are the people who elected us to stand for them. Secondly, as the hon. Member will well know, the veto that was given to the DUP was given to us by the people of Northern Ireland, who voted in a referendum for the Belfast agreement. That includes a veto for Unionists, and therefore when he decries that, he is decrying the agreement that his party supported.
And, of course, the agreement that the right hon. Member did not support.
We will vote for this motion, because it has been made very clear that this is a vote on the whole framework. We have been through many a negotiation in the past. We understand when the negotiation is done and a decision has to be made. There have been parts of every single agreement that we have not liked, but we have had to stomach them for the greater good of the people of Northern Ireland. We see the Unionist concerns; we see many of them—most of them—addressed in this agreement; and we are prepared to make the decision on that basis. However, let me make something very clear to this House: if the DUP still refuses to go into government after all of this, I can guarantee that more and more people will figure out that the best way to make the north of Ireland work is within a new Ireland. That is where this is going, and people should be very aware of that.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), the Secretary of State, and myself were all in the United States last week. We know that President Biden has appointed Joe Kennedy as an economic envoy to try to take full advantage of dual market access. We met investors and senior members of the US Administration who want to help us bring jobs to places such as Derry that have been left behind over many years. Dual market access is a huge opportunity that is right in our face—as somebody said earlier, people from around this House would give their left arm to have that opportunity for their own constituents. Despite some concerns that even I have with the agreement, why, oh why, would we give that up?
The most important thing to remember, though, is that it is done—it is over. The negotiation is finished. The British Government and the European Union are moving forward. They are moving on; they are dealing with other issues. It is now time to deal with the crisis in our health service, which is at the point of collapse, and to deal with the economic stagnation. It is time to get into Stormont, to do the work on behalf of the people, and to come back together again and work the common ground. There is no other alternative.
I am a passionate Brexiteer, and I still think that our future outside of the European Union is the best possible thing for the United Kingdom, but above all else, I am a passionate Unionist. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), it really does pain me that here we are again, having the same discussions that we had in the hung Parliament of 2017-19. Now, though, so many of us believe that the deal that has been struck with the Prime Minister, with support from Front Benchers and other passionate Brexiteers, is the best possible deal. At any time over the past seven years, if we had been offered this deal as the way forward as a United Kingdom, we would have bitten their arms off.
It seems to me the greatest pity that right hon. and hon. DUP Members are not going to support the deal today. It seems to me that this is a superb deal for people who live in Northern Ireland, and while I fully respect the views and knowledge of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), I do think that the constitutional issue has to be taken as slightly—only very slightly—different from the issue that faces us today. Today, we are looking at a deal that will work so much better for the people of Northern Ireland and for our Union. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Sir Geoffrey Cox) said, in all likelihood, this will not be the last we hear on this subject, but let us not make the perfect the enemy of the good: let us move forward as one United Kingdom and vote for this SI.
Let us be clear what we are debating here today: we are debating a lock, or a brake, that is necessary because the Government have allowed the EU to impose its law on part of the United Kingdom. The result is that we now have a border between one part of the United Kingdom and the other part of the United Kingdom, a border that is going to be reinforced very shortly by the building of physical posts that will be used to monitor trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Goods that are going into Northern Ireland purely for consumption in Northern Ireland will be checked—100% will be customs checked, and one in 20 will be physically checked. Of course, that can be varied by the EU. What is the Government’s answer to it? That Unionists can make a protest about it and sign a petition of concern. By the way, if there is anything that will destabilise the Northern Ireland Assembly, it is the constant use of the petition of concern. Members from other Northern Ireland parties behind me will confirm that.
First, there is a limit on what can be done and, secondly, despite the Secretary of State saying that he would be bound to listen to petitions of concern from Unionists, in fact he would have no option to. Whole sections of the framework tell us the grounds on which he can refuse a petition. Even if he does accept it, he then has to go to the Joint Committee and exercise a veto, which he knows will lead to material impacts for the United Kingdom, and of that we can be absolutely sure. If it is a choice between disrupting relations with the EU or accepting legislation—ironically, this Windsor framework is presented on the basis that it will normalise relations with the EU—how likely is it that we are going to pick a fight with the EU over the implementation of some EU law in Northern Ireland? The truth is that this is not a Stormont brake; it is a Stormont fake. It should be rejected by this House. It does not protect the Union, it does not protect democracy in Northern Ireland, and it will not get the Assembly back and running again.
One and a half hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the motion, the Speaker put the Question (Standing Order No. 16(1)).
That the draft Windsor Framework (Democratic Scrutiny) Regulations 2023, which were laid before this House on 20 March, be approved.