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Brexit Negotiations

Volume 787: debated on Tuesday 5 December 2017


My Lords, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given to an Urgent Question in another place:

“Mr Speaker, negotiations regarding our exit from the European Union are ongoing as we speak. Indeed, we are in the middle of an ongoing round, and as such I will have to be more circumspect than usual. We held further talks in Brussels over the past few days and progress has been made, but we have not yet reached a final conclusion. However, I believe that we are now close to concluding the first phase of the negotiations and moving on to talk about our future trade relations. There is much common understanding, and both sides agree that we must move forward together.

Our aims in this negotiation remain as they always have been. In particular, on the issue of Northern Ireland and Ireland, we have been clear that we want to protect all elements of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, to maintain the common travel area and to protect associated rights. We want to ensure that there is no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. We recognise that, as we exit, we must respect the integrity of the EU single market and the customs union, but we are equally clear that we must respect the integrity of the United Kingdom.

There remain some final issues to resolve that require further negotiation and consultation over the coming days. Our officials are in continuous contact, and we expect to reconvene in Brussels later this week for further negotiations. I or the Prime Minister will formally update Parliament once this round of negotiations concludes, as I have done for every round so far. As was made clear by the comments from President Juncker and President Tusk yesterday, all parties remain confident of reaching a positive conclusion in the course of the week”.

My Lords, all that without a blush. I thank the Minister for repeating a somewhat embarrassing response, given yesterday’s climbdown. Indeed, it seems that the only negotiations taking place are between the Government and the DUP, or within the Government, which is part of the Prime Minister’s failure in the election campaign.

Yesterday unravelled over regulatory alignment. However, just as Scotland, Wales and London are saying, “If such a deal is good enough for Ireland, it is good enough for us”, so also if there is to be regulatory alignment with the EU, which we support, surely it must be UK-wide. Can the Minister ask the Prime Minister to rethink her hasty decision to rule out remaining in the customs union regardless of cost, border controls and checks—and indeed, Northern Ireland?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question, but I am slightly perplexed by the attitude of the Opposition Front Bench in another place. John McDonnell has said:

“I think people will interpret membership of the single market as not respecting that referendum”.

Barry Gardiner, the Shadow International Trade Secretary, has said that a permanent customs union is “deeply unattractive”:

“As a transitional phase, a customs unions agreement might be thought to have some merit. However, as an end point it is deeply unattractive”.

He has also argued that remaining in the customs union would be a “disaster”. Perhaps the noble Baroness should talk to her colleagues before she criticises us.

My Lords, the Government claim that they are clear that we must respect the integrity of the United Kingdom, yet the wording being discussed yesterday was only about continued regulatory alignment on the island of Ireland. I understand that, in the other place this morning, the Brexit Secretary tried to square the circle by asserting that regulatory alignment will apply to the whole of the United Kingdom. Can the Minister affirm that it is now government policy for the whole of the UK to stay in the single market and the customs union? In that context, I welcome what seems to be the evolving position of the Opposition. Better still, will the Minister tell us that government policy will soon be to allow the British people, in this context of chaos, to choose to remain in the EU?

The Liberal Democrats have obviously forgotten that the British people have already made a choice on the matter. The Liberal Democrats put the option to remain in the EU to the British people at the last election, and they got 7% of the vote, I think. However, it would be wrong for me to comment on the details of negotiations at this stage. These are sensitive matters and we should not prejudice ongoing negotiations, as we have not yet reached agreement. Talks continue; yesterday, the Prime Minister confirmed in her statement to the press that we expect them to continue throughout the week in both London and Brussels. The noble Baroness can be assured that, when we have a conclusion, we will report back to the House.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the Government’s policy will not put the integrity of the United Kingdom at stake and will always support the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom to be treated the same?

I agree totally with the noble Lord. The whole of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union; the whole of the UK will leave the European Union.

My Lords, has the Minister had the chance to look at the report that I sent him last week? It was launched formally here in Parliament last night and concerned the position of the Irish in Britain and how they will be affected after our withdrawal from the European Union. Will he agree to place in your Lordships’ Library a copy of his response, particularly relating to the implications for the 1949 Ireland Act and the common travel area?

The noble Lord asks a good question. I have seen his letter and report. The situation of the Irish in the United Kingdom is of great personal interest to me. I will send him a reply in due course and would be happy to place a copy of it in the Library.

My Lords, at the present time, the Government are the Conservative Party, with the help of the DUP. If the Labour Party were in government, it would be legitimate to put questions to the Government in the shape of the Labour Party. In the Statement—on page 2 in the printed version—there is a Rubik’s cube. It wants to ensure no hard border; it wants to recognise the integrity of the single market and the customs union; and it wants to respect the integrity of the United Kingdom. As stated, that Rubik’s cube is impossible to solve unless we stay in the European Economic Area in some shape or form. If the Minister disagrees, on what basis does he do so?

My Lords, we agree with the Shadow Chancellor and the Shadow International Trade Secretary that remaining in the customs union and the single market would be a disaster for the United Kingdom. They are not correct on many issues, but they are on these ones. It is taking so long to reach an agreement because these are difficult and complicated areas. Given the history of Ireland and Northern Ireland, it is particularly important that we get the discussions right, reach an agreement and respect the Good Friday agreement, but that we respect the referendum that took place.

My noble friend Lord Strathclyde referred to the Government’s commitment to Northern Ireland being part of the United Kingdom. That is also the commitment of the Government of Ireland, originally under the Anglo-Irish agreement and now under the Good Friday agreement, if that is the wish of the majority of the people in Northern Ireland. The Irish Government are completely committed to that. Against that background, both Governments are committed to there being no hard border. Is not the sensible thing now to get on with the negotiation about what sort of trading relationship we will have? Yes, in the present situation we need to agree our financial obligations and the issue of EU citizens here, but the second issue of exactly how we deal with the Northern Ireland situation is something that will emerge out of the agreement on the trading arrangements.

My noble friend speaks with the benefit of great experience on this matter, considering some of the previous jobs he has had. I completely agree with him. It is important that we get these talks finished off so we can get on to discussing the substantive area, trade, out of which will fall an agreement on the Northern Irish border.

My Lords, I also very much welcome the Statement from the Minister, especially the line,

“we are equally clear that we must respect the integrity of the United Kingdom”.

That is very important. I listened to some Peers earlier, on the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, blaming the Democratic Unionist Party. I make it clear that the finger should be pointed at Dublin. Dublin’s officials were continually briefing over the weekend, which did not help the situation on Monday when the Prime Minister arrived in Europe. The Democratic Unionist Party’s position has been clear for a number of months, publicly and to the Government. We will reject any deal that would divide Northern Ireland from the rest the United Kingdom and which would see Northern Ireland being treated differently from the rest of the United Kingdom. That is the position with the Government, as with ourselves. Will the Minister agree that any deal that weakens the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom cannot be acceptable either to the people of Northern Ireland or to the Government?

The noble Lord makes some valuable points. These are issues of great sensitivity and complexity. It is very important that we consult all parties before we go further. We are determined to try to get a solution, but it cannot be at the expense of breaking up the United Kingdom.

My Lords, will the Minister explain how any member of the Government could possibly reconcile the idea that part of the United Kingdom would be subject to regulations in effect of the European customs union and the rest would not? Is the position of the DUP on this occasion not impeccably logical?