Committee (4th Day)
Relevant documents: 7th and 12th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee, 6th Report from the Constitution Committee
Clause 18: Other Ministerial powers
Before the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, moves his amendment, I advise the Committee that I will not be able to call Amendments 37 or 38 should Amendment 36 be agreed to.
36: Clause 18, page 10, line 9, leave out subsection (1)
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would remove the Minister’s power to engage in any conduct in relation to any matter dealt with in the Northern Ireland Protocol, not otherwise authorised by this Act, if the Minister considers it appropriate to do so.
My Lords, I move Amendment 36. As with previous amendments of a similar character, I am grateful for the support of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge.
Clause 18 was neatly described by the former Treasury counsel Sir Jonathan Jones as the “do whatever you like” clause. It was unclear in Committee in the Commons what the Government’s intention behind the clause was. Michael Ellis, the then Paymaster-General, said that the Government needed Clause 18, which is a power to give legal effect to a Minister’s conduct in carrying out their duties. He said:
“It simply makes clear, as would normally be taken for granted, that Ministers will be acting lawfully when they go about their ministerial duties in support of this legislation.”—[Official Report, Commons, 20/7/22; col. 1004.]
It is a great relief that we need a Minister to state that. It was quite telling that he said that they needed this power to make their conduct lawful, which would normally be taken for granted.
However, the seriousness is that there has been little explanation on what that “conduct” would be. The Government’s delegated powers memorandum did not explain it. Perhaps that is because they consider this not to be delegated power. The Explanatory Memorandum did, however, give some examples, including issuing guidance. As Michael Ellis indicated, it would also be instructing civil servants. The concern is that we have many other examples where legislation frames the conduct of providing guidance. As the Hansard Society and the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee have highlighted, this is one example of disguised legislation. Powers on providing guidance can, in effect, have legal effect. For example, my reading of this clause suggests that it is so broad that it would allow a Minister to issue guidance, which is non-statutory, but also issue instructions that that guidance needs to be followed—which, in effect, is statutory. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that that is not within the scope of this clause.
The Hansard Society has sought an exhaustive list of how conduct can be described. If we are to be avoiding hidden legislation, the Government need to be clear in what they seem to do. In the UK Internal Market Act, which has been referred to previously in Committee, I tried to find some equivalent—and there is some equivalent when it comes to the powers of Ministers to provide guidance. However, there are a number of subsections on that power which restrict the Minister’s ability to provide that. Crucially, there is a statutory duty for Ministers to consult with those who would be in receipt of the guidance on the operation of the Act.
Finally, the DPRRC said:
“Despite its being highly unusual and its breadth, the exercise of the power in clause 18 will have no parliamentary oversight since it is subject to no parliamentary procedure.”
Previously in Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said that this is not what we do when it comes to breaking international law. This is not how we should be making laws—so broad, and with potentially few restrictions. The Minister simply says that this is about what they do already. If that is the case, why is it necessary? If it is necessary, what they intend to do with it should be spelled out exactly. I beg to move.
My Lords, I just wonder what Clause 18 is supposed to mean. Does it really mean that the Minister of the Crown may do whatever he likes? Yes, it does; that was what we were discussing on Wednesday, when noble Lords and the Government listened to me. I had a dream over the weekend that the Minister today is going to get up and say, “Lord Judge, you were entirely right on Wednesday. We have changed our minds: we are going to put this Bill into proper shape”.
My Lords, I support Amendments 36 and 38 for the reasons that have been so eloquently set out already—I do not think that I need to repeat them. The idea that Parliament is passing a law to allow a Minister to do whatever he likes without coming back to Parliament seems to be quite breathtaking. That is nothing to do necessarily with Northern Ireland or Brexit; that is to do with our parliamentary democracy. On the question of whether Clause 18 should stand part of the Bill, I would certainly support its removal.
I confess that I find it difficult to accept that just changing “appropriate” to “necessary” will actually sort out the problem that is inherent in so many of the measures in this Bill, because a Minister could easily just say that they are doing it because they think it “necessary”. Who is going to be able to challenge that? The law would still be changed.
I support the idea put forward by the noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie and Lady Suttie, of at least having approval from the Northern Ireland Assembly. This would once again be an example of the British Government doing something with Northern Ireland, rather than to Northern Ireland—as the current wording would imply.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, who highlights quite clearly the central proposition in Amendment 38, tabled in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie. It is about limiting the control of Ministers under the Bill by ensuring that the Northern Ireland Assembly is given necessary approval of the conduct in relation to the provisions within the Bill.
Amendment 38 seeks to amend Clause 18, “Other Ministerial powers”, to ensure a limitation of delegated powers to Ministers—the very issue that was discussed by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee—and to ensure that
“the exercise of the Minister’s power to engage in conduct in relation to any matter dealt with in the Northern Ireland Protocol that is not otherwise authorised by the Act to a motion approving the conduct in the Northern Ireland Assembly.”
It throws up the accountability issues relating to the Northern Ireland Assembly—I hope that all the institutions will be up and running eventually—and would ensure that devolved regions and nations have particular control in relation to this issue.
It is worth noting that there were two important developments in the long road of the protocol. Today, the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, met in the margins of the climate conference in Egypt and agreed to work together to end the turmoil in relation to the protocol. Also today, at the meeting of the UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly in this building, Vice-President Šefčovič said that if this Bill were to become law, the UK Government would put Northern Ireland’s unique access to the EU market of 450 million customers at risk.
I again urge the Government to put this Bill into cold storage and ensure that there is renewed political vigour given to the negotiations. It is only through joint negotiations that all the issues around the protocol in relation to east-west issues and to trade between GB and Northern Ireland can be satisfactorily resolved to the benefit of all businesses and people in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, when the purpose and the intended effect of a clause are unclear, it sometimes helps to look at the Explanatory Notes to the Bill. These are produced, of course, by the Government, and are designed to explain. But if we look at the Explanatory Notes to Clause 18, we see that the confusion and uncertainty are even more manifest.
Look at paragraphs 96 to 98 of the Explanatory Notes. Paragraph 96 tells us that:
“Clause 18 clarifies the relationship between powers provided by this Bill and those arising otherwise, including by virtue of the Royal Prerogative.”
That is what Clause 18(2) says. Paragraph 97 deals specifically with Clause 18(1). It says:
“Subsection (1) provides that Ministers can engage in conduct (i.e.”—
and I emphasise that it is “i.e.” and not “e.g.”—
“sub-legislative activity, such as producing guidance) relevant to the Northern Ireland Protocol if they consider it appropriate in connection with one or more of the purposes of this Bill.”
If that is the intended purpose of Clause 18(1), why not say so? Why not limit the scope of Clause 18(1) specifically to say that Ministers can produce guidance? We could then have a debate about whether it is properly drafted, whether it is too broad or whether there should be some controls. I am afraid that what we find in Clause 18(1) bears no relationship whatever to what the Explanatory Notes tell us that Clause 18(1) is designed to achieve. My conclusion from that is that there must be real doubt here; that Ministers know what Clause 18(1) is designed to achieve and are reluctant to be specific because they do not want proper controls on the scope of their powers.
To follow the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, I wonder whether one route might be for the Minister to give us a glimpse behind the veil. What were the instructions given to parliamentary counsel? In other words, what were they asked to achieve by means of Clause 18(2)?
My Lords, I will speak in favour of Amendment 38, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, to which I have added my name.
My noble friend Lord Purvis of Tweed has already spelled out in great detail the potentially huge increase in power that Clause 18 could grant to a Minister of the Crown, and I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, has further explained the total lack of clarity as regards this clause.
I was reflecting on the many debates we had on this Bill last week and on the general and frankly astonishing lack of clarity from the Government as to why such sweeping powers should ever be deemed necessary—the Rumsfeld “unknown unknowns” clauses, as my noble friend has coined them. Later this week, I believe we will be hearing a Statement from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on progress—or, indeed, lack of progress—in bringing back the Northern Ireland Assembly and a functioning Executive, and whether there will be elections imminently in Northern Ireland to overcome this impasse.
The Government and other noble Lords have stated that one of the Bill’s main purposes was to deal with the understandable concerns of the unionist community, particularly the DUP, about the impact of the Northern Ireland protocol. One can hope that the talks taking place in Brussels and at the climate summit in Egypt will lead to genuine negotiations and a potential framework for agreement. It has also been stated that one of the Bill’s purposes was to facilitate the DUP’s return to the Northern Ireland Executive, yet it remains far from clear that passing this legislation in and of itself would achieve this. It is therefore increasingly hard to understand why we are pushing ahead with this very bad Bill, which sets so many dangerous precedents, if it does not, in itself, achieve even one of its so-called “main objectives”—namely, a much-needed return to a functioning Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive.
When the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, replies to this group of amendments, I would be very grateful if he confirmed that re-establishing the Northern Ireland Executive remains one of the Bill’s primary purposes. If it is, does he not agree that other much more productive approaches, such as genuine negotiations and a change of tone, could be taken that would achieve exactly the same goal, but more effectively?
Of course, everything is discerning and discriminating.
I would like the Minister to give us two reasons, or even one, why it is sensible to carry on with this Bill. We have heard today from the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, that sensible talks seem to be taking place on the fringes of the great COP meeting in Egypt and there are other signs of talking going on, so what is the point—I have used this expression before, and I make no apology for using it again—in Parliament putting government and negotiators into a straitjacket? It is just nonsensical. We all hope the negotiations will result in certain changes to the protocol, but why drive this Bill through at this very time?
The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, talked about the DUP. I have always felt that it is bad to pay danegeld. That, really, is what is happening here, and it is mixed up with treaty obligations—I underline the word “obligations”—and with opportunities which many people in Northern Ireland wish to take advantage of, suitably amended.
We are on our fourth day of debate on this very bad and, in my view, wholly unnecessary Bill. Let us pause it. Let us watch the negotiations with—I hope—acclamation and welcome their results. Let us not waste parliamentary time on such a badly drafted Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, reminded us, even the explanatory clauses do not explain it; they obfuscate and make it worse. Let us get on with some proper business and leave this rubbish in the heap where it should be.
I have reached the same conclusion as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, but via a slightly different route. I heard the noble Baroness and the noble Lord refer to talks proceeding amicably and constructively. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, has regularly assured us from his own involvement in the talks that they are proceeding satisfactorily and are in no way being derailed by this Bill.
I am miles away from the action, of course—like the noble Lord, Lord Dodds of Duncairn, I would be very grateful if the Government could find the time to give us some reports on the talks from time to time—but I get a rather different impression of the view in Brussels. My impression is that there is not a great deal going on in these talks, and that the officials involved do not have the kind of instructions which give them discretion to do any negotiating. My impression is that British Ministers are not particularly hands-on, that they are not very closely involved in the talks and that, in fact, no real political input and impetus has been given as yet.
On the EU side, I think there is a natural tendency to wait and see whether the arrival of a new Government and a new Prime Minister in Britain will bring about any changes in the British position. The Commission has succeeded in persuading the member states that the CJEU cases against us can be left in limbo for the moment; a number of member states would have preferred to proceed to having these cases heard, but they stay in limbo and there seems to be a sort of consensus on that. But there is absolutely no pressure that I can detect among member states for any softening of Šefčovič’s mandate or any change in the instructions he is getting, perhaps partly because they are waiting to see whether there is some change in the instructions our people have. I detect no sign of anybody believing that Šefčovič’s instructions will change while the threat of this Bill hangs over the negotiations.
In my view—I repeat that I am miles away from the action, so I may be quite wrong—the only real debate among member states is whether contingency planning should be started on their side and whether it is this Bill reaching the statute book or actual use of the powers it contains that should trigger resort to action. The action would of course be the end of the talks and the necessary review of the terms of the trade and co-operation agreement. I think everybody believes that in Brussels. As the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, reminded us on our last day of Committee, we committed ourselves in the TCA to carrying out our obligations as in the withdrawal agreement, which include the protocol. So if we were to use the powers in this Bill or, as some say—I am among them—put this Bill on the statute book, we would be in breach of not just the withdrawal agreement but the TCA.
So I think the debate is about contingency planning for that eventuality, rather than for any change or softening of the EU position in the talks. Therefore, it seems to me, we should recognise that what we are doing here, if we were to pass this Bill, is setting ourselves up for a rather serious trade war with the EU and for the return of all the problems in Northern Ireland that will result from Northern Ireland no longer being a member of the single market. We will go back to a different form of frontier problem, from which the protocol was designed to have us escape.
So I reach exactly the same conclusion as did the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, but by a slightly different route. I do not think that the talks are going particularly well, and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, will act on the promise that he made on our last day in Committee to see if he could ensure that we receive progress reports on the talks. Though I am miles away from the action, it seems to me that, if we proceed with this Bill, we are heading straight into a thunderstorm that will sink the ship.
Before the noble Lord sits down, could he go one step further and ask my noble friend the Minister, in responding to this debate, to say whether he agrees with the analysis of the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, which I do, that we would be in breach not only of the withdrawal agreement but of the trade and co-operation agreement? It would be very good to get that on the record at this stage. Will he just go so far as to press the Minister, in summing up, to say whether he agrees with his analysis?
My Lords, Amendment 38, among others, refers to the role of the Northern Ireland Assembly in approving the conduct of Ministers. I suppose that a parallel would be a legislative consent Motion; it is the same kind of principle. It is good to hear that negotiations are taking place, but the people who are most directly affected not just by this legislation but by the protocol itself are excluded from this process. Noble Lords should bear in mind that, if a trader brings a vehicle into Northern Ireland from Great Britain, the first person whom that trader will deal with will be an employee of a Northern Ireland government department, responsible to a Northern Ireland Executive Minister.
The people who are the most directly affected and who have a direct responsibility for the implementation of any of these processes—that is, the politicians in Northern Ireland—are spectators in a matter that most directly affects them. Of course, it is a national issue and an international issue; but when you drill down, as Amendment 38 is attempting to do, the people with their hands on the problem on the day, every day, are out of the frame altogether.
Now I do not care what the issue is, but have we learned nothing in this place over the last 30 or 40 years? If you exclude people from something that directly affects them—and we had the Anglo-Irish process in the mid-1980s, when we followed the same principle that you negotiate over somebody’s head and shove a piece of paper in front of them and say, “There you are: implement it”—it will not work.
Amendment 38 is just one example. Will the Minister ask his colleagues to engage the politicians in Stormont directly in this process? That could be part of a solution. When we were part of the EU, it was not unusual for Ministers from Westminster to include devolved Ministers with them in their delegations. That was quite a normal process. Can we not adapt that principle? One Minister said a week or two ago—he meant well, I have no doubt—“Leave it to us. We’ve got your back here. We’ll look after it for you.” I have to say, with the greatest respect, that our backs are so full of dagger holes that we know all about that. We will believe only what we see and hear ourselves. Bring our politicians into the picture; bring them to the table with you so they are not your enemy.
I accept, of course, that we are dealing with an international issue, and foreign affairs and related matters are not devolved—I get that. But have we not enough flexibility to bring people along as part of our delegation so that they can see persons and papers? We do not have to break any rules. What is so secret?
Before he left office, I asked the noble Lord, Lord Frost, who is in his place, a Question about all the committees that have been set up under the agreement and who populated them. I think he left office before he was able to reply to that Question, but who are they? I do not know who they are. Where are they? How many of these committees do we have? All I can tell you is that nobody of political significance in Belfast is engaged. It will not work—fix it. Let us make these discussions meaningful. Let us get the people who have to deliver what is agreed, at the table. We would never have got the Good Friday agreement had we not done that by bringing everybody in.
I have listened at some length to the arguments about the legality of the legislation and its role. I am not a lawyer, but I respectfully invite colleagues to review the evidence submitted to the Sub-Committee on the Protocol in Ireland/Northern Ireland by Professor Boyle and another colleague from the University of Cambridge on what they consider to be the legal position of this legislation. They came to the joint conclusion that the Article 16 process would have to be involved in order to make it legal. I do not know whether that is right or wrong, but I refer Members to that piece of evidence. The transcript is available, it was a public investigation by our committee, and I commend it to colleagues. I ask them to look at it and see what merit there is for us.
There is a solution here; we can find a way through this. However, I can tell colleagues from years of experience—other people in this Chamber can do the same—that, with the process that we have chosen to take, we are going about things the wrong way. I understand where the Government are coming from with the legislation, and I do not wish to see the UK Government’s negotiating position weakened, but I want success. We are facing the worst crisis economically in many decades. Northern Ireland’s community is facing increased costs, in part as a result of the protocol, obviously we have the lowest levels of income, and we also have a different energy system to the rest of the United Kingdom.
Basically, our political class is out to lunch. We are not contributing anything to the solutions, because of the stand-off at Stormont. I do not want to see Sinn Féin’s argument that Northern Ireland is a failed political entity justified, and that is the risk we are taking. My appeal to the Minister concerning any—indeed, all—of these amendments involving support and approval from the Northern Ireland Assembly is that one of the ways to get the Assembly going again is to engage the people who have to operate the outcome of the negotiations, so that they are part of the solution and have ownership of it.
Because we in Northern Ireland are half in the EU and half out of it, there is no total solution to this; it is just a fact of life. It is a problem that is largely insoluble, but there are bits we can help with. Not only do we have to make the protocol less invasive but there has to be treaty change in the long term, because of the constitutional damage that has been done. That will take time, so we have a two-stage rocket here. We have short-term mitigations and long-term treaty change but, in the meantime, leaving Stormont as it is, history tells us, after the last number of decades—we have been through it all, and the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, and others were part of the process—that a vacuum is the worst possible thing we can leave in Belfast. It brings in all sorts of events that we cannot anticipate. It takes only one thing to go badly wrong.
I have to say to the Minister and His Majesty’s Government about recent events that there does not appear to be any coherent strategy to deal with things, and that is what worries me more than anything else.
Does the noble Lord accept that in Northern Ireland, when we have a democratic vacuum, the men of violence fill the gap? Is he aware that only last week, because there was a call from Dublin for joint authority in Northern Ireland—government by both Dublin and London—a bomb was planned to be planted in a government building in the Republic of Ireland, which was called off, hours before it was due to explode, only when the Government here announced that there would be no joint authority?
The noble Lord is correct. I agree that history tells us that a vacuum will be filled, and it will not be filled by people who are committed to the democratic process. That is well established. There is no legitimacy for joint authority. The manifesto of the Government was clear in 2019 that it was explicitly excluded, although it was interesting that at this weekend’s Sinn Féin conference, its plan B was specifically aimed at some form of jointery. That is why I say we can see where the road is leading us.
I come back to the Minister and ask him to prevail on his colleagues to open the door to the people of Northern Ireland and the elected Members, so that they can participate in the process of negotiations; they will not be sitting in the front row, but they can be in the room, they can be advising Ministers, they can be contributing and they can feed that back to their supporters. It will have a calming effect if they can see that, and if the people who have to implement the thing on the ground are part of the solution. Surely that makes common sense. What is the point of having devolution if the people who have responsibility for delivering parts of this are not even at the table?
My Lords, we have ranged once again, in a debate on one of the amendments, far and wide across the whole gamut of the protocol Bill and the protocol itself. In that context, I want to follow up on the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, who talked about the state of the negotiations, the technical talks, the discussions, the conversations or whatever they may be. As he rightly said, we are not au fait with the detail, and those of us whom the noble Lord, Lord Empey, referenced who deal with politics in Northern Ireland and represent people in Northern Ireland are not privy to the details either.
I think that it is correct, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr said, that there appears to be no difference in the negotiating mandate of Commissioner Vice-President Šefčovič so far as the EU side of the negotiations is concerned. Indeed, that has been confirmed to me and, I am sure, to other noble Lords informally by people who are closer to the talks than many of us are. Of course, the Government’s position has been set out in the Command Paper, published in July 2021, and in the Bill, but so long as the negotiating mandate of the European Union negotiator is not changed, there can be little prospect for any positive outcome from the discussions, certainly not in the short term.
We can all agree that we need to solve this problem, and there are only two ways that it can be solved. It is either by negotiation or by action on the part of His Majesty’s Government. The danger of saying, “We’re not going to get anywhere in the discussions and we should pull or pause the Bill” is in what happens in Northern Ireland. What happens to the Belfast agreement as amended by the St Andrews agreement? What happens to the institutions? I have heard very little reference thus far from noble Lords who do not have a direct connection with Northern Ireland about the implications on the political and peace process in Northern Ireland.
The longer we do not have any outcome from negotiations, and if nothing is happening on the Government’s side on legislation, then the institutions will not be reformed, because there is not the basis for power sharing, when you have trashed one of the main strands of the agreement—strand 3, the east-west dimension—and when you have undermined the Northern Ireland Assembly through the removal of the cross-community consent principle. We have to address these matters.
While people may focus on what the outcome may be in terms of the withdrawal agreement and the trade and co-operation agreement—I entirely understand that—we also have to examine the implications on the Belfast agreement, on the St Andrews agreement, and on the peace and political process in Northern Ireland, which is in a very fragile state. The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, highlighted a recent example of where these things can go.
I urge your Lordships to examine and bear in mind the implications, if we do not get a negotiated outcome which is satisfactory. I share the analysis of noble Lord, Lord Kerr, that it does not look as if that is going to happen—certainly any time soon—and if we at the same time do not proceed with the Bill, where on earth does that leave the political process in Northern Ireland? It leaves it in a continuing state of limbo, which we have all agreed can be filled only by dangerous people—men of violence. We need to address these matters urgently.
May I clarify something? My position is that there will be no progress with these talks until there is the involvement of high-level politicians from this country. I remember in the 1990s the attempt to move Congress from its support of the wrong side—in the British Government’s view—in Northern Ireland. I was ambassador and made a certain amount of progress, but the real progress was made only when Prime Minister Major and the then Minister of State, now the noble Marquess, Lord Lothian, took an active involvement in helping me to see the people one had to convince on the Hill. We need the involvement of senior British Ministers. I strongly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that we need the involvement of people from Northern Ireland. This must not be an agreement, if one is achieved, that is imposed on Northern Ireland. It has to be one that is owned by Northern Ireland.
However, my view is that there is no chance of persuading the Council of the European Union that it should modify Mr Šefčovič’s mandate while technical talks are going nowhere and there are no signs of any movement, or even active involvement, by the highest levels of the British political establishment. I do not mean that I think the talks are bound to fail; I mean that, at present, they are not succeeding.
My Lords, I maintained a Trappist silence throughout all the earlier debates on this Bill. I may be prominent among those wishing I had maintained it when I sit down in a moment or two because I recognise that I speak from a position of having less knowledge of the political and economic background to this debate than perhaps anybody else here—certainly less than anyone who has spoken.
What has driven me to my feet is what seems a striking absence of any reference to Article 16; again, we heard it in earlier debates but not today. To my mind—I speak in this respect simply as a lawyer—it is custom-built to meet any legitimate needs, which there are, to adapt processes in the Province today. What is required of the protocol by way of rewriting treaties is in doubt, but the protocol does not pre-empt the Belfast agreement obligations and commitments on all sides. On the contrary, Belfast is the primary one of these two treaties, which are enforceable under international law.
Those who know much more about this than I do emphasise—rightly, to my mind—the third strand of Belfast, which concerns east-west trade within the UK internal market. Far from the protocol pre-empting what we as the UK are entitled to insist on under the Belfast agreement, surely it accommodates the crucial argument—let the politicians in Northern Ireland make, refine, emphasise and urge this—that the regulatory controls that the EU currently exercises under the protocol, as well as the intensity of their policing, are in fact quite incompatible with its obligation to observe the Belfast agreement. You have only to look at the Belfast agreement to see that we, the UK, are duty bound to fight against the long-term alienation—I forget the precise language—of any community. We did it for the nationalists in respect of language in Northern Ireland. Now we owe the unionists some obligation to try to reinforce the critical importance of the east-west trade link here.
I therefore have no brief for this Bill. The unionists say, “You need this to get back into the Assembly”. That is nonsense. They open their mouths far too wide but their legitimate interests should be—indeed, must be—protected. Do it under Article 16, which meets any imperative need of the day, and let the people of Northern Ireland specify precisely what is required by way of adapting the processes under the protocol. If there needs to be any adaptation of the language, let them deal with that too. As the noble Lord, Lord Howard, said in an earlier debate, do not be too theological about the language—just get the agreement to do what is necessary.
My Lords, this has been unusual in the debates that we have had so far in that far more has been said that I can agree with than that I disagree with. I even found myself agreeing with two-thirds of what the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said, which is unusual. He is undoubtedly right that the negotiations cannot really be going as well as we would all like to hope, and as so many commentators and Ministers imply they are, as long as the EU has not been prepared to change its negotiating mandate. It will not allow a single jot or tittle of the protocol to be changed under its existing mandate, even though the protocol itself envisages the possibility of it being changed in part or in whole. That surely has to change. Maybe it has de facto; maybe the EU is agreeing to talk beyond its mandate. Let us hope that that is the case.
The disappointing aspect of the debates so far is that I have been waiting throughout for any coherent response from noble Lords, in their very powerful speeches about the illegality of what we are doing, to the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bew, in particular as to what happens when there is a conflict between two international obligations, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, implied that there is between the obligations that we have under the Belfast agreement and those that we have under the protocol. I have not heard any direct response to that question: what do you do when you have conflicting international legal obligations?
I am very grateful to the noble Lord but the Committee has heard repeated explanations of what the answer is. The answer is that the protocol contains Article 16, which allows for a process to commence by which disputes can be resolved with an arbitration process. That is the answer. There is no conflict because the protocol provides a mechanism for addressing conflicts.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for sidestepping the question by saying that he does not need to answer it because there is an article in the protocol that means you do not have to answer on what happens when there is a conflict between two international obligations. Clearly, however, the Government and many noble Lords from the Province who have spoken think that there is a conflict and it cannot be solved just by invoking Article 16. If it can, fine; that is wonderful.
The other related question that we have not had a response to is the point made by the Lord Chancellor in the other place that Article 1 of the protocol specifically says that in the event of a conflict between the Belfast agreement and the protocol, the Belfast agreement takes precedence. I have not heard any response to that, nor to the point, which I might be alone in making, that the whole protocol is intrinsically temporary. We know that because the EU told us that it could not enter into a permanent relationship with us because we were then a member state and it could not, under Article 50, enter into a permanent relationship with a member state; it could be only temporary and transitional. That is why the protocol itself contains provision for it to be superseded, but I have heard no response to that point from anyone.
I heard the responses given to my noble friend so far, which he seems reluctant to accept. If he does not agree that the Article 16 process would be a way of resolving some of these conflicts that have arisen and caused problems, in what way does he feel that the passage of the Bill would itself resolve those conflicts, or indeed support the Good Friday agreement?
I certainly do not say absolutely that Article 16 is not the way to proceed, but I have spoken to lawyers much respected by people in this House—unfortunately I do not have their permission to give their names—who told me that we should not go down the Article 16 route because it would be a nightmare.
I am saying that there may well be problems. Indeed, I asked the noble Lord the other day, down the corridor, whether he was of the opinion that Article 16 could be used to solve all the problems. If it can be, fine; I am not ruling that out. However, if it cannot be, then the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bew, is there on the table, and the issue raised by the Lord Chancellor is there on the table. Whatever about that, the protocol is intrinsically temporary. The whole basis of the negotiations that we entered into on the withdrawal agreement was that a permanent agreement could not be entered into in the withdrawal Act with the United Kingdom covering trade or other matters; that could happen only after we had left. Therefore, anything in the withdrawal agreement was intrinsically transitional and temporary.
Again, I have not heard a response on that today. I wait to be interrupted with a response to the point. Usually, it comes from the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, who wrote Article 50, but he has forgotten what the alternative is.
These are important issues. We need to know why we were told one thing, that this was temporary, and now are told another thing, that it is permanent. Until we get an answer to those questions, I do not know that our debate can proceed as productively as it ought to. There are other more general points which I would like to make but I will save them for another batch of amendments.
My Lords, this has indeed been a very wide-ranging debate, but I will comment specifically on the amendments themselves.
The DPRRC refers to the power contained in Clause 18 as “strange” and notes that
“Despite its being highly unusual”
there will be “no parliamentary oversight” whatever. This was the subject of some debate in another place, with much head-scratching as to what the Government were trying to achieve. Indeed, we cannot know that, because they have not offered a clear justification. A former head of the government legal service, Sir Jonathan Jones KC, described this as a “do whatever you like” power, but why is it needed in the first place? We have no definition of “conduct”. Can the Minister have a go at giving us a definition today? If that is not possible, can we have a detailed explanation ahead of Report?
In the Commons, the Minister tried to insist that concerned MPs had misconstrued the intent and that Clause 18 simply makes clear that Ministers will be acting lawfully when they go about their ministerial duties in support of this legislation. I cannot remember any other legislation where the Government have felt it necessary to clarify that Ministers are acting lawfully. Until recently, we took it for granted that this was always the case. Therefore, is this power an admission that the Government’s approach to the protocol is incompatible with international law and, as a result, in conflict with the Ministerial Code’s requirements to comply with the law?
There were a number of very interesting contributions in this debate. I highlight that of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, which was very constructive, about bringing into the process which is being embarked on by the UK Government respected people from Northern Ireland. I am interested to hear the Minister’s reaction to the proposals made by the noble Lord. The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, gave a rather chilling example of the stakes we are dealing with and how important it is that we take every opportunity we possibly can to resolve the current position. This has been an interesting debate, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate on the amendments and the wider context. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart, the noble Lord, Lord Caine, and I always look down the list to see when the first group in Committee will be. We know that the clock will strike an hour because of the context that will be set in relation not just to the amendments in front of us but opinions on the particular Bill. Like the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, I will focus on the specific amendments. Where I can add a degree of Ahmad colour, I will seek to do this in the best way possible.
As I and my colleagues have said, to pick up on a key point on the ultimate nature of the Bill, the reasoning behind the Government’s approach is that the Bill is consistent with our obligations in international law and supports our prior obligations to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, as has been said in various parts of today’s debate—and very eloquently by my noble friend Lord Lilley.
I will begin with Amendment 36, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, on the issue of the powers. In the Government’s view, Clause 18 is not an extraordinary power. It simply makes clear, as would normally be the case, that Ministers are acting lawfully in this case. This point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and others and I will attempt to put some colour on this—I do not know whether it will be to noble Lords’ satisfaction. Clause 18 is included because the Government recognise that the Bill provides, in a way that is not routinely done for other legislation, for new domestic obligations to replace prior domestic obligations that stem from our international obligations. Those international obligations are currently implemented automatically by Section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. That conduit pipe currently constrains—and in the Government’s view could cause confusion in the future—how Ministers can act in support of the Bill. The Government put forward that Clause 18 is to provide clarity on that point.
I note the DPRRC’s view on the issue of delegated powers, which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, highlighted again in his contribution. However, it is the Government’s view that the power being proposed here is within the normal scope of executive action. To provide a bit more detail, this would include, for example, direct notifications from Ministers to the EU. While I am sure—I am going to hazard a guess as I look around your Lordships’ House—that I may not have satisfied every question on that, I hope that that has provided a degree more detail.
I am very grateful to the Minister. Can I press him for a moment on what I understand to be his explanation for Clause 18, which is that otherwise there may be some concern that the exercise of powers is not consistent with Section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018? I think that is what the Minister said.
I would put it slightly differently. That is the section I referred to, but it is to provide clarification in that respect. The noble Lord will interpret that in the way that he has, but I have sought to provide clarity on why the Government’s position is that this should be included.
Could I complete my point? I am very grateful to the Minister but I am puzzled by that explanation, because the Bill already deals specifically with this subject in Clause 2(3). I remind the Minister that it states:
“In section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 … after subsection (3) insert … This section is subject to”
this Bill. Therefore, with great respect, I do not understand why one needs Clause 18 to address exactly the same point.
My Lords, I suppose that, with any Bill, the challenge for the Government is often to provide added clarification. That is exactly what we are doing, perhaps to emphasise the point that the noble Lord himself has highlighted from other elements of the Bill. I am sure that the noble Lord will come back on these issues, but if I can provide further detail on the specific actions that this would thereby permit, I will. As I said, it is a point of clarification, and I will write to the noble Lord on this point.
The best way I can sum up Amendment 37 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, is that it is a well-trodden theme in the context of the Bill. The positions and different perspectives on this issue are noted. All I add is that the Government’s intention is to ensure that the powers—the ability for a Minister of the Crown to issue guidance to industry or provide direction to officials in relation to the regime put in place under the protocol—reflect their ability to carry out their responsibilities. In this case I can see no reason why Ministers should be able to issue “appropriate” direction in relation to trade with the EU via the short straits but only “necessary” directions over the Irish Sea.
Although the noble Baroness has not spoken in this debate, I know from previous debates that she is worried about the scope of executive action. Everyone is concerned by this when they are sitting on one side of the House. The usual channels of judicial review will be available, but I have noted the various concerns aired in previous debates on this issue of “appropriate” and “necessary”.
I turn to Amendment 38 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie. With her permission, I will first pick up on the valuable contributions of the noble Lord, Lord Empey. We have been engaging with Northern Irish parties. I know that when the Executive was operational there were regular meetings between the then Minister for Europe, now the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—and indeed my noble friend Lord Caine—and the various representatives. In the interests of time, rather than detailing the level or number of meetings, I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Empey, as I have said to him outside the Chamber, that we would really welcome his insights and valuable experience in this regard. I speak for my noble friend Lord Caine and others in the Northern Ireland department. Both they and I will be pleased to speak to the noble Lord to see how we can perhaps further enhance the engagement that we currently have on the ground with key parties and people.
The noble Lord’s point about wider delegations and representations is noticed. We value our devolved Administrations very highly in our engagements over international agreements, even when they are under reserved powers. On the wider point of engagement with the devolved Administrations, a point also raised in this debate, my understanding is that those have taken place, continue to take place and will continue to be updated as we make progress.
The Minister just indicated that discussions have taken place with the devolved Administrations. Maybe he can give us a little more colour about the type of discussions that have taken place. In that regard, I very much take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that there is a need for the Northern Ireland parties to be involved in the negotiations.
I know that these discussions have certainly taken place at an official level. My understanding is that the Foreign Secretary has also written to the devolved Administrations on the issue of seeking consent, but if there is more detail I will update the noble Baroness.
The noble Baroness also rightly mentioned the importance of understanding the issues on the ground. As I have indicated, I believe passionately that, irrespective of where you are coming from on the Bill—whether you are from Northern Ireland itself or wherever you are sitting in this Chamber—our ultimate objective in the discussions we are having is to ensure that the protocol, and indeed any other arrangements put in place after the negotiations and debates taking place, work in the interests of all communities in Northern Ireland. That is the premise of the Government’s approach.
The amendment the noble Baroness has tabled would require an approval Motion to be passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly before a Minister may act in accordance with Clause 18
“in relation to any matter … in the Northern Ireland Protocol (where that conduct is not otherwise authorised by this Act)”.
However, in the Government’s view, the amendment is unworkable in practice, because it would require the Northern Ireland Assembly to pass a vote every time any number of actions were taken in connection with the Bill. That could be as innocuous as providing instruction to civil servants or guidance to industry. Such a situation would clearly be prohibitive to the implementation of swift solutions to the problems caused by the protocol, and therefore would not work. Nor would it be appropriate or in line with the devolution settlement for actions—
I am sorry to interrupt but I am most grateful to my noble friend. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, made a very powerful and constructive speech. I listened to what my noble friend said in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, but would it not be possible for informal invitations to be issued to Northern Ireland politicians to attend talks, particularly if the talks themselves are informal?
As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Empey, I will certainly take back his comments and constructive suggestions and will, of course, advise the House if there is more scope in our current discussions with the European Commission.
I listened very carefully to all contributions. The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, raised the issue from where he was seeing it. As noble Lords know, when I have come to the House, I have reported. I was certainly involved in one discussion last week and, as I said, it was constructive and positive in both tone and substance. I am sure that all noble Lords who have served in government will appreciate that there are limits to what detail I can share.
Subsequent discussions have taken place, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, alluded. I do not share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, that they are not going anywhere. If they were not going anywhere, we would not be meeting and talking. I also challenge the premise that they have not engaged the highest level of the British Government. Last time I checked, the Foreign Secretary was among those counted in the highest levels of the British Government. I therefore say to the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, that that is definitely not the case. The lead person dealing with Commissioner Šefčovič is my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, who is a senior member of the British Government.
Returning to the amendment, for the reasons I have given, we cannot support it. However, I also point out that the Bill is needed because the Good Friday agreement institutions, including the Assembly, are not operating as they should be. I know that the noble Baroness will return to this issue. I welcome her valuable insights in this area, but I hope that, given my response, particularly on the important issues raised by her and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, she sees that we will certainly seek to further enhance our engagement with parties in Northern Ireland.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, focused on Clause 18, which simply provides the power for a Minister to engage in normal non-legislative contact where they consider it appropriate in connection with one or more of the purposes of the Bill. The clause also clarifies the relationship between powers to make secondary legislation under the Bill and those arising by virtue of the royal prerogative. It will ensure that actions not requiring legislation, such as issuing guidance for industry or providing direction to officials, can be taken in a timely manner by a Minister of the Crown. Clause 18 simply makes clear, as would normally be taken for granted—we just had a brief discussion with the noble Lord on the Government’s position on this—that Ministers will be acting lawfully when they go about their ministerial duties in support of this legislation. The Government’s view therefore remains that it should stand part of the Bill.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his response and to those who have taken part. I felt that I was agreeing 100% with the contribution by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, but then I started to have doubts when the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, said he agreed with two-thirds of it. I will come back on that in just a second.
In all seriousness, I am concerned about what the Minister said. If this power, which is not framed and not specific, is guidance for industry then that is now in direct contradiction with the requirement on Ministers to provide guidance on the operation of the internal market, under the internal market Act, for Northern Ireland. Section 48, which I understand is being repealed by this Bill, as we have discussed, has a requirement on Ministers to consult before guidance is published. Under Section 12 of the internal market Act it is a legal duty for Ministers to consult Northern Ireland departments before guidance is issued. Draft guidance must be issued first. To some extent, that is the point that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, made about inclusiveness before measures.
If Clause 18 can be used by Ministers—guidance for industry, as the Minister said twice—that is far weaker than the legal requirements, and I do not understand the interaction between the two. That is a significant problem. I would be grateful if the Minister could write to explain how guidance for industry will be operated under other parts of the legislation whereas they can simply decide to do it under Clause 18 because there are no restrictions, requirements or oversight of that whatever—there is no requirement for anything in draft.
That is important, given the subtext of this serious debate and the fact that—as the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, indicated—Vice-President Šefčovič is in London at the moment. The Minister did not state whether any Ministers are meeting the vice-president on his visit. I am happy to be intervened on if wishes to clarify whether, during the vice-president’s visit to London, any senior Ministers are meeting him.
This was the subject of conversation, but the noble Lord will be aware that my right honourable friend is currently in Sharm el-Sheikh on government business with the COP. We certainly sought to see whether they could meet on this particular occasion, but I will update the noble Lord as and when it happens.
I am grateful to the Minister.
When the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, says that he is miles away from the situation, I have known him long enough to suspect that there is a wee bit of code there. He is probably actually pretty close to knowing what is going on, and I suspect that he is right. I worry, because the Government are not engaging widely, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said, or consulting. We have not had sight of what is on the table; we know what the EU has put on the table but not what the UK Government have put on the table. My fear is that, if the Government told us what was on the table, many people would be disappointed that they are only technical talks. Some people want them to be negotiations.
That comes on to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lilley. I respect and understand his disagreement with the Government’s position—the Government want to mend it, not end it, and, as I understand it, the noble Lord thinks there is a more substantial issue with that. Ministers have said they want to fix it, not nix it. If you want to mend it, not end it, there are mechanisms, but there are also mechanisms if you want to end it. As Article 13 of the protocol states, it lasts as long as it lasts:
“Any subsequent agreement between the Union and the United Kingdom shall indicate the parts of this Protocol which it supersedes”—
so, if there is another treaty, this ends. There is nothing special about that; that is every treaty. A treaty lasts for as long as it lasts, and if there is a subsequent treaty then there is a subsequent treaty. So the noble Lord’s beef is not with us; it is presumably with the Government in order to open up the element of the withdrawal agreement and the associated TCA that he thinks are in contradiction.
That is the point. We have now legislated for it, and the element we have legislated for includes Article 13.8, which is the process by which it would be superseded. I do not think there is any doubt about it; the noble Lord may have doubt in his mind about it, but in the other agreements there are mechanisms if we wish to open them.
The difficulty with this process taking such a long time is that if we were in grave and imminent peril—the Government have invoked the defence of necessity—then we would have anticipated some urgent, high-level talks to have resolved this by now. Regrettably, we are back to a situation where the stakes are getting higher because expectations are higher, but the reality, perhaps, is that some of these talks are technical.
With the greatest respect for the Minister, who I know tried to offer clarification, I am worried about what this power could be used for, and we will need to return to this. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 36 withdrawn.
Amendments 37 and 38 not moved.
Clause 18 agreed.
Clause 19: New agreements amending or replacing the Northern Ireland Protocol
39: Clause 19, page 10, line 17, leave out “the Minister considers appropriate” and insert “is necessary”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment limits a Minister’s ability to use a delegated power when they consider it “appropriate” to cases where it is “necessary”.
My Lords, I will allow a couple of seconds for people who have obviously got it off their chest during the first group to leave, in the hope that we do not go through the whole thing again.
Clause 19 is very short, at only a couple of paragraphs, but it is quite interesting, as it pleasingly addresses the situation we may find ourselves in where the Government have been successful in reaching an agreement with the European Union. Many of us have said, time and again, throughout this Committee, that we hope to see that. We have been challenging Ministers, as we have seen in the previous group, to show visible political leadership. The visibility has been lacking. I take on board what the Minister said about his right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary playing an active role, but visibility and political momentum have been lacking. I like to think that, had one of my right honourable friends been leading these events, we would have seen a far more outward-facing presence, if I can put it that way, through this process—but never mind.
Clause 19 looks at the eventuality of there being an agreement. The amendment I have tabled is one that will be familiar by now to noble Lords who have been taking part in this process from the first day of our considerations. The first line of the clause, as it stands, says that:
“A Minister of the Crown may, by regulations, make such provision as the Minister considers appropriate”.
I have asked that “appropriate” be changed to “necessary”, and I will explain why, in this particular instance, that is sensible.
This clause gives Ministers the power to implement an agreement that they hope to reach with the EU. Obviously—and we accept this—Ministers will need some flexibility in that event, and things may need to be done as a consequence of having an agreement. But I would have thought that an agreement, by its nature, would be clear and specific, and that things would be agreed that are not currently in place that would need to happen. In that instance, surely the things that need to be done by Ministers will, by virtue of the fact that they have just been agreed to with our negotiating partners, meet the test and be necessary.
It troubles me that the Government feel they should have “appropriate” there instead. That seems to give them much greater scope than is ever going to be needed in the event that this clause is used—and we hope that it will be. I would like to know from the Minister what the Government’s thinking is there, beyond thinking that “necessary” is too tight and just wanting to allow themselves a bit more room—of course they do; who would not? But this clause deals with the fact that there may be an agreement, and I do not think it is justified for the power to be as widely drawn as it is.
While I am on my feet, I note that I support the stand part notice from the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, in this case as well. The DPRRC believes that the powers in this clause are just too widely drawn, though there is obviously merit in discussing what powers are needed in the event of an agreement and what the role of Parliament should be in that situation. We think that a deal can be struck—we have said that many times—and also believe that Parliament should have the opportunity to debate any agreement, as other Parliaments will. I just note that the European Union (Future Relationship) Act 2020 was passed in a day and the TCA was ratified without direct parliamentary process. We accept that Ministers need the ability to act in the event of an agreement and we appreciate the Government demonstrating their anticipation of such an agreement in this clause, which is notable, but surely a Bill to enact an agreement would be better. That is what we have been asking for.
This is a discussion we have had with the Government on many occasions and on other agreements, when we have talked about the unsatisfactory process we still have in this country for parliamentary involvement in agreements. We do not think we have got it right yet; that is understandable, and it is perhaps going to take some time to get to that point. We have not had to engage in this for many years, but I do not think that many people in Parliament are satisfied with the way this works at the moment, and it would be helpful if the Minister could acknowledge that.
Without being too cheeky about it, we want to help the Government, given just how unsuccessful they have been so far in settling these issues. We do not see why they would be so resistant to involvement from people who are being very positive and cheering them on in their endeavours. We really do want to see a resolution to this. With that, I beg to move the amendment in my name and express my support for the stand part notice tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis.
We support the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness. In supporting it, I want to make two points. First, this clause effectively turns the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act principles on their head. We have well-established mechanisms, which are set down in statute, on how we approve new international agreements. If this is a mechanism to replace the Northern Ireland protocol, an internationally made agreement, with a new agreement, then why is the CRaG process, which allows parliamentary scrutiny, debate and, unlike this, an ability to have enhanced approvals or indeed vetoing by Parliament, not going to be the route for it? I do not understand why.
Secondly, it also sets on its head every commitment that has been provided for every trade agreement: namely, that if a trade agreement requires any primary legislation to bring it into effect in domestic law, primary legislation is brought forward—this is not done by regulation. But, again, this is being set on its head. The Trade (Australia and New Zealand) Bill is coming up, which is primary legislation—not regulation —implemented with agreement. The two Bills contradict each other really quite glaringly.
I think that this is significant because of an interaction I had with the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, on one of the previous days in Committee. I asked him whether he had given consideration—if there is, as a result of these talks, an agreement with the EU—as to how that should be put in force. The Government are saying “by regulations”, which are unamendable and could even be under a negative process; they could use Clause 19 to do this. If the noble Lord’s concern—as well as that of the noble Lord, Lord Empey—was about the need for consent, this is not the means by which that would be secured. Yet this is the means by which the Government could enforce it. There is a very jarring comparison between what consent of any new agreement would be and how the Government are seeking powers under Clause 19 to enable them to put this into force. Clause 19 should not be the mechanism by which we have sustainable support for any agreement. An order-making power for a Minister is simply not the route—and that is in addition to the fact that they are turning on their heads long-standing practices by which we put international agreements into domestic legislation. For this reason, I do not think that Clause 19 should stand part of the Bill.
My Lords, I speak briefly to support Clause 19 not standing part of the Bill. Both the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, and the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, have very eloquently explained some of the problems with this clause. Equally, I have a concern about just changing the word “appropriate” to “necessary”, because we had a relevant agreement with the EU—the withdrawal agreement, part of which is the Northern Ireland protocol—and we have passed extensive legislation for that agreement. Yet government Ministers consider both this Bill and this clause “necessary”, even though it may break international law and may tear up the agreement that we have enshrined into our law. So were this clause to stay—and, indeed, were this Bill to become an Act—there would simply be the possibility that a Minister would no longer need to come to Parliament, Parliament would have no say and our whole parliamentary democracy would be turned on its head, as the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, described. I would like to hear from my noble friend the Minister how this is consistent with our normal constitutional safeguards in our democracy.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this brief debate. I turn first to Amendment 39. I welcome the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman; I was scribbling down some of them, including the phrase, “Cheerleader for the Government”—we look forward to that. I recognise that these are serious times in terms of our negotiations. Of course, it is right that we are being challenged, but contributions have also been made which are helpful in ultimately strengthening the role we want to see for all discussions: a successful conclusion in the interests of all communities in Northern Ireland.
As for discussions and diplomacy, I have a bit of experience, as do other noble Lords around this House. One thing that I have certainly learned as a lesson of diplomacy is that discretion is key—it is vital. At times, there is a sprinkling of public discourse in that respect. I assure noble Lords that discussions and a number of meetings are being held. Indeed, I mentioned to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, that my honourable friend the Minister for Europe met Commissioner Šefčovič during his visit on this very issue. The fact is that the engagement continues. I have already detailed why my right honourable friend was unable to meet on this occasion.
We have now seen how the implementation of the current protocol—I think all noble Lords accept this—is causing problems. We are looking for solutions. We feel that limiting the Government’s ability to act quickly and flexibly if such a negotiated outcome with the EU needs to be implemented could ultimately disrupt what we are all seeking to do, which is to address the socio-political stability in Northern Ireland and safeguard the EU single market and the UK single market.
I say again, for the record, that a negotiated agreement is the Government’s preference and the outcome and detail of that will be shared as necessary. But having the discretion for Ministers to choose the best implementation is surely in our best interests.
I shall come to the important point also raised by the noble Baroness, my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, on Clause 19 standing part, which is related to this. As all noble Lords have said, Clause 19 gives power to Ministers to implement a new agreement with the EU as soon as one can be reached. As I have said, a negotiated agreement with the EU remains our preferred approach and this clause facilitates that commitment, as the noble Baroness acknowledged.
I want to address the central point. The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, is not in his place but I gave him a brief reassurance on the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 in a previous debate—a point also made by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis. I assure noble Lords that this Bill does nothing to affect the procedures applying under that Act, so any new treaty replacing the protocol or amending it will be subject to the usual pre-ratification scrutiny that the Act provides.
This clause also allows a Minister to make legislative changes that they consider appropriate for the purposes of implementing a relevant agreement with the EU. It is also vital in ensuring that we have the ability to promptly implement—
I do not think we are very happy about this. The Minister says that he wants to address stability in Northern Ireland, yet this whole process goes over the heads of people in Northern Ireland. We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and others just how unsuccessful they expect that to be. There are so many issues here, I just do not understand why Clause 19 is required when there are processes available to the Government to do this. We shall come back to this, but the only thing about saying that we shall come back to it on Report is that we do not know whether we will actually get to Report, given the amendments that we discussed before we started our formal consideration of the Bill. We still have not heard anything from the Government on that. Obviously, we shall leave it for today but the discussion we have had leaves a few more questions than answers. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 39 withdrawn.
Clause 19 agreed.
Clause 20: Role of the European Court in court and tribunal proceedings
40: Clause 20, page 10, line 32, at end insert—
“but this section does not have effect unless it has previously been approved by a resolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would prevent the Bill’s proposed departure from the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol, or from any related provision of the EU withdrawal agreement, in respect of the previously agreed role of the European Court (CJEU) unless Clause 20 had first been approved by the Northern Ireland Assembly.
My Lords, Amendment 40 in my name is co-signed by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick. Like so many of the earlier and similar amendments, it aims to ensure that the democratically elected Northern Ireland Assembly would have the final say on whether Clause 20 is to be implemented. In many ways, this is a probing amendment following what I felt was a very constructive and useful speech from the noble Lord, Lord Empey, who I am very glad to see back in his place after an absence. In doing this, it is incredibly important that we make sure that there is greater involvement of the Northern Ireland political parties at every stage. Perception is all in politics and, whether or not the Minister says that meetings are taking place, the representatives here from Northern Ireland do not feel that they are taking place. Therefore, they are obviously not working as they should be.
As the noble Lord, Lord Hain, who is not in his place, spelled out so clearly on an earlier group of amendments, Clause 20 would mean that domestic courts and tribunals cannot refer any matter to the European Court of Justice in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol. Last week, the noble Lord, Lord Hain, also spelled out very clearly the potential impact of this clause on the single electricity market on the island of Ireland. My honourable friend Stephen Farry MP, when speaking in the House of Commons about a very similar amendment, made the point that if the ultimate jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice is removed, Northern Ireland’s ability to access the single market for goods will be jeopardised or destroyed. A level playing field overseen by the European Court is surely in the interests of many Northern Ireland businesses and can protect access to the market in years to come. It will also protect such businesses against situations that may arise in future if any EU member state were to attempt to refuse goods coming from Northern Ireland.
Politically, it is worth stressing once again that the majority of businesses in Northern Ireland have adopted our somewhat pragmatic approach to the protocol and that the jurisdiction of the European Court has not previously been seen as a major area of concern. It is therefore hard not to draw the conclusion that Clause 20 has more to do with Conservative Party divisions and the ERG than it has to do with genuine political and business concerns in Northern Ireland. For those businesses that primarily deal with north-south trade or with the EU, any reduction of the jurisdiction of the ECJ would potentially have a profound impact on them. It is for that reason that it is very important that the Northern Ireland Assembly should be able to have its say on these matters. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will speak in favour of Amendment 40 in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, and will refer to Amendments 42 and 43A in my name.
In many ways, Amendment 40 seeks to protect the role of the European Court of Justice and to ensure adherence to the accountability mechanisms of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Adherence to the provisions in the GFA—the Good Friday agreement—are of vital importance, and any change in the protocol with respect to Clause 20 can go nowhere unless approved by the Northern Ireland Assembly.
While this is a probing amendment, like the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, I go back to the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, about the role of Assembly Members in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Absolutely no account, recognition or acknowledgement has been taken of the role of locally elected Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly in relation to this Bill. He is absolutely right when he says that, if they have buy-in and ownership, there is greater likelihood that the UK Government and the EU will achieve a degree of resolution on many of these vexatious issues.
Many elements of the protocol are already working well for business in Northern Ireland; for example, in relation to dairy, beef and agri-food industries. But it is important to note, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and other noble Lords have said—and I think the point has been made by my noble friend Lord Murphy—that negotiations succeed in Northern Ireland only when the parties are sitting around the table with the UK and the EU. So I ask the Government, in their discussions with the European Union, to try where possible to exercise a degree of flexibility that would facilitate such discussions taking place in a more all-encompassing manner.
I move on to Amendment 42, which seeks to ensure that, when the UK-EU joint committee has discussed regulation of goods in connection with the protocol, there is a full report to Parliament detailing those discussions within 21 days of the meeting. In the previous discussion on the first group of amendments, when queries were put by noble Lords about the nature and content of the negotiations with the European Union, I am afraid we did not get very much back about the actual content or level of solutions. Therefore, we are left with a query in our minds about what progress is actually being made in those technical discussions; hence the need for renewed vigour in continuous, senior political engagement at a UK/EU level.
Amendment 42 rightly emphasise the role of the Assembly and the north-south institutions of the Good Friday agreement. That is further emphasised in Amendment 43A, which requires adherence by a UK Minister in the UK-EU joint committee meetings
“to respect, reflect and support proposals made by the Strand 2”
GFA implementation bodies. That goes back to the fact that many of the implementation bodies are inextricably linked to membership of the European Union—I am thinking of InterTradeIreland and Tourism Ireland. It is important that Ministers support proposals on the regulation of goods made by the strand 2 bodies in the joint committee meetings.
It is important that we revert back—I urge the EU and the UK to do likewise—to the spirit and intention of the Good Friday agreement. It is fitting that, tonight, in another part of the parliamentary estate, a painting of the late John Hume, by the renowned Northern Ireland artist Colin Davidson, is being unveiled by the Speaker of the other place. In many ways, John Hume was the architect of the three-stranded approach that emerged in the Good Friday agreement, and the spirit of co-operation, partnership and working together. That can be achieved only when all the facets—namely the UK, the EU and the Northern Ireland parties—work together to achieve solutions in the best economic, political and societal interests of all of the people of Northern Ireland.
My Lords, like the noble Baroness, I hope to be able to be present for the unveiling of the portrait of the late John Hume. It is a pity that our recently departed colleague Lord Trimble is not able to be there for that extraordinary occasion.
It seems to me that what the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, said was wholly in tune with what the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said earlier in our debates: how important it is to involve the politicians in Northern Ireland. It is also important to do something else, which was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, in his speech just half an hour ago. I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, is in the Chamber at the moment, because the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, talked about the crucial importance of involvement at the highest possible level. We would never have had any agreement without John Major and Albert Reynolds, built upon by Sir Tony Blair, the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, and others. It is very important indeed.
No one appreciates more than I do, I hope, the tremendous tasks facing our new Prime Minister, and I wish him every possible success. However, as soon as it is possible, he should involve himself. He should go over to Belfast and meet the Northern Ireland politicians, the Taoiseach and others, because there has to be involvement at the highest level. The success of such talks would be increased if this wretched Bill were at the very least paused.
My Lords, I want to make a brief comment on Amendment 40, which is about approval by a resolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly. In support of this amendment, it has been stated that adherence to the spirit and intention of the Belfast agreement is vital. But if we are to be faithful to that agreement as amended by the St Andrews agreement, and to its spirit and intention, then the amendment is defective in that it does not include cross-community consent. Is this a resolution by cross-community consent?
The point that I have made—and as other noble Lords who are aware of the details of the Belfast agreement will know—is that every major decision in the Northern Ireland Assembly is made on a cross-community consent basis. That means a majority of nationalists, a majority of designated unionists and a majority overall. Anything that is not specifically a cross-community vote is capable of being turned into one by a petition of concern. If you are using the argument that you are defending the Belfast agreement, as amended, then why is the cross-community element of resolutions in the Northern Ireland Assembly left out? Why is that the case? Why is it not required to have the support of unionists and nationalists? That is the basis on which the Belfast agreement was written.
My second point is about the involvement of Northern Ireland parties. I have a lot of sympathy there, but it is worth bearing in mind that in the run-up, between 2018 and 2020, when we had all the discussions about the backstop and negotiations overall, the Irish Government made it clear on a number of occasions to us that they did not wish to have any engagement directly with political parties in Northern Ireland on the issue of Brexit. They did not see a role. Nor did Michel Barnier see any role for the political parties in Northern Ireland; I put that point to him directly in his office in Brussels.
Lest we move to the position that the British Government have prevented this or not done enough, I say that the Irish Government and the Brussels Commission were very clear: “This is a matter on which the EU is represented by Monsieur Barnier. He speaks for the EU.” Leo Varadkar was very clear when we met him in Belfast and urged him to encourage a more imaginative approach that would involve the Northern Ireland political parties and the Irish Government talking directly to political parties about Brexit—and the UK Government, of course. That was rejected: “No, Michel Barnier speaks for the EU. It is between Her Majesty’s Government”, as it then was, “and the EU. There is no role for anyone else.” That was spelled out explicitly.
While I have a lot of sympathy with the proposition, this is not as straightforward as it would appear. I think some of the problems we have seen might well have been made easier to resolve had there been more flexibility on the part of the EU and the Irish Government, but it needs to be put on record that it was and, as far as I understand it, remains, the position both of the Dublin Government and Brussels. It would be very interesting to see whether Leo Varadkar maintains that position when he takes over as Taoiseach in a few weeks’ time. It would be worth exploring that with the Irish Government, because the portrayal that this has been a one-sided exclusion is not accurate.
My Lords, I did not intend to come in at this stage—there are further amendments later that I am interested in making a contribution to—but I agree with an awful lot of what the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, has said. Over the last year or two, I have been complaining that the real difficulty in this negotiation, if that is the right word to use for it—and I do not think that it is, by the way—lies in the way the protocol was born. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the protocol, or of the Bill—and I think there is an awful lot wrong with it—I am not at all convinced it is doing what it set out to do: in fact, it has failed to do that, because the DUP has not moved considerably because of the nature of the Bill. One reason is that the negotiations have been almost exclusively between the European Union on one hand and the British Government on the other, as the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, said. That is a fundamental problem.
I understand why the Irish Government feel that way. They are part of the European Union; the European Union negotiates on their behalf. I thought it would be a good idea if that were reversed: the Irish Government could have negotiated on behalf of the European Union because, as we have heard a number of times this evening, the issues we are dealing with reflect two international agreements. The first and overriding one is the Good Friday agreement. That is an international agreement lodged at the United Nations and it overrides everything, so far as we can see, with regard to the future of Northern Ireland. How on earth can officials from the European Union understand the issues facing Northern Ireland in the way that the Irish Government could?
That reflects too, of course, on how you involve the Northern Ireland parties. If anybody thinks that this whole issue is going to be resolved in Brussels, that is for the birds. The issue is to be resolved in Belfast: that is where the impasse is. The impasse is: why have we not got the institutions of the Good Friday agreement up and running? It is simple. It is because people have not talked to each other. There have not been proper negotiations.
I spent five years of my life negotiating in Northern Ireland so I know how intense those negotiations have to be. There were negotiations involving the European Union at some stage, but nothing like the negotiations between, on the one hand, the two Governments—the British Government and the Irish Government—and, critically, the Northern Ireland political parties on the other. In the end, they will have to decide this.
One of the great tragedies of all this—it was not the fault of the DUP; it was the fault of Sinn Féin, in this case—is that the Assembly and the Executive were brought down over the then Irish language Bill. The result was that there was no proper Executive comprised of the parties in Northern Ireland, who could have discussed all the issues we have been discussing for the past three weeks. Had there been a proper Executive and Assembly up and running, we would not—I hope—be here in the way we are. I have a lot of sympathy for what the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, said.
I still hope that, over the next few months, the Irish Government can discuss meaningfully with the British Government. I particularly hope that there are proper, meaningful negotiations involving the political parties in Northern Ireland. By that, I mean negotiations; I do not mean going to Belfast for a couple of hours, meeting the political leaders, and then coming back again. That is not going to work. You have to get people around a table. You have to involve all the political parties in Northern Ireland. You have to do the things that we have done over the past 10 or 20 years to achieve a real, lasting solution to this issue. What we are doing now is a sham. It will not solve anything at all. The only way we can do it is through negotiations that involve the Governments and the political parties in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I want briefly to follow what the noble Lords, Lord Murphy and Lord Dodds, have said. The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, may be right about the European Union not wishing to negotiate with regional politicians. It has a long-standing position on that; the EU-Canada trade agreement got bogged down because of the Wallonians, I think, who blocked it for quite some time. But never mind what the European Union or Dublin thinks. This is what matters: what our own Government decide on who is going to speak for the United Kingdom at these talks. If our Government decide to involve people and politicians in Northern Ireland, that is our business. It is not the European Union’s business. At the end of the day we know what its stance is, but that is neither here nor there if our Government decide that they are going to create their own negotiations. Who they take advice from and consult in the United Kingdom is entirely up to them, so I do not see that as an obstacle.
I gently remind the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, that the first decision in our amendment to the Belfast agreement at St Andrews was to remove the necessity for cross-community consent for the election of the First Minister. Had that remained as it was, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson would be First Minister, not Michelle O’Neill.
My Lords, I shall make a short comment on Amendment 40 proposed by the noble Baronesses, Lady Suttie and Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick. It says that
“this section does not have effect unless it has previously been approved by a resolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly.”
Surely that is not an honourable reflection of the Belfast agreement, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, told us, overrides all the international agreements. The spirit, and a fundamental pillar, of the Belfast agreement is cross-community support. If what the noble Baronesses are saying is that the amendment actually means “by a resolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly with cross-community support”, I challenge them to put that in and make that clear. However, I know from the previous contributions of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, that she does not mean that. She means a simple majority and going back to majority rule, which has disappeared in Northern Ireland over the past 50 years—much at the behest of her former colleagues.
I therefore challenge the noble Baronesses to state clearly: do they desire recognition and an honourable reflection of the fundamental pillar of the Belfast agreement? When they speak about
“a resolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly”,
are they clearly stating that that is with cross-community support? If they are not, then they are not upholding the Belfast agreement and all the pretension in this Committee is only empty rhetoric.
My Lords, I draw attention to the suggestion that Clause 20 should not stand part. During these Committee debates, we have addressed a number of extraordinary provisions in the Bill that give exceptional powers to Ministers, but Clause 20 really does take the biscuit, if that is a parliamentary expression. Let me emphasise what it provides. It provides that the role of the Court of Justice in Luxembourg is excluded, which we will all have a view about, but it goes on to say that Ministers can, by regulations, recreate the role of the European Court of Justice. Is it not quite extraordinary that a Minister should be able, by regulations, to confer a power on an external body to sit as the final judicial body determining issues that are relevant for the purposes of English law? Whether you agree with the role of the Court of Justice or disapprove of it, it cannot be constitutional for a Minister of the Crown to have an exceptional power to decide who and what is the final court of appeal for this country.
I very much support what the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said, and add that it seems quite astonishingly narrow-minded and short-sighted to want to be rid of the European court in these circumstances. We heard at length last week about the effect on electricity, but there is a wider effect.
May I just put in a word of defence of the European court? I happened to visit it on numerous occasions. It has made some extraordinarily sensible decisions that have affected this country and particularly women, which is one of the reasons I support it. It is quite extraordinary that a Conservative Government, who I always thought had a broad view, should be quite unbelievably narrow-minded, and that some quite erroneous view of sovereignty should be taking over from the crucial role that the ECJ has to play in the work we are considering.
I echo, from a non-legal point of view, the points made by the previous two speakers but, when looking at the European Court of Justice and its role under the protocol, I imagine that even the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, would not contradict the point that I am about to make, which is that the properly constituted British Government, supported by the properly constituted British Parliament, entered into a treaty that gave a role to the European Court of Justice. That is a simple fact. It is there, written. It is another simple fact that there is no provision in the protocol to remove that role of the European Court of Justice—none.
What we are talking about is a breach of our international commitments. I am sure one of the noble Lords on the Front Bench will again hotly deny that this is the case because, like the Red Queen in Alice, their only argument is, “It is so because I say it is so”. Fortunately, that is not a terribly convincing argument in this place, where occasionally—not all the time—reason has a way of prevailing. I should like to suggest that we recognise this reality, which is that the Government’s attempt to remove the European Court of Justice unilaterally from two international treaties, which they entered with the consent, support and approval of Parliament, is a breach of our international commitments.
My Lords, we had a brief debate on matters relating to the European court last week, which largely focused on the earlier parts of the Bill. It is helpful to have this opportunity to deal with some of these issues in more detail.
The agreement reached with the EU on the status and role of the CJEU in relation to the protocol and other parts of the withdrawal agreement was carefully crafted and informed part of the oven-ready deal the Conservative Party was proud to call its own. There is some logic in what Clause 20 seeks to achieve. If the protocol no longer functions as intended, the legal processes cannot either, but that is only if one accepts that it is acceptable to tear up a binding international agreement in the first place.
The power for Ministers to introduce some form of referral process is interesting and a little surprising. It seems to contradict the earlier power in subsection (2). From a practical point of view, would not any referral scheme work only if the EU and European court agreed to engage in the process? Would this point not need to be negotiated?
There has been a wide-ranging debate on these issues, but it seems that there are some very practical consequences of trying to put into place a new referral process while at the same time needing to negotiate with the organisation one has just torn up a formal agreement with. How would that work in practice?
My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for their participation in this debate. I will first address Amendment 40 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie. I am delighted to see her in her place and will do my utmost to address her points, as I turn to the first group.
The amendment would require a positive resolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly before the provisions of Clause 20 can be brought into force. I point out, and it is a matter that the whole Committee is seized of, that we need to see the restoration of the institutions as quickly as possible. It is because of the breakdown of those institutions that the Government consider that the Bill is needed.
Clause 20 engages a complex combination of the transferred, devolved and reserved matters relating to foreign affairs and the court systems of the United Kingdom’s three jurisdictions. It would not be appropriate for the Northern Ireland Assembly to constrain the UK Parliament’s power to legislate, even if that legislation relates to a reserved matter.
Clause 20 is a key part of the Bill. It addresses how we treat CJEU case law, principles, and references, including in relation to those parts of the protocol that we are excluding in domestic law. I will come back to this point, but to reiterate matters taken at earlier stages before your Lordships, this is not a ripping up or tearing up of the protocol, but a recognition that parts of the protocol are not working and parts are. We seek to retain those parts that are working and dispense with those that are not.
I thank the Minister for giving way. Does he not agree that it would be much better to undertake such discussions through negotiations themselves to correct those parts of the protocol that may be causing concern at this moment in time?
I stress, not for the first time from the Dispatch Box by myself or my noble friends on the Front Bench, that the Government’s preference remains for a negotiated solution.
The Chamber and the other place have heard from representatives of the unionist community that the presence of the European Court of Justice in the protocol is at the heart of the democratic deficit issue. Absent the provisions of Clause 20, we could end up in an incoherent position whereby substantive provisions of the protocol are disapplied but new CJEU case law associated with those provisions continues to apply. For that reason, and the others I have outlined, I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment. I emphasise that bringing back the democratic institutions in Northern Ireland is the Government’s priority.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, my noble friend Lord Cormack and others raised the matter of engagement with Northern Ireland politicians. I look to the noble Lord, Lord Empey, as well, on this matter, and the noble Lord, Lord Dodds of Duncairn, touched upon it too in his submission to your Lordships at this stage. This is an important point. The Government have committed to ensuring that representatives of the Northern Ireland Executive are invited to be part of the United Kingdom delegation in meetings of the specialised and joint committees discussing Northern Ireland matters, which are also attended by the Irish Government. Also, when the Northern Ireland Executive was functioning, the then Foreign Secretary regularly met the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, along with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to discuss the protocol.
However, to reiterate the principal point, the point which brings this Bill before your Lordships’ House, the institutions are not functioning, and precisely because of the protocol. We will continue to engage, but the protocol has made things that bit more difficult.
The Advocate-General will have had the opportunity to reflect on a previous day in Committee, when concerns about the single electricity market were raised. A key component is EU law, which is not in question. How does the Advocate-General anticipate that the joint regulatory system operating under our approach and that of the EU can operate if EU law cannot be interpreted?
My Lords, interpretation of foreign law is a matter with which all three jurisdictions in the United Kingdom are familiar. With the noble Lord’s leave, because my remit does not extend to the operation of the single electricity market, which, as he said, was touched upon by the noble Lord, Lord Hain, in an earlier group, I will defer to my noble friends on the Front Bench and will write to the noble Lord on that point. I am grateful to him for his forbearance.
I cannot properly address the possibly important proposition raised by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, in his submission to your Lordships, anent having the Government of Ireland lead the European Union in terms of negotiations. That matter will have been heard by others in the Government and given appropriate significance. It is a novel proposition expressed with the noble Lord’s customary force. I am sure that the Government will look at it.
The noble Lords, Lord Dodds of Duncairn and Lord Empey, gave us the historical background and again laid emphasis which was valuable to us all regarding the importance of the cross-community aspect of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. As I have said, briefly, the CJEU’s position has been identified as a major obstacle.
Your Lordships’ Committee heard something about the value to be given to polling; I think the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, raised that as an earlier stage, contrasting polls with actual democratic exercises. However, I can say to the Committee that polling carried out by Queen’s University in Belfast has indicated that with people who have concerns about the operation of the protocol, the CJEU and its presence and status was identified as a significant problem.
If the role of the court of justice is, as the Minister puts it, a major obstacle because of democratic deficit, as he describes it, can he please explain to the Committee why Clause 20(3) would give an express power to Ministers to make regulations which would provide for a role for the court of justice? Surely that is inconsistent with what he just said.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising the point. The Government have always anticipated that the United Kingdom courts will be the final arbiter. The clause to which the noble Lord just referred your Lordships provides for the creation of a reference mechanism, but United Kingdom law would ultimately prevail.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, addressed us on Amendments 42 and 43A. I argue that those proposed new clauses are in some respects unnecessary and in some aspects of their drafting inappropriate. Article 14(b) of the protocol already requires the specialised committee to
“examine proposals concerning the implementation and application of this Protocol from the North-South Ministerial Council and North-South Implementation bodies set up under the 1998 Agreement”.
That is an appropriate and valuable role. We submit that, by contrast, the noble Baroness’s amendments would create a statutory obligation for the United Kingdom to support
“proposals relating to the regulation of goods made by the North/South Ministerial Council and other North-South implementation bodies”.
That would cede control over the United Kingdom Government’s stance in the joint committee to a council in which the Irish Government sit. We consider that that would be inappropriate. The Government already ensure that representatives from the Northern Ireland Executive, as I said, are invited to meetings of the joint committee which discusses specific Northern Ireland matters, and which is attended also by the Government of Ireland. Therefore, we submit that there is already ample opportunity for representations to be made at the joint committee from both north and south.
We submit that the aspects of new clauses obliging the Government to lay reports before Parliament are also unnecessary. The Government have committed already to lay Written Ministerial Statements in Parliament before and after each meeting of the joint committee, and already do so. We also provide explanatory memoranda on matters to be discussed at joint committee meetings.
There is a more fundamental objection yet. The Bill is designed to restore the balance across all three strands of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. The analogy with the milking stool has already been made: the three legs are of equal importance. To further empower the north-south dimension to the comparative detriment of the east-west dimension, as the amendment would do, will, we submit, exacerbate the problems facing Northern Ireland and undermine that delicate balance of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. In that spirit, I urge the noble Baroness to not move her amendments.
The noble and learned Baroness doubtless speaks rhetorically. I have the utmost respect for her intellect, as does the whole House. My position, which I sought to express, was that the clause will provide a mechanism by which a reference could be laid before the Court of Justice of the European Union, but that ultimately British law, in whatever of the three jurisdictions it is operating, will prevail over that. It is a reference procedure.
I am following up what the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, just said. The implication of what my noble and learned friend said from the Dispatch Box is that there is nowhere at all for the European Court of Justice. Is it really a total sticking point in the negotiations? Can he tell me whether this is negotiable? If it is not, we are doubly wasting our time.
Before I do, I say that, in response to an earlier point on which I undertook to write, I am notified from the Box that the matter of the single electricity market and the European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction is covered in a letter being sent to the noble Lord today.
That gives me an opportunity to thank the Minister for his efficiency. I look forward to reading the instant letter that is on its way.
I have a point on Article 2 and the rights associated with it. I seek some reference from the Dispatch Box, because the concern that exists, as I understand it—and I am not a lawyer; that is my declared interest—is that the directives providing the rights under Article 2 are interpretive. Therefore, if there are changes to those founding rights—or updates, interpretations or case law—there needs to be a mechanism by which we will adopt that, otherwise those rights under Article 2 are not being upheld, as I understand it. But if under the Bill the court is prohibited from having that role, what will be the mechanism while we interpret those European directives, which are protected under Article 2?
My Lords, the courts of the United Kingdom are fully competent to interpret and apply the law. The Government’s intention is that the laws of the United Kingdom should prevail and that the Court of Justice of the European Union should not henceforth have a role, unless a reference is made to it.
I think this perhaps overlaps with the point that the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, raised, but I reiterate our commitment to Article 2. That will be covered in a letter we are presently framing to the noble Baroness. At an earlier stage, she raised the point and gave the Government until the commencement of Report to furnish her with an answer. That answer is now being drafted.
There is a Clause 20 stand part notice. I will summarise what I have said. This clause allows for the proper functioning of domestic court proceedings following the removal of the domestic effect of CJEU jurisdiction under Clause 13. Domestic courts will no longer be bound by CJEU principles or decisions when considering matters relating to the protocol. I emphasise that restoration of these democratic institutions is what we seek to accomplish. Subsection (3) provides a further power to make new provision in connection with this. Regulations made under this power could set out how the UK courts are to regard CJEU jurisprudence or provide a procedure to refer questions of interpretation of EU law to the CJEU if a domestic court considers it necessary to conclude proceedings. The clause is important to ensure that the Government can provide legal and judicial certainty for domestic courts considering proceedings relating to the protocol without being subject to CJEU jurisdiction, in line with the general principles of the Bill. For those reasons, I recommend that the clause stand part of the Bill.
My Lords, I thank the Minister—not least because, as a fellow Scot, he pronounces my name correctly. The constant repetition of “Baroness Sooty” at the beginning was very pointed. Unfortunately, the rest of his reply was somewhat disappointing. However, I am very pleased that he now has on record that the pronunciation is Suttie, not Sooty.
This was a very interesting debate. It split into two distinct sections. There was a powerful debate about the negotiations taking place in Northern Ireland. The noble Lords, Lord Murphy and Lord Cormack, expressed the frustration that many of us feel, that this has to be done at the highest possible level. When the Prime Minister returns, I agree that he must go to Northern Ireland. I am sure that we will return to these matters on the Statement that we expect later this week, perhaps tomorrow or on Wednesday, where we can look at these issues in more detail. The points are very relevant, and there were some extremely good speeches.
The second major concern is around Clause 20. I listened carefully to what the Minister said, but it seems very unclear to me how the clause will protect Northern Ireland businesses, especially those that work north-south, and the single market in the future. I did not feel that we got an adequate reply to that.
The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, and his DUP colleagues raised the important point about consent. That is part of the wider principle of how we make sure that Northern Ireland politicians feel that they are involved and included in this process.
This was a probing amendment. The wording is not necessarily right. However, we should look at this again on Report, perhaps in a broader amendment on the general principle of consent. We would want to look at exactly how that was worded. None the less, on the basis that we may return to it on Report, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 40 withdrawn.
Amendments 41 to 41A not moved.
Clause 20 agreed.
Amendments 42 to 43A not moved.
43B: After Clause 20, insert the following new Clause—
“UK-EU Veterinary Agreement: report to Parliament
Within three months of the day on which this Act is passed a Minister of the Crown must lay before each House of Parliament a report on the progress of negotiations with the European Union regarding the Northern Ireland Protocol which may result in a UK-EU Veterinary Agreement.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment requires a Minister of the Crown to report to Parliament on the progress of any negotiations with the European Union that may result in a UK-EU Veterinary Agreement.
My Lords, this amendment seeks to make two important changes to the Bill: it removes the unworkable and discredited notion of dual regulation, and it mandates the Government to negotiate a veterinary agreement with the EU and to report back.
The protocol has facilitated the uninterrupted movement of livestock and livestock products, including milk, across the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. By removing parts of the protocol without a veterinary agreement in place, dairy farmers will bear the brunt of the Government’s dogma.
We are not talking about insignificant trade: farmers in Northern Ireland produce around 2.5 billion litres of milk every year. Of that, around 800 million litres, with a value of £600 million, need to move across the border into the Republic of Ireland for processing. This arrangement is not just economically beneficial but built on necessity, because there is insufficient capacity in Northern Ireland to process all the milk produced there, putting at risk the viability of a £1.5 billion industry and the livelihoods of tens of thousands who depend on it.
The dairy industry is deeply concerned by the real prospect that the changes to the protocol we are discussing in the Bill could plunge milk producers into poverty. Dairy farmers are not the only ones at risk. Each year, 400,000 lambs move from Northern Ireland into the Republic for processing. Pig farmers and others also benefit from current arrangements. It is clearly time to provide stability for the communities of hard-working people relying on food production for their livelihoods by negotiating a veterinary agreement between the UK and the EU. Such an agreement has been called for by business groups in the UK, such as the British Irish Chamber of Commerce, the CBI, the British Meat Processors Association, the British Veterinary Association and Dairy UK.
The two alternatives in play—the red and green lane approach proposed by the Government in the Bill and the express lane on offer from the EU—will both require checks on goods coming to Northern Ireland from Great Britain, as long as there is the possibility of a significant divergence between standards for goods of animal origin. By contrast, a bespoke and tailored veterinary agreement between the EU and the UK could retain trade across the island of Ireland and drastically reduce the necessity of SPS checks. Keeping checks to an absolute minimum requires either a dynamic alignment of veterinary standards or a veterinary alignment retaining common standards between the two jurisdictions.
We know that this can be achieved because the EU already has veterinary agreements in place with Switzerland and New Zealand. Switzerland, for example, has essentially no documentary or physical checks on goods travelling between it and the EU, amounting to a common veterinary area. The implementation of the agreement is overseen by a joint veterinary committee, and such a veterinary agreement is already on offer from the EU to the UK. A New Zealand-style agreement does not provide the same freedoms for the movement of goods because there is no shared land border. None the less, physical checks take place on only 1% to 10% of shipments. In that context, it is plainly absurd that checks are in place for 30% of UK agri-food products currently entering the EU. That is to say, as many as 30 times more checks are happening on products coming from Great Britain as on those coming from the other side of the world.
The amendment gives Ministers the flexibility to come up with a British veterinary agreement that they and this Parliament can live with. It is a pragmatic approach, seeking not to bind Ministers’ hands but to empower them to put the Northern Ireland relationship right. I hope the Minister can respond positively to that intention. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, for introducing the amendment; much that she said is extremely pertinent.
It is useful at this point to remind the Committee of quite why we are in this predicament over veterinary matters. From one point of view, you can acknowledge it as a simple function of our departure from the European Union. However, the protocol, in both the May and Johnson versions, contains a way of handling veterinary matters, which is essentially to say, “We will not accept UK veterinary testing. Pirbright is gone and you are out of the system. The only form of veterinary testing we will be able to accept is that within the European Union itself”—presumably, in the case of Ireland, in Dublin. In the EU documents of the time, there are rather interesting green pictures with little arrows showing power departing from the island of Ireland to the EU, which has now taken control of this area.
There is an obvious basic problem with that. The Good Friday agreement, whose importance has been increasingly acknowledged and accepted, was not accepted as the prior agreement when we began this debate, but I notice with pleasure that it is increasingly accepted as the key agreement; that has some significance, as it was not when we opened these discussions. The Good Friday agreement established food safety and animal health boards. For the life of me, I have never known why, in the negotiation, it was quite so necessary to have the approach of extraction of powers from the island of Ireland to the EU that the protocol, lodged by the May Government and signed by the Johnson Government, contains.
That is another example of why what the Good Friday agreement suggests, and obvious pathways that follow from everything that the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, said, should be followed, rather than a strict obsessive acceptance of the fact that, “We signed it in this protocol and therefore it can’t be changed”. A negotiation is going on and it is bound to touch on these matters. In this case, as in so many others—including, I dare say, the issue we have been discussing for the last half hour—the canopy for the settlement is acceptance of the Good Friday agreement and the way in which it approached this problem. Then you get into the possibility of consensus and agreement.
It is not all the UK Government’s fault that they find themselves, to put it mildly, on the back foot. It is arguable that they have not behaved particularly effectively in sorting this problem out, but it is not all their fault. The root of the matter is the failure of the EU to understand—and how could it?—the north-south dimension of the Good Friday agreement. That failure is radically revealed in Michel Barnier’s memoir in these documents. The explanation has been given in various books and articles by the officials involved on the Irish side in Dublin in the negotiation on the 2017 agreement, which then set the template for the two later agreements. The explanation is that the Irish Government appropriated a particular version of the Good Friday agreement—their version—and sold it to the EU, and it was accepted in Europe and by us. We cannot revisit any of these issues in any simple sense but it remains an intellectual reality that is the clue to understanding how we can redress these processes.
All these problems that seem so insoluble—I absolutely respect the spirit in which the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, moved the amendment—are much more easily resolved if we follow what the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said, accept the prior importance of the Good Friday agreement and realise that the institutions and the concepts to be found there are the institutions and concepts that provide the basis for a benign compromise that both the UK and the EU can live with.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, for her amendment because it goes to the heart of the protocol and the protocol Bill issues in relation to the need for an SPS veterinary agreement. The dairy and farming industries on the island of Ireland require an SPS agreement. I have written to the noble Lord, Lord Caine, today, following last week’s debate on this issue following further discussions with elements of the dairy industry. The bottom line is that unless there is an SPS agreement, that could very much interfere with our dairy industry and totally undermine it.
I shall give a short explanation from the letter. Those in the dairy industry acknowledge the issues that the Northern Ireland retail sector is dealing with regarding the protocol and support for a dual regulatory regime, but such a regime would not work for the dairy industry because we are looking at the very survival of Northern Ireland dairy farmers. Approximately 30% of all Northern Ireland milk is processed in the Republic of Ireland because there is not the capacity to do so in Northern Ireland. It may be worth visiting some of the processing factories in Northern Ireland that are part of a greater co-operative group to see what they do and what they are trying to tell us.
If you create a hard border for milk, which the dual regulatory scheme outlined in the Bill will, there will be enormous environmental issues. Northern Ireland does not have the capacity to dump 30% of its milk, and milk has special regulations for its disposal. You could then move to the culling of perfectly healthy animals which, in a cost of living crisis, is inconceivable. Finally, this would lead to devastating consequences for the economy of Northern Ireland, as the agri-food industry is its bedrock.
So I say to the Minister that those in the dairy industry have looked at the impact of a 30% reduction in sales to an average Northern Ireland farmer. When you consider their average interest on loans and their loan repayments, this would result in an annual negative cash flow. In other words, their costs would be greater than their income.
In summation, it is vitally important that the negotiations achieve an SPS veterinary agreement. From what I have read in the non-papers from the EU of October last year, it is very prepared to enter into such an agreement as part of the negotiations. However, the dual regulatory regime will not work for the agri-food sector. Maybe a bespoke arrangement is required for the retail sector where some of the problems lie.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, for her amendment because it roots our discussions in the real world of farmers and manufacturers and focuses our minds on jobs and prosperity. The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, as usual, got it completely right and explained the impact on the dairy industry very powerfully. I will not repeat some of what she has already said, although I was intending to.
We ought to be working towards an SPS agreement. We on these Benches have thought that we should be working towards that sort of agreement for the whole of the UK and we have held that position for over a year because of the very clear benefits it would bring to food and drink manufacturers. I think the food and drink industry is still our biggest manufacturing sector in England, so there would certainly be significant benefits to the whole of the UK of this approach.
One benefit would surely be to assist—not to resolve completely—in overcoming some of the issues experienced by producers, hauliers and those wishing to trade east-west. We are reminded quite rightly by the noble Lord, Lord Bew, that we need to be concerned about this. It would be hugely beneficial to our industries in Northern Ireland and beyond. We understand that not every problem will be solved this way and we know that some SPS checks were there prior to the protocol, for other reasons. That seemed to work fairly well for quite a long time, so that may still be necessary. It will be interesting to see what the Minister thinks about that.
At this stage, we think we need this to help with the costs and administrative burdens faced by producers, distributors and retailers. A couple of examples have been referred to. I will briefly refer to the Swiss deal. They have an agreement where regulations are aligned, eliminating virtually all documentary, identity and physical checks. New Zealand, as we have heard, has an equivalence model that has made processes simpler and reduced checks. We probably would not want to replicate either of those models directly. Obviously there are differences, such as the volumes coming from New Zealand and the fact that many of the loads going east-west in our situation are mixed, that make neither model directly replicable. We think we probably need a bespoke agreement and the door to that seems to be open with the EU, so it is curious that the UK Government seem quite so reluctant to explore that option.
The amendments in my name are designed to highlight the very real problems faced by not only the dairy industry, but that industry in particular, since the partial implementation of the protocol. What businesses in Northern Ireland are saying as loudly as anything else is that they want stability and predictability, and they are just not getting that from the Government at the moment. What will the Government do if this Bill is enacted? How should businesses prepare?
The amendments we have put down would require the Government to bring forward draft regulations and consult the relevant sectors on them. We know the Government are holding discussions and there is some engagement, and we welcome that, but the problem is the basis of that engagement. Listening and having conversations is absolutely vital—I would not argue with that—but a proposal to discuss, get feedback on and potentially amend, to help people understand what the Government have in mind about what would actually be implemented on the ground, is probably missing, because we have not seen any draft regulations. I hope we do ahead of Report, should we get to that, but at the moment the engagement cannot have a solid basis because the Government have not been clear with business.
Manufacturing NI put it very well. It says that it has been clear with the Government that, if they proceed unilaterally with this Bill, particularly with an all-encompassing dual regulatory regime, that would create myriad risks for businesses. It says the UK Government are putting their success at risk. I am not saying that all the discussions we have been having about Henry VIII powers and all the rest of it have not been important, but when you hear a sector body say something such as that, it is very troubling, because we know we need to support the economy of Northern Ireland and we know why. The failure of the Government to be clear, to resolve these issues and to get to a settled position is letting down entrepreneurs and businesspeople in Northern Ireland. That is why I am very pleased to support the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, and also commend the ones in my name.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. In particular I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, for tabling her amendment. I was saying to my noble friend Lord Caine that I think we are getting into some of the reasons. Irrespective of people’s views on the Bill itself, the fact is that businesses are facing problems and challenges that need resolution. I will come on to the specific point that the noble Baroness tabled so ably.
Amendment 43B, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, asks the Government to update Parliament on the progress of negotiations on the veterinary agreements between the UK and the EU. Let me say right from the outset that we have always been very serious about our negotiations on the protocol, and we remain so. Our preference remains to resolve the issues with the protocol through negotiations, and the Bill provides a power to implement any agreement which follows those negotiations—indeed, we had quite an extensive discussion on that particular point. I assure the noble Baroness that the Government have engaged quite extensively with the EU on reducing the burden of SPS checks and controls under the protocol, which she also highlighted.
Where we are right now—I am seeking to provide detail while also acknowledging what the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, said—is that, currently to date, the EU has proposed that any veterinary agreement should be based on dynamic alignment; the Government believe that this would compromise UK sovereignty over our own laws, including our ability to strike trade deals. However, on the specific points that the noble Baroness raised, we remain open to broader negotiated solutions, and we hope that the talks taking place currently can secure a bespoke biosecurity assurance—I welcome the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, in this respect—which maintains our high standards for animal, plant and public health. I know that resonates with all noble Lords.
I will also provide some detail on where we are on both the Swiss and the New Zealand agreements. Of course, the EU has a precedent for making such agreements with other countries—as all noble Lords acknowledged, and I am grateful for that—either through stand-alone agreements, such as the EU-NZ veterinary agreement, or as part of wider agreements with trading partners such as Canada and Switzerland. The UK proposed an SPS model predicated on equivalence and similar to the EU-New Zealand model in the TCA negotiations last year and, indeed, in earlier negotiations and discussions with the EU on the Northern Ireland protocol. However, the EU rejected the possibility of an agreement based on equivalence. The Swiss-EU SPS arrangement is the model that the EU has put forward repeatedly to agree with the UK and is based on dynamic alignment. There is a difference here, but at the same time I appreciate both the tone and substance of this debate, and I want to assure noble Lords that we remain open to these specific points because they address the practical problems being experienced.
Let me say a brief word on the issue of statutory reporting, although I think I have already covered this point previously. As with any negotiations, this is a matter of the foreign affairs prerogative. As I said previously—and I have sought to provide a bit more detail on some of the context in my response—I will certainly seek to update noble Lords, and I appreciate the insights that the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, has brought to this debate.
Turning now to the other contributions, including those from the noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie and Lady Chapman, I will discuss Amendments 58, 60 and 63 together. These amendments would also place a number of requirements on the Government relating to various specific sectors within Northern Ireland, notably the publication of draft regulations and a sector-specific impact assessment, as well as to engage in consultations with representatives from those sectors. Let me say immediately that I entirely sympathise with the desire to ensure that we are properly considering the impact of legislation on all businesses within Northern Ireland. It is for this reason that we have engaged extensively with stakeholder groups across business and civic society in Northern Ireland, in the rest of the UK and internationally—I know that my noble friend Lord Caine will speak to this in subsequent groups; indeed, he covered this in our previous debates in Committee.
In addition to routine engagement, during the summer the Government held over 100 bespoke sessions with over 250 businesses, business representative organisations and regulators to inform the details of how the dual regulatory and trade boundary models should work in practice. In this respect, I can share with all noble Lords—and, in particular, with the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey—that we gained a lot of practical information from that, and we are reflecting on the wealth of feedback received as we continue to develop the details of the underlying regime. The regulations themselves will be the product of this very engagement with business to ensure that the implementation of the new regime is as smooth and operable as possible. Your Lordships’ House will have the opportunity—
Although what the Minister has just said is very welcome, ordinarily there would be engagement so that the Minister could make well-informed suggestions. Then, of course, a period of consultation on whatever ideas the Government intended on implementing would follow. Is the Minister saying that that process would be followed in this case?
I know that the noble Baroness, and other noble Lords—the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, among them—have pressed me on the issue of the detail of the draft regulations. That is, again, very much the process we have adopted to make sure that we are speaking to industry and businesses and reflecting those in the draft regulations that will be published. The regulations will be reflective, as I said earlier, of the wealth of the feedback we have received. The scrutiny of the regulations will be done in the usual fashion and, of course, the Government will provide all the usual accompanying material under parliamentary procedures. The full details of the new regime will be set out in and alongside the regulations made under the Bill, including any economic impacts where appropriate. This will allow Parliament to be informed in its scrutiny of the new regime when it has been put in place.
On the issue of a statutory duty to publish such material, as suggested in the amendments, the Government’s view is that it would not be appropriate to place a statutory duty on the Government. The legislation is needed to tackle the urgent problem we have sought to identify with the workings of the protocol in Northern Ireland. While we do not anticipate any issues with providing information before regulations are brought forward, we do not want to tie our hands unnecessarily in this respect.
Finally, I say to all noble Lords who have participated in this debate that I welcome these specifics, and I hope noble Lords will appreciate that I have sought answers and am listening during the course of Committee, as are my colleagues. I am seeking to provide a bit more detail on what we have but, while asking the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment, I do value the insight and the practical and constructive nature of the amendments that have been tabled.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for the way he has accepted what I have said. It is very important that there is an agreement—it is absolutely critical. I do not for one moment underestimate how difficult it is for a negotiation at this level, but I urge the Government to move heaven and earth to make sure that at the end of the negotiations there is a veterinary agreement. We simply cannot allow the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people to be put at risk; it is just not an option. But for now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 43B withdrawn.
Clause 21 agreed.
Clause 22: Regulations
44: Clause 22, page 11, line 15, leave out subsection (1)
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment removes the ability for regulations under the Bill to make changes that could normally only be made by an Act of Parliament (including modifying this Bill).
My Lords, Amendment 44, in the name of my noble friend Lady Chapman of Darlington, concerns Henry VIII powers and general rules regarding regulations. This amendment removes the ability for regulations under the Bill to make changes that could normally be made only by an Act of Parliament, including modifying this Bill. I also support the clause stand part notice in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, which seeks to oppose the inclusion of Clause 22, which sets out the general scope and nature of the powers contained in this Bill.
Clause 22(1) has the effect of making every regulation-making power in the Bill what the DPRRC has referred to as
“a super Henry VIII power.”
Ministers would be able to make any provision that would normally be made by an Act of Parliament, as well as modifying the Bill once enacted. The DPRRC’s report included a helpful comparison with the powers afforded by the European Union (Withdrawal) Act. It felt those powers were too broad, yet Section 8 of that Act was subject to a sunset clause and a number of clear and important restrictions.
As has been discussed in previous groups, the Bill would allow Ministers to conduct themselves in a manner that may otherwise be deemed unlawful, while at the same time allowing the Treasury to introduce or amend taxes with only a minimal parliamentary role. In some senses, the removal of Clause 22(1) would constrain the powers exercisable under other parts of the Act, but that constraint is nowhere near sufficient in and of itself.
This brings us back to the prospect of removing entire clauses from the Bill on Report, should we even be in a position to proceed at the appropriate time. So, these amendments in a sense restate some of the arguments we had at earlier stages and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I keep hearing the words “democratic accountability” and then I look at the Bill and I cannot find any. We have listened as Clauses 4 to 21 have been debated in this Chamber. If we add those clauses together, we have a lamentable lack of democratic accountability. I expect it will be said, “Ah well, as always, the House of Commons can reject any regulations” and so on; and, “We have a long history of how there are 16 different ways in which the regulation-making powers can be exercised.” To that, I will say: but they have not exercised that power since 1979. This is not democratic accountability; this is quite extraordinary legislation, passing huge amounts of power into the hands of the Executive. Others have spoken. Clause 18 creates tertiary power—guidance—which is not quite a regulation of the sort we are talking about but can create matters that require compelling attention from those who have to abide by the guidance.
Let me just look at Clause 22(1), because it makes what has gone so far rather trivial. It states:
“Regulations under this Act may make any provision that could be made by an Act of Parliament (including provision modifying this Act).”
I then add the words “and any regulations made under it”, because that follows. What it means is that the Bill, having been successfully enacted, could be dismantled by the Government two weeks later. It could be dismantled by a Government three years from now or by a Government 10 years from now. It could restore the very thing that the Bill says it is trying to get rid of—all in the hands of a Minister making regulations under the Act. That is not Henry VIII. I have lost count; I have tried to add it up in different ways. Is it Henry VIII plus Henry VIII for Clauses 4 and 5? That comes to about Clause 79. It cannot be. Is it Henry LXIV, because it is Henry VIII squared? This is an extraordinary power when the Bill is already riddled with Henry VIII powers. I am not jesting about this. The Bill provides for its restoration at any time that the Government of the day choose, or any part of it, or some of it along with other legislation. That is not how we should legislate. Should we not be ashamed of ourselves?
Parliament gave Henry VIII the power to bastardise his first and second children, to say that he was the Pope in England and that he was God’s messenger on earth, to decide the succession, and to say that the monasteries should all come down—the widest act of criminal damage this country has ever seen. Then he produced a Bill giving him the power, by proclamations, to create new laws. I shall not read it all out. What did the successor to that Parliament do? It said no. There was a battle, but in the end that power had this proviso to it put in by the Commons:
“nor that, by any proclamation … any acts, common laws (standing at this present time in strength and force) nor yet any lawful or laudable customs of this realm … shall be infringed, broken or subverted, and specially all those acts standing this hour in force which have been made in the King’s Highness’s time”.
He was not allowed to modify an Act of Parliament by proclamation.
We do not have proclamations anymore; we have statutory instruments. We have regulation-making powers that amount to a modern form of proclamation. We must not agree to clauses of this kind in any Bill. Those that we have agreed to—shame on us. We must not agree to this one. We must insist on the determination and, in its case, the courage shown by the 1539 Parliament not to give the King the powers he wanted. We must not give the Government the power they want in this clause.
My Lords, as we go through this Committee, we are discussing clauses that confound constitutional principle in ever more astonishing ways. I entirely agree with what was just said by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. It is quite extraordinary that we should be asked to approve a clause that would confer power on a Minister to make by regulations
“any provision … including provision modifying this Act”.
The Committee has heard a number of powerful speeches over its four days explaining why it is wasting parliamentary time in analysing the Bill when it is a sideshow to the need to resolve the dispute with the EU. Whatever view you take about that issue, what is a manifest waste of time is for this Committee, and for Parliament on Report, at Third Reading and in the House of Commons on ping-pong if it comes to that, to debate, amend and approve legislation after lengthy debate, only for Ministers to have the power to say, “I don’t care about that. Parliament might have agreed it, but I’m going to set it aside. I’m going to substitute something else.” What is the point of parliamentary debate if that is what a Minister can do?
Indeed, such is the breadth of this provision that a Minister would have a power to substitute in the Bill something that he or she approves of that has been specifically rejected by Parliament. Parliament might have passed an amendment against the views of the Government, yet, under this clause, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said, two weeks or three years later the Minister can say, “That may be what Parliament has done, but I’m going to insert something different”. As the noble and learned Lord said, we really have to take a stand. This cannot be right in principle and it cannot be acceptable to Parliament.
I want to add to the two speeches that have just been given, with every word of which I agree. The Minister may say that we are being hypocritical, as was said earlier, because there have been earlier Bills where we have allowed Henry VIII clauses; but I have been in this House since 2006 and in my time I have never seen a Bill anything like this one, with enhanced Henry VIII powers—or Henry LXIV powers. To my knowledge, in my time we have never had a Bill that has gone so far beyond what one might almost call the “normal” Henry VIII clauses. I entirely agree with what the noble and learned Lord and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said. It really is time that the Government stand back and ask, “Is this actually reasonable? What is it that we are trying to do?” It is utterly unacceptable.
My Lords, it is very hard to follow those three eminent contributions. The egregious nature of this clause and its subsections goes beyond parliamentary affrontery because they impinge on the devolved Administrations as well. Not content with abusing this Parliament, Clause 22(6) will abuse the other Parliaments in the UK as well by creating new powers for Ministers of the Crown over those of devolved authorities. As the delegated powers memorandum blithely puts it:
“Where a matter would normally fall within the legislative competence of the devolved administrations and the passage of devolved primary legislation would not be appropriate”,
as the Minister of the Crown would say, “or timely”, on a timetable that the Minister of the Crown would set,
“it may be appropriate to create a new devolved delegated power by exercise of this power.”
It is a Trojan horse for abusing not only Parliament but Parliaments.
I have not been a Member of your Lordships’ House for as long as the noble and learned Baroness but I have been here nine years and I was a member of a devolved authority. This is not how we should be making legislation at all. This is the clause about which Sir Robert Neill said at Committee stage in the Commons,
“this is Henry VIII, the six wives, Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell all thrown in together”.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/7/22; col. 370.]
The serious issue is that I do not know what limits the Government expect there will be on these powers. Could there be new criminal penalties? If not, they should not be within this. How about new tax powers? If that is not the intent, it should not be made possible by this Bill. Could it affect any part of the withdrawal agreement on other rights and freedoms? If that is not the Government’s intent, they should say so, but there are no such restrictions.
This is a Trojan horse, and in looking at some of the clauses a side of me wonders whether I should oppose it. It is so broad that we could rejoin many of the EU institutions we have left—just from this wee clause in this wee Bill. That might suit our Benches, so perhaps we had better not complain too much. Through Clause 22(6) and other sweeping regulation-making powers, we could rejoin the customs union and many of the institutions. If that is not the Government’s intention, the Minister should say so at the Dispatch Box. If he does not, we could use it for that purpose.
More seriously, and I will close on this, the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, has been consistent since the outset in using a phrase that has struck me: this is not what we do when it comes to international law. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, hoped over the weekend that this was all a dream and that he would arrive here on Monday to find that, like Bobby Ewing in “Dallas”, these three days in Committee never really happened. I arrived back in the country this morning from speaking at a parliamentary gathering in Buenos Aires—a network of parliamentarians supporting the International Criminal Court—in the presence of the president of the ICC. I have to say to the Minister that there have been very few times that I have been embarrassed to say that I am a British parliamentarian, but the knowledge of parliamentarians from across the world about what we are doing with this legislation shocked me. They know what we are doing. There are international gatherings about how Parliaments can support the international rules-based system, the ICC and international standards in law. This is not what we do. But it is even worse than that because our Government tell other countries what they should not do, but we are doing it at home. This is an opportunity to stop it. I hope that, even at this stage, the Government will listen to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and just stop it.
My Lords, I wish to add for a moment or two to what has been some pretty powerful gunfire from those who are eminently qualified in making the serious submissions they have made.
My attention has been caught by Clause 22(6), which seeks to interfere, one might say, with devolved authorities. Looking at my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, it occurred to me that, were he part of a devolved authority in Northern Ireland and there was the exercise of a power under subsection (6), he would take pretty short shrift with it, I am sure.
To introduce perhaps a rather vulgar political point, we in Scotland are concerned constantly with the movement towards independence. Part of that movement is, often by fiction, offered to the potential electors in a referendum on the basis that Westminster wants to interfere with Scotland. It seems to me that subsection (6) might provide rather more substantial evidence of an intention of that kind.
I know that there are honourable men sitting on the Government Front Bench, but do they really believe in their hearts that it is right to urge upon this Committee the contents of this particular subsection? Surely they must realise that it is inimical to every principle upon which Parliament is founded and this House operates. If I may be forgiven for my impropriety, it is time for the Front Bench to fess up.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord. I take the point that he made about Clause 22(6). As a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for many years, I know how much Members of the Assembly value their right to make laws in the areas that are devolved to it. However, I must say gently to your Lordships that, in recent times, there have been a number of examples of this House and the other place interfering in the devolved settlement in Northern Ireland. Although some of us have pointed that out, it has been with your Lordships’ positive assent and approval that the overriding of the devolved settlement in Northern Ireland has taken place in a number of areas. I would like to see a consistent approach to the devolved settlement in Northern Ireland, not this pick-and-choose approach where something being okay appears to depend on the issue of the day but, if you do not like what the Assembly has done, you can interfere—as seems to have happened on a number of recent occasions in this Parliament.
I want to highlight Clause 22(3). On the face of it, it appears—I am open to correction by those who are much more learned and have more legal expertise in these matters than me—to put some kind of restriction on the wide Henry VIII powers that are given under this particular clause. The one thing that it is apparently not possible for regulations under the Bill to do is
“create or facilitate border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland which feature at the border … physical infrastructure (including border posts), or … checks and controls, which did not exist before exit day.”
Having listened to the debate, I think that may well be able to be swept aside at any point. However, why is emphasis put on the one thing that is mentioned? I look to the Government Front Bench as to why it is mentioned, given that it really has no effect. Of course, we do not want any extra infrastructure at the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic and it has never been the desire or wish of anyone in the Northern Ireland political parties, or the Irish Government, the British Government or the EU, to have such infrastructure. But it would be quite helpful and an acknowledgement of unionist concerns if there were a similar provision which acknowledged—under strand 2, the north-south approach in the Belfast agreement and the importance of that relationship, but also strand 3, the east-west dimension—that regulations may not create or facilitate border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
I am following the noble Lord closely on this point. Does he realise that today Maroš Šefčovič talked about the need for fewer border checks and, in fact, that they could be invisible on the Irish Sea border. Does the noble Lord agree that if they can be invisible on the Irish Sea border, they can be invisible at the frontier, where of course checks should happen between one country and another independent country?
Of course. It appears that things may have moved on, because once all these ideas were dismissed as completely fanciful. Indeed, “unicorns” were brought into play and all sorts of dismissive language was used. I am glad that now there is at least an acknowledgement that some of these checks can be done in the way that the noble Baroness has described Maroš Šefčovič as talking about.
The important point here is that we have been told throughout the Brexit process that there cannot be a single check or single piece of infrastructure on the Irish border because otherwise that will lead to violence—it will be attacked and that will undermine the Belfast agreement—without anyone, hardly, making the obvious point that, if that is unacceptable north-south, then it is doubly unacceptable between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. What does that say to the unionist population?
One of the reasons we have the alienation of people in Northern Ireland is the one-sided approach and interpretation of the Belfast agreement. I would just like an explanation. Whatever its actual import or ability to be enforced, or the fact that it can be superseded by a ministerial direction, why do the Government highlight that issue and not the fact that the reason why we have such a problem in Northern Ireland with the political institutions is that we have this similar kind of infrastructure and checks between one part of the United Kingdom and the other?
On the point that has been raised very powerfully by noble Lords on the legal issue, I fully understand why they take the position they do and, as has been said, it has been raised in relation to other Bills and Acts. I would love to see the same outrage and anger expressed more widely; it may well have been during the passage of the then Bill, before my time in your Lordships’ House.
You can imagine therefore that if there is such outrage about powers being given by Parliament to the Executive and UK Ministers, how citizens of Northern Ireland—British citizens, fully part of the United Kingdom—feel about powers being not just taken from Parliament and given to Ministers but given to foreign officials of the European Commission to propose law. They are totally unaccountable to anyone in the United Kingdom. They do not have to answer to anyone or answer any questions. There is no parliamentary process whatever within the United Kingdom that can even challenge the directives and regulations that cover 300 areas of law affecting the economy of Northern Ireland. Therefore, while accepting entirely the points made about delegated legislation and Henry VIII powers, I would like to see reflected some of the same concerns about how we in Northern Ireland feel about the way that laws are now made by a foreign polity in its own interest. It is not in our interest; it is made in its own interest.
The Bill is part of an effort to try to remedy that problem. People have said we will have negotiations. But given that we have already had communicated to us that the EU is not open at this stage to changing the mandate of its main negotiator, certainly, how else are we going to get to a situation where that outrageous situation in Northern Ireland is remedied?
My Lords, I thank—I think—all noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. There were some highlights. I have to go home and explain to Lady Ahmad that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, dreamt about me over the weekend. That is a moment to ponder and reflect on, as any good Minister would, from the Dispatch Box.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, I have the opportunity to travel, although I was asked today as I came into your Lordships’ House, “Tariq, why aren’t you in Sharm el-Sheikh?”. I said three words—“Northern Ireland protocol”—which put that colleague in their place. I heard what the noble Lord said about international law and the rule of law. Notwithstanding the challenges, it is right that we have this level of scrutiny. I listened very carefully to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and I agree with her. We are all talking about time in Parliament, et cetera. The other day, I was informed that I am now second only to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, in term of my time on the Front Bench. Let us watch that space as well. With the nature of reshuffles, you never know what will happen when.
In all seriousness, we have a lot of respect internationally. That is why, in successive elections in the ICC, three major positions have been held by the UK. Again, in the ILC, a successful campaign was run. I feel very strongly that, irrespective of the nature of the discussions we are having, the United Kingdom has a very strong reputation internationally and I, for one, am very proud to be not just a British parliamentarian but a British Minister representing these interests abroad.
I come to the specifics now, the nitty-gritty of the amendments themselves. I first say again that on the issue of the Henry VIII clause—specifically on this clause, but more generally across the Bill—of course the Government are listening very carefully to the contributions being made. We have had legislation in the past where we have equally had this level of scrutiny. It is a reflection of our democracy that it allows us to have these challenges to the Government.
I turn to Amendment 44. The Bill provides specific powers to make new law in certain areas, as noble Lords have pointed out, including where we are disapplying the EU regime in domestic law and where such laws are required to make our new regime work. To give effect to the new regime set out in the Bill, amendments to domestic legislation may be required, including Acts of Parliament where appropriate.
Moreover, certain sectors in Great Britain are currently also regulated by retained EU regulations which have protected status under Section 7 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 and cannot be modified except by an Act of Parliament or certain specified subordinate legislation. An example is retained EU regulation 2016/425, which currently regulates personal protective equipment in Great Britain. It may be appropriate to amend such legislation for the purposes of the dual regulatory regime to ensure that the UK regime applies appropriately also to all of the UK and appropriately to Northern Ireland.
We recognise, of course—and I have heard it again today—the seriousness of amending legislation, and also proposing new legislation. The noble and learned Baroness pointed to legislation already passed, where Henry VIII clauses have been included. I will not challenge the fact we have had quite challenging discussions in this respect as well, but Parliament has already considered and put on the statute book these particular issues of amending legislation. While it might be somewhat of a small recognition of the powers, these particular powers to amend Acts of Parliament will be subject to the affirmative procedure, allowing Parliament to scrutinise and review any changes to existing legislation, even where these changes are consequential, or technical. I recognise, of course, the depth of the challenge that has been put to the Government and, in all respects, respect the seriousness of the contributions that have been made.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. The example he cited with regard to the operability of the red lanes is covered earlier in the Bill, so the regulation powers were debated. So I do not understand why they are needed in such a broad manner under this clause, which does not even have any of the restrictions of the previous ones. If they need powers for the operation of any of the new red lanes, they are there in Clauses 4, 5 and 6. We have debated these; they exist.
My Lords, I was merely emphasising. I did refer to earlier clauses as well when I was giving one specific example in this particular group. But I hear what the noble Lord says, and, of course, I recognise that there are issues, particularly in this clause, about the powers that are being proposed. In coming on to that particular point, in relation to the concerns raised by the breadth of powers, each individual power that is being proposed in the Bill is being constrained by its purpose. None of them is a “do anything” power, and Clause 22(1) does not make them so: it merely ensures they can fully fulfil their purposes.
As I said, we are seeking to put a power in the Bill, and I will provide clarification on that. Each individual power that we are seeking to take in this respect is being constrained by its purpose—but, if I may, on that point, I will write to the noble Lord once I have talked to officials specifically about this aspect of the debate.
Perhaps I could invite the noble Lord, when he writes to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, to explain why it is appropriate for Ministers to have the power to make regulations to modify this very Act. Can he specifically address how Clause 22(1) fits with the clause mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, Clause 22(3), which contains the express exception:
“Regulations … may not create or facilitate border arrangements”?
Yet, as I understand this Bill, Ministers under Clause 22(1) could simply disapply Clause 22(3). It would be completely otiose. What is the point of having a restriction in the Bill that a Minister, by regulation, could simply disapply?
I shall of course cover the specific point the noble Lord has highlighted, as well. I appreciate that it is for the Government to make the case on the specific provision contained in the Bill to ensure that we can, as far as possible, satisfy the issues and the questions being raised.
Clause 22 sets out the general scope and nature of the powers contained in the Bill. This will ensure the powers have the appropriate scope to implement the aims of the Bill. The clause sets out that regulations made under the defined purpose of the powers in this Bill can make any provision—this was a point noble Lords made—for that purpose that could be made by an Act of Parliament. This includes amending the Bill, as the noble Lord has just pointed out, or making retrospective provision.
As the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, said, the clause confirms that regulations under this Bill may not create or facilitate border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that feature, at the border, either physical infrastructure or checks and controls that did not exist before exit day.
Subsection (6) provides that a Minister can facilitate other powers under this Bill to be exercisable exclusively, concurrently or jointly with devolved Administrations. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, raised a specific point just now, which does require clarification on two elements within the clause. I will make sure that they are covered.
A concern was raised about the ability of the Government to work with the devolved Administrations. As I said on an earlier group, the former Foreign Secretary wrote to the devolved Administrations and we are engaging with them on the implementation and provisions of this Bill. It is the Government’s view that these new powers are necessary to make the regime work smoothly and to provide certainty to businesses.
While recommending in Committee that this clause stand part of the Bill, I recognise that, while we share moments of humour in Committee, it is right that these detailed concerns were tabled in the way they were. This allows the Government—
I am very grateful to the Minister before he sits down. He sort of glossed over Clause 22(3) by, in effect, reading out what it says. But I respectfully seek an explanation of why that subsection has been inserted when there is no similar provision on checks and infrastructure between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
On that point and the earlier issue of why this is specific, we want to avoid a border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in any shape or form. That is the specific nature of this and we have all desired that in our discussions, but I take on board and understand the noble Lord’s point. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, also pointed to this and how the operability of the border is causing challenges. This is inherent in the protocol, which provides this de facto border between two different parts of the same sovereign nation. That is the problem that we are wrestling with and seeking to resolve—so I acknowledge the noble Lord’s point.
Before the Minister is allowed to resume his seat, I understand and accept that the Secretary of State may be engaging with the devolved authorities. On that basis, may we take it that their responses to that engagement will be publicly available?
My Lords, I will not go into the speculative nature of what each devolved Administration will say, but we have great resilience and passion within our devolved Administrations and I am sure that, as discussions and negotiations progress, both the Government and your Lordships’ House will be very clear about what the Administrations think.
The constitutional point is clearly the huge point here; mine is a minor addition. Would the noble Lord look at Clause 22(2)(a) and (b) and put himself in the position of an EU negotiator? Would he willingly come to an agreement with the British if they had just given their Ministers the power, without any parliamentary oversight, to make any provision they wish, notwithstanding that it is not compatible with the protocol or any other part of the EU withdrawal agreement?
As the negotiator contemplates trying to find practical solutions to make the protocol less burdensome, the negotiator is confronted on the other side of the table by a Government who are taking to themselves the right to change anything in the withdrawal agreement without consulting Parliament. I think as a minimum—and I put this very mildly—that does not improve the chances of the negotiations succeeding, which is why I think so many in Brussels believe that if we proceed with this Bill, the talks, the negotiations and the consultations will not succeed.
That was almost a rhetorical question being posed to me. What I can say in response is that the engagement we are having with the European Union is—as I have said before, and I would be very up front and honest if this was not the case—being done constructively. The EU understands and appreciates the basis of why we are seeking to do this. It also understands that this Bill is being scrutinised, as is happening this evening, and that we are continuing to work in terms of constructive engagement.
As I have said before, with the Commissioner visiting the UK, the engagement between my right honourable friend and Commissioner Šefčovič is in a good place in terms of the level of engagement, in both tone and substance. I cannot go further than that. The noble Lord is very experienced in all things diplomatic and, indeed, is a veteran of the EU Commission. I am not going to speculate on what an EU Commissioner or an EU negotiator will say because I have never been one.
The Minister is being patient with us and I know everybody is hungry. As the Minister has generously said he is going to write to Members taking part in the Committee, will he add something for my benefit, which is giving examples of other legislation that we have passed in which any and all parts of it can be amended by regulation immediately on commencement?
My Lords, the Minister has been put in an impossible situation. I thank all noble Lord who have spoken in this debate. It is a hard act to follow. We have had the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, talking about extraordinary legislation and quoting from the Proclamation by the Crown Act 1539, the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, talking about wasting the Committee’s time and then using that very legal words “otiose” when comparing Clause 22(1) and Clause 22(3). We have had the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, talking about never seeing so many Henry VIII powers in her time in Parliament. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, asked a number of questions, including one we have heard just now, and the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, very relevantly asked about the reason that there is an exception in Clause 22(3) about border infrastructure on the north-south border, so I look forward to seeing this letter as well. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 44 withdrawn.
Sitting suspended. Committee to begin again not before 8.15 pm.
45: Clause 22, page 11, line 16, at end insert “, but may not amend, repeal, or create an incompatibility with, the Act of Union (Ireland) 1800 or the Union with Ireland Act 1800.”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment prevents a Minister of the Crown making provision by regulation which has the effect of repealing, subordinating or otherwise interfering with the United Kingdom’s foundational constitutional statutory framework.
My Lords, in moving this amendment I will also, in some detail—I apologise, but I have not spoken very much in Committee—make a constitutional plea to the Government on behalf of British citizens in Northern Ireland.
This amendment is very simple. It seeks to remedy an important gap at the heart of the Bill. I believe the Bill is good. It creates the framework for a fair and balanced solution and, if the powers it confers are used appropriately, will restore Northern Ireland’s place within the union. Clause 1(c) is clear that one of the Bill’s primary purposes is to remedy the present subjugation of the Union with Ireland Act 1800 and the Act of Union (Ireland) 1800, which together are known as the Acts of Union.
The Prime Minister before the previous Prime Minister, speaking in the House of Commons, claimed that the withdrawal Act was not intended to affect the Acts of Union, yet a few months later senior counsel, on behalf of the then Government, went to court in our protocol case in Belfast and argued exactly the opposite. As the late Lord Trimble simply put it:
“The Act of Union is the union.”
That is undeniably true. In Halsbury’s Laws, the Acts of Union are described as
“the statutory warrant for the continued incorporation of Northern Ireland with the United Kingdom”.
The High Court and Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland have been clear—we should not really need a court to tell us this—that the Acts of Union remain in force and together have the status of constitutional statutes.
There has been some commentary suggesting that the Acts of Union were somehow repealed or overridden by the Government of Ireland Act 1920 or later statutory provisions, but that is simply not so. The 1920 Act simply made provision for separate devolved arrangements in two parts of Ireland, each of which remained fully part of the United Kingdom and subject to the United Kingdom Parliament. There was and is nothing in the Acts of Union to prevent the creation of subordinate legislatures, provided that the King in Parliament remains sovereign.
Section 1(2) of the Irish Free State (Agreement) Act 1922 provided that the southern parliament be dissolved, and the Irish Free State (Consequential Provisions) Act 1922 provided that the 1920 Act no longer had effect beyond Northern Ireland. This has the effect of a non-textual amendment to Section 75 of the 1920 Act, maintaining the untrammelled authority of Parliament over Northern Ireland. In consequence, southern Ireland no longer remained within the UK but Northern Ireland did, and therefore remained firmly under the constitutional protections of the Acts of Union. These legislative events in 1922 at most altered the territorial extent of the Acts of Union but did not alter the fundamental constitutional foundation of the union itself.
Here is the simple question I pose to noble Lords. Article 3 of the Acts of Union creates our Parliament, and Article 6 prescribes the economic constitutional framework—essentially, the UK internal market. Could a majority in Parliament constitutionally abolish Parliament, and thus our democratic constitutional system itself, and in its place usher in new authoritarian arrangements? If noble Lords think not, because Parliament is a constitutional fundamental, then that constitutional fundamental is derived from Article 3 of the Acts of Union. If Article 3 of the Acts of Union is a constitutional fundamental, as a matter of simple logic there is no reason to give some lesser status to Article 6. Why should one receive greater constitutional deference or protection than the other?
In our largely unwritten constitution, something may be unconstitutional—that is, offensive to or subversive of our constitutional order—without being necessarily unlawful. Our constitution, however, is entrusted primarily to us and our colleagues in another place. We are here as guardians of the constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom as much as we must be guardians of the rule of law. But if a law, even one made by Parliament, is unconstitutional, it is our duty to stand against that in discharge of our functions in this House. In my view and that of many others, Section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which brings the protocol into domestic law, is unconstitutional, given that its effect is the subjugation of the Acts of Union and thus the fundamental constitutional basis of the union itself.
While this Bill may well conflict with international obligations under the protocol—although I think that Article 16 of the protocol itself makes any such claim doubtful—any such obligations must yield for two reasons. The first is the doctrine of necessity, which has been set out by the Government and dealt with expertly by many Members of this House, including the noble Lord, Lord Bew. I need not repeat those contributions but, in so far as I have heard them relate to international law, I support them.
The second, which I think needs to be gone into a little more fully, is that the protocol subjugates the fundamental constitutional foundation of the United Kingdom. The Government have an overriding constitutional obligation to remedy that and, if that requires acting against a previous treaty, so be it. The Bill as it stands would remedy the present breach of the Acts of Union if Clause 4 were brought into force via commencement order. However, there still seems to be a hole. Although the Bill, in line with its intent in Clause 1, would remedy the present breach of the Acts of Union by removing the most offensive elements of Article 5 of the protocol from having effect in domestic law, it does not prevent a Minister of a Crown using the Henry VIII powers that we have heard so much about to replace the current arrangements with new arrangements that would again breach the Acts of Union. The superficially attractive answer to that point is to say that Parliament could legislate again to subjugate the Acts of Union if it so wished. As a matter of parliamentary sovereignty, it could—notwithstanding the validity of my point around how it is constitutionally improper.
The distinction here is that Parliament, with all the checks and balances, could do it or try to do it. As it stands, Clause 22 permits—or, to put it another way, does not prevent—a Minister of the Crown by regulation to alter the foundational constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom. If it were to stand, it would mean that a Minister of the Crown, in exercising powers as specified in Clause 22, could again subjugate the Acts of Union and thus act in a manner contrary to what is, superficially at least, a fundamental aim of the Bill, which is to restore the Acts of Union.
It is notable that Clause 22 prevents a Minister of the Crown doing anything by regulation that would create a north/south border. This inherent imbalance, which my amendment seeks to remedy, once again eliminates the entirely one-sided nature of the so-called “peace process” in Northern Ireland. A Minister of the Crown, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, earlier, is prohibited in exercise of these powers from doing anything to facilitate or create a land border where it should be, but there is no such constraint on creating a border in our own country and subjugating the Acts of Union. That simply is an absurdity. I know that the Minister could not really give a reason why this had not gone in but I trust—being very naive, perhaps—that it was simply an oversight on the part of the drafters.
There is no reason why the Government could not adopt this amendment. In answer to a question posed in the House of Commons by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP, the then Secretary of State—the previous Secretary of State, not the current Secretary of State; it gets a bit confusing—gave an assurance that the exercise of powers under the Bill would have to be in a manner compatible with the Acts of Union. He made that assurance in the House. If that assurance, given to Parliament, is to be worth while, why would the Government not give effect to it by way of a straightforward clause in this Bill?
I therefore ask again for clarity from the Government. I know the Minister may well need to go back and discuss whether they will perhaps be able to adopt this amendment, so I do not expect an answer right now, but I do pose a question—and, if possible, I would like a response in the wind-up—about the commitment made by Brandon Lewis MP. Is the Minister willing to reaffirm to this House that any new arrangements to be made by regulation will have to be compatible with the Acts of Union?
This is fundamental. If the Government cannot do so, they will be saying to pro-union people, who the Conservative Government continue to urge to trust them, that the promises made to them about the restoration of the Acts of Union are in fact hollow and that once again they may well be being tricked. There seems to be little point in remedying the Acts of Union breach via the commencement of the relevant provision in this Bill and then replacing that which has been removed with another breach of the Acts of Union. It brings us back to the same place, because no self-respecting unionist will support arrangements which occasion a breach of the Acts of Union.
The fundamental issue for unionists—the clue is in the name—is that the Acts of Union must be restored, and the Acts of Union require equal footing in matters of trade. Let us be clear: the restoration means an end of EU law applying in Northern Ireland. If it continues to apply in Northern Ireland but not in the rest of the United Kingdom then the Acts of Union are breached. A breach of the Acts of Union is also a breach of the principle of consent because it fundamentally alters the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the union.
That brings me to another pertinent point. Last week, after a lot of procrastination, the Northern Ireland Office ruled out lawmaking powers over Northern Ireland for Dublin. It did so correctly, on the basis that this would breach the principle of consent. Can the Government therefore explain how they reconcile the plainly correct position that lawmaking powers being handed to Dublin would breach the principle of consent with their continued entirely illogical claim that handing lawmaking and judicial powers to Brussels does not? What, tell me, is the difference between Brussels exercising lawmaking powers over Northern Ireland and Dublin doing the same? In truth, I do not think that there is any coherent answer to that.
This amendment would offer protection to the fundamental constitutional basis of the United Kingdom. We do not want any more trickery, clever footwork or compromising that ends up with Northern Ireland’s constitutional position not absolutely restored—not just in the present but protected in the future—to being an integral part of the United Kingdom. Amending Clause 22 would provide some measure of constitutional safeguard, which I am afraid is necessary. A little under two months ago, the Government again went before the court in Northern Ireland and argued that the territorial extent of the United Kingdom should be interpreted as meaning only Great Britain, with Northern Ireland instead treated as part of the EU’s territory. That was the Government’s case. Noble Lords can see why so many pro-union citizens in Northern Ireland have voted in huge numbers to give the DUP the mandate to take nothing on trust. I am really sad to say that this Government are increasingly losing the trust of those who cherish the union.
Over the years, unionists and loyalists in Northern Ireland have been betrayed by Conservative and Labour Governments, again and again. They had courage in times of war, fighting for the UK, and through 40 years of terrible terrorism, and their loyalty has been rewarded by being treated like second-class citizens, with constant appeasement to the Irish Government and those who are dedicated to destroying the union and the very birthright of unionists to live as equal citizens under the protection of His Majesty’s Government. They were betrayed during the home rule crisis, betrayed after the First World War and betrayed in 1985, and, sadly, many in Northern Ireland now feel that, even in the 1998 agreement, the unionist community was deceived. That is partly why many of us are determined to get rid of those injustices and ensure that what was promised by the sovereign Government of this country to its British citizens in Northern Ireland is upheld.
Of course, the final betrayal was the Northern Ireland protocol. It was said that no British Prime Minister could allow a border in the Irish Sea—and yet we saw what happened. When such a border was put there, subjugating Northern Ireland and its citizens, it was an historic wrong. There is no justifying or explaining it. It plunged a knife into the back of British citizens in Northern Ireland, the part of the United Kingdom which I call my home. The historical record will show those who stood up for our country, the United Kingdom, and those who stood with the EU and a foreign Irish Government.
The question I pose to the Conservative—I think it is still called the Conservative and Unionist—Government is this: when future British generations look back, when many of us in this House are long gone, how will they judge each of us? Have we done the right thing? Have we at all costs defended the union and all that it stands for, because that is what the Government should be doing? Unfortunately, they have not done right by the unionist people of Northern Ireland all the time. We, as the representatives speaking for those very many pro-union people in Northern Ireland, will not be second-class citizens in our own country.
I am sad to say that there will be no power sharing in Northern Ireland unless the rights of unionists are respected the same as those of nationalists. There will either be no power sharing, or those rights will be respected. The first step is to restore Northern Ireland to its integral place within the United Kingdom. That requires the restoration of the Acts of Union. There is no compromise on that fundamental issue. I genuinely cannot understand how anyone in this United Kingdom House of Lords cannot see that this amendment should be supported. The Minister may not be able to give an immediate answer when he is responding but I hope he will take this back and look at it, and that we will be able to move on this on Report. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, for this amendment. She knows from many discussions and from what I have said in this House that, despite the distinguished legal heft behind her argument on the Acts of Union, I do not accept it. By the way, I do not accept the argument that the protocol subjugates the Acts of Union, but I do not want to repeat things that I and others have said during this debate.
However, the noble Baroness’s speech is very important for a particular reason. I look over at the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, and remember that we were all in exactly the same place in April 1998—in favour of the agreement. All of us were determined to get that agreement going. The speech from the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, reflected a significant degree of disillusionment, largely provoked by events since the protocol.
The issue that the noble Baroness homed in on was the Acts of Union. The White Paper which preceded the Bill does not reference the issues around the Acts of Union, whereas the Bill does. It is more briefly than the noble Baroness would like, but it none the less references upholding the Acts of Union. That reflects the deterioration that has occurred in public opinion in Northern Ireland, even since the publication of the White Paper. The Government decided—I understand for tactical reasons—to include a reference to the Acts of Union in the Bill.
We have listened tonight to quite a lot of esteemed legal opinion, but the truth is that this is a political problem. It has to be faced up to. The truth is that we are in a very difficult moment when it comes to the possibility of making the Good Friday agreement’s institutions operate as we head toward its 25th anniversary. The strong conviction that I have—I think the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, also feels this—is that there is no other show in town, and so that is what we should be working to do.
One of the reasons why I am a little uncomfortable about the eloquent discourses on Henry VIII powers—I have been in this House long enough to have heard many such—is the point forcefully made by the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, tonight. The House gets very excited about Henry VIII powers when it suspects that the uses will not be loved by the House but, when it is a Henry VIII power which is pretty unpopular with large sections of opinion in Northern Ireland, the House has no qualms. We have seen it most recently on the abortion issue. What matters is not Henry VIII powers but the purposes to which they are put, and in this case the purposes to which these powers would be put would be essentially dealing not with a sea of anonymity but with EU interventions of one sort or another in the laws of the United Kingdom.
The way in which the House approaches this really makes me uncomfortable, because it is an attitude of mind that does not reflect the political nature of the problem. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, as a very esteemed legal mind in this House, actually faced up to what the Good Friday agreement, an international agreement, says quite clearly at Article 1(5). He used the expression: “You cannot live with long-term alienation.” The British Government—the sovereign Government—have a responsibility to address the long-term alienation of a community, as they did only recently on the Irish language. There is no question about that. “Alienation” is a perfectly fair translation, but that piece of legislation actually says that the British Government as the sovereign Government have to deal on the basis of equality of esteem with the long-term aspirations of both communities. There is no question but that the protocol as it now stands is seen by the unionist community as a whole as flouting its long-term aspirations.
I suppose that just after Brexit came into our lives—unhappily, for many—former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who was present in 1998, came to this House and addressed the House of Lords Select Committee. He said, “You can talk all you like about Europe but there is the little matter of the Good Friday agreement, held as an international agreement in the United Nations.” The House has tended to forget that. Therefore, while I am sympathetic to the fundamental legal thrusts at the beginning of the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, the fact that many people in Northern Ireland will see her case as, if anything, too soft and too moderate is a sign of how we are losing control of public opinion in Northern Ireland and our ability to intervene in that public opinion. That is extremely worrying.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, who was in his place earlier this evening, is quite right: we cannot afford to give the impression that Northern Ireland is an ungovernable entity. There must be a return to power sharing. I will be clear about this: it will not occur on any other basis than a renewed form of historic compromise. We should take the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, as a warning about how public mood is evolving away from compromise, and all the lectures on Henry VIII powers in the world are not anything like as significant as that fact for the political history of this country.
My Lords, I have three amendments in this group but, before referring to them, I say that obviously this set of amendments really deals with the restrictions on the use of ministerial powers. In fact, the noble Lord, Lord Bew, referred to the kernel of the issue, which is about the politics of Northern Ireland. I think that is what the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, also said. Obviously, as a democratic Irish nationalist I come from a very different position, and I make no bones about it. In the fullness of time, subject to agreement and to consent, I would like to see the island of Ireland politically united, but that is united according to the principle of consent and united by agreement. The land is already united, but I mean the uniting of people on the island.
In this discourse, we must not forget that we have to move towards compromise and achieve it. I go back to the point made by my noble friend Lord Murphy: the most important thing is that there is an urgent need for the parties in Northern Ireland to be directly involved in the negotiations with the UK, the Irish Government and the EU. Unless that happens, we will go down the road of technical negotiations and discussions ad infinitum but they will not solve the political issues that exist, and those political issues urgently require to be resolved if we are to have the restoration of political institutions.
In that context, I pose this question: do all parties and all peoples want those political institutions restored? For my part, I would like them restored because they are based on the principle of consent and it is all about power sharing and co-operation. Because of the nature of the divided society in Northern Ireland, it cannot go any other way and the only solution is via the Good Friday agreement. I hope we will get back to that, and the best way to do it is through negotiations between not only the UK and the EU but the parties in Northern Ireland that are most directly affected, representing all the people, and of course the Irish Government, who could take on the role of the EU or work in partnership with the EU as a member state.
Amendment 46 seeks to circumscribe and limit the regulations to ensure adherence to Northern Ireland Assembly approval for a legislative consent Motion. The regulations are referred to only in the Bill; they are not specified and will be subject to secondary legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, referred to Henry VIII powers. If this were just about Henry VIII powers then it might be quite simple, but it comes back to the overarching umbrella of the political situation and the need for a political solution. Here, there is a total disregard for the democratic consent of the Assembly and the importance of what it is there to do as an organ of the Good Friday agreement. It is important that that is built into this legislation, although obviously I would prefer that the legislation was not there and that it was replaced totally by negotiations.
Amendment 54 seeks the agreement of the First and Deputy First Ministers acting jointly on behalf of the Executive or Assembly. In that, I am building in joint accountability. There is a case for reverting to the appointment of the Ministers jointly as joint First Ministers. In fact the noble Lord, Lord Empey, referred to the earlier situation where, at St Andrews, that principle was undermined. Appointing Ministers and calling them joint First Ministers would emphasise power sharing, co-operation and jointery. It would recognise the principle of consent as prescribed by the Good Friday agreement, and it would get away from the idea of one side saying, “Make me First Minister”, and the other side saying, “No, make me First Minister”. We have to ensure that equality and parity of esteem are recognised in the Bill if the Bill is to go ahead.
Amendment 55 proposes a new clause requiring the Minister yet again to obtain the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly to exercise the power to make regulations conferred by the Bill. It would also require a Minister to obtain the consent of the Assembly for the continued application of the regulations beyond the relevant period. It would therefore require the consent and the accountability of the Assembly. There should be no imposition of these unspecified regulations without the agreement of the Assembly. The fundamental point is that the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives in the Assembly are key and fundamental to the whole process, and should be directly involved in the negotiations in deciding the way forward.
We must not forget that the wrecking ball in all of this was Brexit, out of which was born the backstop, to be replaced by Johnson’s protocol. That is why we have arrived at this point—so many things have been undermined by that tsunami of Brexit. That is very unfortunate, because it is has impacted on the island of Ireland in terms of our political relations and our economic stability. It is time that we got back to brass tacks and went down the road of a negotiated settlement in respect of the protocol that involves everyone—but particularly the Members of the Assembly—to address the issue of the democratic deficit.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick. I have just a couple of small points before dealing with some of the wider issues raised by the amendments tabled in this group.
First, on the negotiations, I do not disagree with the involvement of Northern Ireland parties, as I said previously. It was suggested earlier—I think by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, who I regret is not in his place at the moment—that it did not matter what the EU thought as long as the British Government involved the Northern Ireland parties, but we are not talking about consultations; we are talking about negotiations. I think the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, put his finger on it: it is about getting people around the table. If you are going to negotiate, you need the EU and the Irish Government to be on board. The fact is that, regrettably, they have not changed their position from their previous utterances, where they said that this is entirely a matter for the EU, not for regional parties or any individual member state Government; they have said it is for the European Commission, negotiating under the mandate given to it by the Council of Ministers.
My second point is on the issue that the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, raised about the joint First Minister nomination, which was also raised on the previous set of amendments. It should be remembered that the Saint Andrews agreement took place towards the end of the 2000s, in an effort to restore devolution after years in which it had been brought down—again, by Sinn Féin, given the fact that it was out murdering people in the streets, and had not decommissioned its weapons, despite promises that it would do so. There was the famous quote by the late Lord Trimble, who said, “We have jumped, now it is your turn.” Of course, Sinn Féin never did reciprocate. As a result, we had the Northern Bank robbery, and the institutions were down for three or four years. They were eventually restored as the result of Saint Andrews, and that was a cross-community agreement which made the arrangements in relation to the nomination of First and Deputy First Minister. That was the result of a cross-community agreement, so the idea that that is contrary to the principle is simply wrong.
I fully endorse what the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, said about her amendment. It is an important amendment which deals with an issue that has caused considerable concern and anxiety in Northern Ireland, which is the fact that thus far the courts have ruled that Northern Ireland’s constitutional position, Article 6 of the Act of Union, has been subjugated by the Northern Ireland protocol. That is a legal ruling. If we are paying such close scrutiny to the legal technicalities, the legal position set out in the Bill and all its intricacies—which is perfectly proper—we cannot then simply dismiss the ruling of the courts in relation to the Act of Union as neither here nor there. This is an important matter for unionists. It is the foundational constitutional document of Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom, so this is no small matter. It is something that is being challenged by unionist political leaders right across the board, and it is therefore important that it is addressed.
That is why the Belfast agreement, as amended by St Andrews, is in some considerable difficulty, because the protocol has this effect on our constitutional position. The fact is that we have another series of amendments, tabled in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie and Lady Suttie, about “consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly”, which does not include the cross-community element—the cross-community vote. Again, this says to unionists that, while some are prepared to defend and speak up for the Belfast agreement, and say that this is all about protecting it, when it suits them they just change it. The Belfast agreement provides for votes like this on a cross-community basis, yet time and time again we see things being tabled in this House which undermine the agreement. We are told that we should respect the agreement and its spirit, yet here we have amendments that go against what is in the Belfast agreement—never mind the issues about the east-west relationship and strand three of the agreement, which are trashed by the protocol, and the removal of the democratic consent mechanism for the protocol itself, which means that the Assembly had absolutely no say at all before the protocol was introduced. So we are in a very difficult situation.
There is no doubt that unionists have lost a large degree of confidence in the institutions of the Belfast agreement. On what was agreed in 1998, many of us opposed those elements which released unrepentant murderers back on to the streets of Northern Ireland after serving only two years for some of the most heinous crimes imaginable of murder and depravity—people from both sides of the community were allowed to walk free from jail. The Royal Ulster Constabulary was consigned to history, and there were all sorts of issues about Sinn Féin being admitted into government while the Provisional IRA was still murdering people in the streets, as I said, and were still fully armed. Those of us who opposed these things were told, “You’ve got to accept all these things in the name of peace.” Many people did accept them; there was a referendum, it was passed, and the institutions were set up. But unionists had to accept into government people who parties here in Westminster—and, ironically, the parties Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in the Irish Republic—would not accept into coalition with them. Northern Ireland is lectured all the time about democracy and accepting Sinn Féin into government—and we have accepted Sinn Féin into government, as per the votes of the people who gave them votes and demanded a coalition arrangement. However, the same people who lecture unionists refuse to have anything to do with them in terms of a coalition in the Irish Republic—and I imagine that neither the Labour Party nor the Conservative Party would admit them into a Government here.
We are seeing that the basis of the settlement in 1998 is now continually undermined. The principle of consent has been breached as a result of this protocol. We now have increasing clamour, including recently from the Irish Taoiseach, about changing the rules of the Belfast agreement and how the Assembly should operate. Indeed, I understand that the Taoiseach went so far as to say that it was a matter for the Irish Government, the British Government and the parties. I am sorry, but strand one is a matter for Northern Ireland parties and the UK Government; it is not a matter for the Irish Government. They are entitled to be involved in strand two and strand three issues, but not the internal government of Northern Ireland. This is causing real concern among unionists. We are in a dangerous situation, and not just because of the protocol but because we are seeing that the Belfast agreement is now going to be completely undermined if some people get their way. Majority rule, which, as we have heard, has not happened and has not been the case in Northern Ireland since the early 1970s, is something which has been railed against for over 100 years. However, as a result of boundary changes and the rest, as soon we have a non-unionist majority in the Assembly—it is not a nationalist majority; unionists are still the biggest designation—and because that now does not suit Sinn Féin, the SDLP or even the Alliance Party, some say, “Let’s change the rules.” If unionists had been suggesting such a thing in the late 1990s, during the 2000s or up until 2019, we would have been howled down as being in breach of the very fundamental principles of the Belfast agreement.
The more talk there is of that; the more talk there is about joint authority in the event of no devolution—something that, again, is entirely contrary to the Belfast agreement—the more talk there is about the protocol being rigorously implemented or not changing the protocol in the way it needs to be changed to get unionist consent; the more we are in danger of seeing the restoration of the Assembly and the institutions of the Belfast agreement receding further and further into the distance. That is the reality. We do not want that to happen. We need to get a grip. The more delay there is, either in negotiations or in the UK Government taking the action needed to restore unionist faith in the political process in Northern Ireland, the longer the institutions will be down. This Government cannot have a situation in which Northern Ireland is left in limbo, where no decisions are taken by anybody, where there are no Ministers and where civil servants do not even have the powers they had the last time. We need Northern Ireland to be governed. The UK Government, who have sovereign responsibility under the Belfast agreement and their constitutional responsibilities, need to take responsibility and act for the good government of Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I shall add a few remarks. The constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom is a very important issue for many people in Northern Ireland, and certainly for the unionist population. There is no doubt whatever that the protocol is undermining and has undermined Northern Ireland’s position. I believe it is a vehicle to continue to undermine the position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. The protocol has brought a profound constitutional change to the very heart of the United Kingdom, because the courts have now ruled that the meaning of the Act of Union, the foundation of the union, has been changed by the protocol, courtesy of it being given direct effect in UK law through the withdrawal agreement Act, with the effect that this subjugates the meaning of Article VI of the Act of Union to the protocol.
I was asked this afternoon how many years I had been in public life in Northern Ireland. It is hard to believe, but in May next year, it will be 50 years: 37 years in the council, 25 years in the other House as a Member of Parliament, 16 years in the Northern Ireland Assembly—and so it goes on. And then in this place here. Now, over the years, I have seen and witnessed, sadly, Northern Ireland’s position being pushed on to the ledge of the union, as it were—pushed to the side. Our position in the United Kingdom has been undermined.
I have to say to your Lordships’ House that the unionist people are very suspicious of both Front Benches, and indeed other parties in this House. When it comes to defending positions, Dublin will defend the nationalist and republican position, but who will defend the unionist position? You would expect the United Kingdom Government to do that, but it is sad to say that successive Governments have not been very good at it. As my noble friend Lord Dodds mentioned a moment ago, certainly strands 2 and 3 give Dublin the right to have a say. But when it comes to strand 1—last week we had the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in conference with the Foreign Minister of the Irish Republic to talk about whether there should be a poll in Northern Ireland and an election for the Northern Ireland Assembly. Those are the internal affairs of Northern Ireland, yet the basis of the Belfast agreement was that Dublin has no right to a say on such matters. That once again makes people suspicious.
I have to say that, when it comes to the cost for people desiring and maintaining their position within the United Kingdom, it has cost many people their lives in the Province. I represented the Mid Ulster constituency for 15 years. Go along the border there, to Castlederg, and you will find that the graveyard there has more headstones for security force members who were murdered. Why? Because they wanted to maintain their position within the United Kingdom and the IRA wanted to destroy them and take away their lives.
I come back another point I want to make, concerning the amendment tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie and Lady Suttie. Once again, I point out that they say the regulations must be passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly. A few moments ago, the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, said that as an Irish nationalist, she wanted a united Ireland. No one can deny that as a legitimate aspiration for her. It is certainly not my aspiration, but it is hers. However, she said that she believed it would be united by consent. The very basis of the Belfast agreement is cross-community consent. I ask the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, “What would you do with a million unionists or loyalists going into a united Ireland who didn’t want to be there?”
I thank the noble Baroness. That then begs the question: why is it not in her amendment? Why is it simply the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which in fact removes it from cross-community consent? That is not what they are talking about here. If it had been, it would be in this. I listened very carefully to the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, saying that this would be looked at on a later date. I trust that this will be taken on board. We will not move forward unless there is cross-community consent, and there is no cross-community consent and no unionist consent for this protocol, which they believe is a vehicle for taking Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom.
My Lords, this is an extraordinary clause. The speech made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, introducing this group, proved the point. She argued that Ministers could, under this clause, act in a way that is incompatible with the Act of Union. My interpretation of this clause is similar to that described by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, in the discussion of the previous group, in that it gives Ministers the ability to do pretty much anything. There is no restriction on powers. Maybe the Minister had been briefed that there was. Clearly, in this clause at least, that is not the case. That is the point that many noble Lords have been trying to get across to Ministers, and it is the underlying reason for much of the unhappiness with this Bill.
It is probably a bit tedious for the noble Lord, Lord Bew, to listen to us wittering on about this again and again. I completely understand that, as it does seem rather separate from what is happening on the ground and the political issues that he quite rightly says the Bill is really all about. I totally agree with him on that. Nevertheless, the method that the Government are choosing to deal with these political issues is one which gives them these quite unprecedented powers. We have come across this sort of thing many times, but we have never seen it quite as blunt as this. That is why they are getting a sort of two-pronged dissatisfaction with this approach.
The amendment in my name refers specifically to subsections (2)(a) and (2)(b). This is the bit where Clause 22 makes it clear that Ministers would be breaking international obligations and gives them permission to do so. Obviously, if the Bill became law, Ministers would not be breaking domestic law because it would be domestic law, but they would be breaching their international obligations. Ministers’ answers on this issue have been far from convincing. How is passing the Bill responsible if we do not know what the Government are going to do? We do not know that because they are giving themselves such wide powers. If the powers were in some way restricted to issues relating to the problems that the Bill tries to solve, perhaps the Government would be on a firmer footing. However, we are at such a precarious point; for example, there may be elections and there may not be.
I am trying not to have a dog in this race but, from the discussion we have just heard, it is absolutely clear that the problems being described are real and need to be dealt with. They need a Government who are properly engaged and will deal with them seriously. A clause such as this one says the opposite to all communities. Who knows where this will go? There is obviously no trust in the Government on this issue. We have heard it; it is very clear. Even the people who broadly support the Government’s approach do not trust them to do this correctly and do right by them. That is a big problem. It is a problem here in getting support for this clause, but it sure as heck is also a problem on the ground in Northern Ireland.
The Government have got themselves into a real mess on this issue. The powers in the Bill are not constrained to a particular purpose. I just do not know how the Government will deal with this. We have been told that we will get a letter, as if this is a discussion that the Government could not have foreseen, anticipated and had proper answers for. While we are doing our job of going through this Bill, the Government do not have an answer on what was foreshadowed well by noble Lords’ contributions at Second Reading but have to go away and write us a letter. It is not good enough. We need to know the Government’s response to that issue, and particularly on this clause, before we can properly proceed.
I completely agree with everyone who said that we must have the restoration of the political institutions. Some people seem to think that the Bill will help but we disagree. We think that it is bad politics and will lead to more disappointment, probably disappointing the very people who have come here tonight to support the Government in this endeavour. This clause is a problem; the Minister has learned that very well, I think. I am afraid that listening to tonight’s exchanges has made me more convinced than I was before that we on these Benches cannot support this clause unless something shifts dramatically before we reach Report. I just do not know where we go with this Bill.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who spoke in this debate. I rather hesitate to say this in front of the noble Lord, Lord Bew, who was taught at Cambridge by the great Tudor historian Sir Geoffrey Elton, but as we go through these debates, I feel I am becoming increasingly isolated in being a Member of your Lordships’ House who might still have a sneaking admiration for the reign of Henry VIII. Indeed, I confess that I have a portrait of Thomas Cromwell in my office. However, I will go no further because I do not want to provoke a debate with noble Lords about the 1533 Act of Restraint in Appeals and its preamble. I will therefore fast-forward, if I may, to 1800 and the Acts of Union, referred to in the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey.
Let me say at the outset that I entirely sympathise with the noble Baroness’s position and amendment. Clause 1, as she pointed out, explains that the Acts of Union are not to be affected by provision of the protocol that does not have effect in the United Kingdom. I agree with her and noble Lords who have pointed out the fundamental importance of the Acts of Union as the bedrock of Northern Ireland’s constitutional position in the United Kingdom.
However, I am sorry to point out to the noble Baroness that her amendment has the potential to risk the exercise of the powers under the Bill. For example, the red lane in our new model will continue to apply EU rules to goods moving through Northern Ireland into the European Union and single market. This is crucial to ensuring that there is no hard border on the island of Ireland and to upholding the overall objectives of the Act of Union regarding the free flow of trade in the United Kingdom. The restrictions imposed by her amendment could risk the implementation of this revised operation of the protocol, which is designed to uphold our commitments to the union.
I know the noble Baroness is very supportive of the Bill, but this amendment could undermine the certainty that it seeks to provide. She and my noble friend Lord Dodds of Duncairn made a very large number of points around subjugation and so on. I hope she will appreciate that I cannot go into great detail at the Dispatch Box because, as she knows since she is a party to it, this amendment treads very much the same territory as is the subject of a live case in the Supreme Court, which I think is expected to be heard very shortly.
I reiterate my and this Conservative and Unionist Government’s—a label I proudly wear in your Lordships’ House—strong support for the union and Northern Ireland’s integral position within it. I have no hesitation in reiterating what we said at the end of last week about joint authority; it is simply incompatible with the provisions of the Belfast agreement and we will not countenance it. I assure the noble Baroness that we are determined to resolve the issues to which she alluded in her amendment this evening and, on that basis, urge her to withdraw it.
I turn to the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick. It has been said many times and in much detail, but I feel I have a duty to remind the House again that it is because of the operation of the protocol that the Northern Ireland Assembly has not been sitting since February, and the Bill aims specifically to restore political stability in Northern Ireland and facilitate the reconstituting of a fully functioning Executive and Assembly in line with the Belfast agreement. In the absence of functioning institutions, creating a legal requirement—as the amendment from the noble Baroness would do—that consent from the Assembly be granted before regulations can be made under the Bill risks in these circumstances setting a test that simply cannot be met, because there is no functioning Assembly.
This amendment would also be constitutionally problematic, effectively limiting the UK Government’s ability to exercise their powers in excepted and reserved areas of policy such as international affairs and trade, respectively. Given that it would also apply to the commencement power, it would make the coming into force of legislation of this Parliament subject to a veto by the Northern Ireland Assembly. That would affect this Parliament’s right to legislate for Northern Ireland, something the Belfast agreement makes very clear is unaffected; as such, the Government cannot accept it. For that reason, I ask the noble Baroness not to press her Amendments 46 and 55.
On the noble Baroness’s Amendment 54, we are sympathetic to the need to involve the Northern Ireland Executive and Northern Ireland politicians and political parties as far as possible. My noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon detailed some of the steps we have taken and will continue to take to do that. I am very happy to discuss any suggestions the noble Baroness may have, as I am with my noble friend Lord Empey, who was here earlier. The problem with Amendment 54 is that creating a legal requirement that consent be granted by the First and Deputy First Ministers acting jointly before the power to make regulations can be conferred upon Northern Ireland departments risks setting a test that cannot be met, given that we currently have no functioning Executive or Assembly. As with other amendments we have discussed, it is simply not acceptable, as the amendment would grant the First and Deputy First Ministers an effective veto on the UK Government’s ability to exercise their powers in excepted and reserved areas of policy. For these reasons, I ask the noble Baroness not to press her amendment.
Finally, I turn to Amendment 53 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman of Darlington. I believe that the intention of this amendment is effectively to prevent regulations under the Bill making provision which is incompatible with the protocol. Taken as intended, this would effectively prevent the regulations under the Bill implementing the policy regime as a whole—I am sure that is her intention. I do not intend to go over the extensive ground we have already covered in this area, but I reiterate that, in the Government’s view, we are acting consistent with our obligations under international law and in support of our prior obligations under the Belfast agreement. Of course, the Government have published a legal statement to that effect.
I do not wish to provoke an extensive debate on an issue that has detained the House for very many hours over the past number of days, but I think it is worth pointing out that our intention here is and always has been to protect those elements of the protocol that are working while remedying those that are not. That is why the Government consider it is appropriate and proportionate to take the powers in this legislation.
In response to the noble Baroness’s final point about taking these issues seriously, I assure her that we are. That is why we brought forward this legislation in the first place to enable us to fix the elements of the protocol that are not working, to facilitate a return to functioning devolved government in Northern Ireland and to protect the Belfast agreement in all its forms. On that basis, I ask her to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response, and particularly for his reassertion of the United Kingdom Government’s commitment to the union and to Northern Ireland’s integral place within the union. I do not accept his reason for not accepting this amendment. I will look at what he said and I hope he will reflect between now and Report.
I thank noble Lords who spoke. The noble Lords, Lord Bew and Lord Dodds, both gave a very serious warning about the situation in Northern Ireland. The comment of the noble Lord, Lord Bew, that this is no small matter is something we should all reflect on. I am actually very pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, did not speak. I will take that as a sign, and hope that the Lib Dems will support this when it comes to Report. But I do not assume the same about the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, who also did not speak on this amendment.
Seriously, this is an important issue and it is not going to go away. I hope that, at this stage, we have given everyone a bit of thinking to do before Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 45 withdrawn.
Amendments 46 to 54A not moved.
Clause 22 agreed.
Amendment 55 not moved.
56: After Clause 22, insert the following new Clause—
“Duty to seek an agreement on outstanding issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol
(1) Before a Minister of the Crown may exercise any of the powers in sections 1 to 20, His Majesty's Government must—(a) seek an agreement with the European Union regarding outstanding issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol, or(b) pursue and exhaust all legal options under the EU withdrawal agreement.(2) Within the period of three months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, and every month thereafter until—(a) an agreement is reached, or(b) a Minister of the Crown is of the opinion that an agreement cannot be reached,a Minister of the Crown must lay before each House of Parliament a statement outlining what progress has been made in negotiations.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would make it a statutory requirement for the Government to seek a negotiated outcome with the EU, and to exhaust legal routes under the EU withdrawal agreement before availing itself of the powers in this Bill. The amendment would also require Ministers to provide regular updates to Parliament regarding the ongoing UK-EU negotiations.
My Lords, Amendment 56 deals with the
“Duty to seek an agreement on outstanding issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol”.
This amendment would make it a statutory requirement for the Government to seek a negotiated outcome with the EU and to exhaust legal routes under the EU withdrawal agreement before availing themselves of the powers in this Bill. The amendment would also require Ministers to provide regular updates to Parliament regarding the ongoing UK-EU negotiations.
In this amendment, we seek to bring together two issues in a single text: the negotiated settlement and the regular updates. This would ensure that the extraordinary measures in this Bill could not be used until all legal routes are exhausted. We know that the Government will say this amendment is unnecessary, yet the very existence of this Bill highlights the lack of good faith displayed by Ministers. We have been asked to trust in the new negotiations, but we have not yet had an update from the Foreign Secretary—although we are told we may get one later this week, and I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that. Colleagues such as the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Kerr, often remind us of the Commission’s duties to the European Parliament, so why, after all this time, does the Conservative Party continue to sideline what they call the mother of Parliaments—this House? If the Government really are acting in good faith, they should take no issue with this amendment. It is a restatement of their own policy, coupled with a request for further information. I beg to move Amendment 56.
My Lords, I support this amendment. I have spoken on a number of previous occasions about the fact that we are fumbling around in the dark. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, made a noble attempt at an earlier stage in today’s debate to say something about what was going on but I am sorry to say that, if I was being impolite, I would say that what he said was the square root of nothing. Are we going to get something more than that? We ought to. That has been the practice of previous British Governments in negotiation as a third party when we were outside the European Union and in many other negotiations. I think it is pretty shocking that we are not getting that.
It also underlines a point which all our debates illustrate: that the Government have put the cart before the horse. Surely the right sequence would have been for the Government to enter into a serious process of negotiation from last February onwards; but they did nothing—absolutely nothing. We now know that nothing happened after February. As that process went along, they should have reported it to Parliament. At some stage or another, it would have been perfectly reasonable for the Government to say that we cannot go on like this for ever and, if we cannot get a negotiated agreement to sort out the implementation of the protocol in order to cure it of some of the imperfections which none of us contests, then we may have to go down a unilateral course.
If the Government had done that, I suspect that we would have had an agreement by now—but the lady who was Foreign Secretary at the time and who had her eye on higher things, which, alas, turned out to be a flash in the pan, went down another course, which was to put the cart before the horses. And that is where we are: with the cart firmly before the horses. Here we are, spending hours and hours discussing what we are going to do if this process of negotiation, which the Government say is their preference, fails. Well, the time to do that is when it has failed, when the Government have made a full and detailed report of why it had failed, and when we can see what the other side in the negotiation says about whether those reasons for failure are justified. Then Parliament can take a view on what to do next.
Instead of which, we are being asked to do all this now in the, alas, totally futile belief that this will somehow put the frighteners on Brussels. Well, it does not look to me as if Brussels is terribly frightened; nor has it been for many months. So I wish we could just get away from this and leave the process of deciding what we do if the Government’s preferred option fails, and then we will deal with that when we get to it. We will cross that bridge when we get to it.
My Lords, I too support my noble friend’s amendment. When we look at this pointless and rather daft Bill, we realise that it has achieved absolutely nothing. They would have been more influenced by the man in the moon than by this Bill.
The Bill might have done something, but so far has done nothing, to achieve progress in Northern Ireland. I would be very interested if the people negotiating on the European Union’s behalf looked at a video of the last couple of hours’ debate in this Chamber. They would then realise that these are not the “technical issues” that we are told are being resolved at the moment. It is not about oranges, sausages and the rest of it; it is about people’s identity in Northern Ireland, whether they be unionists, who feel that their own British identity is threatened by the protocol, or nationalists, who feel that they are threatened in some other way.
The first thing the Government should understand is that in some ways the negotiations now have to be parallel: a negotiation between the European Union—with, as I said earlier, a much bigger involvement by the Irish Government—and the United Kingdom Government on the protocol itself, in parallel with negotiations to restore the institutions of the Good Friday agreement. Those institutions have effectively collapsed and there is a case for looking at them again. The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, referred to the Taoiseach’s comment about changing the rules on the way the Assembly and Executive operate—remembering, of course, that the St Andrews agreement changed the rules of the Good Friday agreement. But they were changed by agreement. That is the issue: they were not changed unilaterally by one side or the other.
In the next six months—I will come to that in a second—there should be a structured negotiation on the one hand with the European Union and on the other between the political parties in Northern Ireland and, where appropriate, on strands 2 and 3, with the Irish Government. I do not think that has entered the Government’s head over the past eight to nine months. For all sorts of reasons, which everybody knows about, they have not really been bothered; they have let things drift. There have not been proper negotiations. It seems to me that one of the Government’s most important responsibilities is to ensure that Northern Ireland does not go backwards 30 years—and it is quite possible that that could happen.
I think the European Union sometimes does not understand the absolute uniqueness of the Northern Ireland situation, of the Good Friday agreement and of the identity issue. There is no comparison anywhere within Europe, perhaps even in the world, with what has happened in Northern Ireland, and it seems to me that that has not been appreciated by the people doing the negotiating.
So what should happen? In six months’ time, we will have the anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. We have six months in which proper negotiations should take place. Forget the elections; they will achieve nothing. They will cost £7 million but nothing will really happen and we will come back with a more hardened and polarised Northern Ireland. Forget the elections and have a proper negotiation over six months with people who understand Northern Ireland and have lived their lives in Northern Ireland to try to deal with the issue, and similarly with the European Union. Then we will have the symbolic anniversary of 25 years of the Good Friday agreement, then the St Andrews agreement, and perhaps we will get somewhere —but that must include people in Northern Ireland. You cannot negotiate above their heads.
Any agreement must be owned by the political parties in Northern Ireland. We can talk about vetoes and consent; you can out-veto yourself until you go into oblivion. What we mean by consent is agreement by positive consent—a positive consensus, which is really what underlies everything we have done in Northern Ireland over three decades. Forget elections, have proper negotiations and let us resolve this issue.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. Perhaps I may pick up on a couple of points made by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy. I listened carefully to his earlier contribution and those of others, and the Government’s position is very much about negotiations with the European Union and having a very informed discussion also with all the parties in Northern Ireland. I know that my noble friend Lord Caine and I have listened attentively and carefully to some of the constructive proposals the noble Lord put forward about effective engagement.
The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, makes a notable point about the anniversary of the Good Friday agreement as well. He knows far more than I about the ways that we can make the agreement—whatever agreement is, one hopes, negotiated with the EU—work for all the communities of Northern Ireland. I am sure this will be an ongoing discussion that we will have in the days and weeks ahead.
I turn briefly to Amendment 56 and the reasons why the Government cannot support this amendment. It would prevent a Minister of the Crown exercising regulation-making powers under the Bill, unless the Government have sought an agreement with the European Union regarding outstanding issues with the Northern Ireland protocol, or all legal routes under the EU withdrawal agreement have been exhausted. It also commits a Minister to outline specifically to Parliament the progress on negotiations. Let me say once again—I have said it a number of times and will continue saying this—that the Government’s primary intention is to secure a negotiated agreement with the EU. That is why we have been engaging in a constructive dialogue with EU officials over recent weeks and engaging at a political level, as I said earlier this evening.
However, we feel that linking the exercise of regulation-making powers in the Bill to progress in the negotiations and an exhaustion of legal routes in the withdrawal agreement, which I suspect was the intention behind this amendment, would hinder rather than improve the chances of a negotiated settlement. It risks drawing the UK into a never-ending dialogue with the EU, whereby it could always be claimed that an agreement is constantly within reach but never materialises. As such, we are not supportive of this amendment. The Government have also outlined that in our view the Bill is consistent with international law. This is of course without prejudice to other legal mechanisms existing under the withdrawal agreement that we have discussed previously.
On the central point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, about updating the House, we are of course both listening carefully—I was discussing this with my noble friend Lord Caine—from a Northern Ireland Office perspective as well as from that of the FCDO. We will look to update the House on negotiations and discussions at the appropriate time. I hope that at this time the noble Lord, on behalf of his noble friend, will withdraw this amendment.
My Lords, it has been a short debate which has gone over some territory that we have covered a number of times already. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, referred to putting the cart before the horse and my noble friend Lord Murphy described this as a pointless and daft Bill—but je went on to give some very constructive suggestions about how to move forward with proper negotiations as we come up to the 25th anniversary of the agreement.
I will withdraw Amendment 56, but I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, was diplomatically opaque when he said that he would update the House at an appropriate time, whereas we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, earlier this evening that it may well be later this week.
While there are discussions going on, I do not want to anticipate which department will give a Statement. I want to be definitive, so I do not in any way want to give misleading information or information that is not yet correct. That is why I was being “diplomatically opaque”, as the noble Lord called it.
Amendment 56 withdrawn.
57: After Clause 22, insert the following new Clause—
“Parliamentary approval of the outcome of negotiations with the EU
(1) A Minister of the Crown may make regulations under section 19 only if—(a) a Minister of the Crown has laid before each House of Parliament—(i) a statement that a relevant agreement as defined in that section has been reached, and(ii) a copy of the agreement,(b) the agreement has been approved by a resolution of the House of Commons on a motion moved by a Minister of the Crown, and(c) a motion for the House of Lords to take note of the agreement has been tabled in the House of Lords by a Minister of the Crown.(2) A Minister of the Crown may make regulations under sections 4 to 17 only if—(a) they have laid before each House of Parliament a statement that—(i) His Majesty’s Government have been unable to reach an agreement with the European Union regarding outstanding issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol, and(ii) they are of the opinion that His Majesty’s Government have exhausted all legal options under the EU withdrawal agreement,(b) they have laid before each House of Parliament an assessment of the likely impacts of the regulations, and(c) they have consulted Northern Ireland business organisations on the contents of the proposed regulations and laid a report regarding that consultation before each House of Parliament.” Member’s explanatory statement
In the event of a negotiated settlement being achieved with the EU, this amendment would require both Houses to debate that agreement, with the Commons having to approve it. In the event that no agreement is achieved, Ministers would have to follow various steps before being able to make regulations under parts of the Bill.
My Lords, I will be very brief. I do not want to spend too much time on this amendment. Essentially, what we are asking for is a process in Parliament in the event of an agreement being reached. We want the Government to succeed in getting an agreement and think it is a helpful safeguard to allow the elected House to express its view and for this House to debate a draft of the agreement. It would be especially useful, I suggest, if the Northern Ireland Assembly is not restored in time. It would be helpful because if it is not and there is no debate in Parliament, who knows what they might be agreeing to? There would not be an opportunity for anybody’s elected representatives anywhere to have a debate about what is going to happen, and we think that is not ideal, given the history of how we got to where we are.
If Ministers are unable to achieve a deal and have exhausted legal routes under the protocol and wish to use the powers in the Bill, they should have to follow the steps in subsection (2) of this amendment, which would include a detailed impact assessment and proper consultation with Northern Ireland businesses on proposed regulations.
We have had many of these debates already and I do not propose going over each element of this in great detail now. Ministers know how we feel about consultation, draft regulations, the involvement of Northern Ireland and listening to businesses. So I think I will just leave it at that and I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for the amendment and her explanation. On her second point about consultation, I think the Government have rehearsed this point several times and the record of the Government’s position stands. It totally resonates with us. I have sought to the extent that I can to give reassurance of continued consultation in that respect.
Turning specifically to Amendment 57, on the supremacy of the House of Commons and giving the vote, I understand where the noble Baroness is coming from on this. However, I once again state quite clearly that the procedures under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act—CRaG 2010—will apply to any qualifying treaty that needs to be implemented by regulations made under the Bill. The Act already provides for appropriate scrutiny and I hope that, while she may not be totally satisfied, based on the fact that she has tabled this amendment, I once again give her that reassurance. I am sure that we will return to several aspects of this, particularly as we move through to other stages of the Bill.
Again, I note the point she is making about the importance of parliamentary scrutiny, but I hope at this time she is minded to withdraw her amendment.
Amendment 57 withdrawn.
Amendment 58 not moved.
59: After Clause 22, insert the following new Clause—
“Impact assessment: construction
(1) Within the period of three months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, and before a Minister of the Crown may exercise any of the powers in sections 1 to 20, the Secretary of State must lay before both Houses of Parliament an impact assessment pertaining to the construction sector in Northern Ireland.(2) In preparing the impact assessment under subsection (1), the Secretary of State must—(a) publish any draft regulations they intend to make under this Act, and which may be reasonably expected to relate to the sector,(b) consult such persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate representatives of the sector.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would require the Secretary of State to publish and consult on draft regulations relating to the construction sector, prior to using the powers under the Bill to make regulations affecting that sector.
Similarly, these amendments would require the Secretary of State to publish and consult on draft regulations relating to various sectors of the Northern Ireland economy—including construction, electronics, energy and manufacturing—prior to using powers under the Bill to make regulations affecting those sectors. We want to see these draft regulations. They keep coming up. We have made our contentment with going to Report conditional upon them; they are very important to us and, I believe, to sectors in Northern Ireland.
We have previously had interesting debates on the merits of a UK-EU veterinary agreement and the importance of proper consultation with food-focused sectors of the economy, but it is important to remember that Northern Ireland businesses operate in every imaginable field, so these amendments cite a variety of sectors. We could have gone further—it is not an exhaustive list by any means—but we wanted to highlight to Ministers the unique challenges faced by businesses in Northern Ireland. Manufacturing, in particular, is having a tough time at present, with supply chains still experiencing disruption and inflation adding to business costs. In August, the Northern Ireland Business Brexit Working Group said that using the powers under the Bill would
“create a myriad of reputational, legal and commercial risks for many of our businesses”,
putting at risk Northern Ireland’s position as
“a top performing region in exporting goods”.
My noble friend Lord Hain has previously spoken about the challenges facing the energy sector in Northern Ireland, and the ongoing uncertainty around future trade terms is creating its own difficulties for the other sectors mentioned in these amendments.
We continue to hope that the protocol can be made to work but, if the Government are to insist on their unilateral action, they need to fully involve the businesses that are operating on the ground, trying to fill and satisfy their order books. It is an incredibly difficult time for businesses anywhere in the UK but you cannot listen to the debates that we are having and not understand how much more difficult it is to plan and run your business in Northern Ireland. Some of the problems are caused, of course, by the protocol that we all want to see fixed; others, I am afraid, are caused just by the continuing uncertainty that has been brought about by this situation. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 59. Again, I suppose the final thing is about approach. There is nothing the noble Baroness has said that I disagree with, in that, yes, we are seeking to provide clarity to Northern Ireland businesses. I totally subscribe to what the noble Baroness said about problems arising from the operation of the protocol but that, equally, there are wider issues that businesses across the United Kingdom, and indeed globally, are facing.
I fully sympathise and align myself with the desire to ensure that we consider the full impact of our legislation and its practical application for businesses. My noble friend Lord Caine previously detailed some of the groups that we are working with; indeed, the Northern Ireland Business Brexit Working Group, which the noble Baroness mentioned, is one of them. We will continue to engage with them. We have had quite extended discussions and debates on the publication of regulations, and I have acknowledged that I fully recognise the desire to do so, and to ensure the scrutiny of these regulations in the usual fashion. Equally, our view is very clear that these regulations also need to be fully discussed—a point agreed on by all noble Lords—to ensure that businesses can make them operable in a practical sense. Notwithstanding that, I hope the noble Baroness will be minded at this time to withdraw her amendment.
I am obviously happy to withdraw the amendment. I note what the Minister just said about understanding our desire to see the draft regulations and his desire to make sure that they are worked up—I think he said “consulted on with business” or words to that effect. However, we had asked for draft regulations before we moved to Report. Before I sit down—that is the phrase we use here—can he indicate whether he anticipates that the Government will be able to provide that?
Amendment 59 withdrawn.
Amendments 60 to 64 not moved.
Clause 23: Making regulations under this Act: general provisions
65: Clause 23, page 12, line 25, leave out from “regulations” to end of line 29 and insert “may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment makes most regulations under the Bill subject to the affirmative procedure.
My Lords, Amendments 65 and 66 would make most regulations under the Bill subject to the affirmative procedure and strip out supplementary provision which would become redundant as a result.
As we discussed in earlier amendments, most powers in the Bill could be exercised with little or no formal scrutiny. These amendments would make the bulk of regulations made under the Bill subject to the affirmative procedure, ensuring that the SIs had to be debated and justified. Of course, I understand that this is no silver bullet and this House never makes a habit of voting down statutory instruments.
Last week, I asked the Minister what planning had been undertaken in relation to the powers in the Bill. Have the Government decided on a sequence yet? Do we know how many statutory instruments we may be dealing with? If the Minister is unable to comment at this time—we have received no correspondence on this matter—is he in a position to update the Committee on the likely number of statutory instruments that the Bill may generate? I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for moving this amendment. I also recognise his point about these instruments being affirmative. I note that we recognised that in an earlier debate today on another issue. Of course, affirmative statutory instruments allow for those debates to be taken forward.
My colleagues and I have said before that we want an opportunity to scrutinise all regulations under the Bill. The Government will provide all their usual accompanying material under normal parliamentary procedures. I can commit at the current time that any regulations that amend Acts of Parliament will be subject to the affirmative procedure, although there will be some technical and detailed regulations under the Bill that may be subject to a negative procedure. That does not in itself mean that there will be no scrutiny, but I note what the noble Lord has said.
There are obviously details still to be determined around the volume of the SIs that would be coming, but I will see whether there are further details that I can share with the noble Lord and inform him appropriately. For now, I ask him to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 65 withdrawn.
Amendments 66 and 67 not moved.
Clause 23 agreed.
Clauses 24 and 25 agreed.
Clause 26: Extent, commencement and short title
Amendments 68 to 70 not moved.
71: Clause 26, page 15, line 45, at end insert—
“(3A) Regulations under subsection (3) may not bring any such provision into force before 31 December 2026.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment delays the coming into effect of most of the legislation until 31 December 2026.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to move this simple amendment. Basically, I am suggesting that the Bill, if it were to carry, would not enter into force before 31 December 2026.
On a number of occasions my noble friend Lord Ahmad has repeated that it is the Government’s firm belief that by proceeding with this Bill on the Northern Ireland protocol, they are not jeopardising our relations—particularly our trade relations—with the European Union. Personally, I agree very much with the sentiments of the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, who said earlier that the Bill not just breaches the EU withdrawal agreement but would breach the terms of the trade and co-operation agreement agreed with the EU following our departure.
Today we hear from Egypt that the Prime Minister had his first meeting with the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. At the same time, we have also heard that European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič—apologies for my pronunciation —has stated that there would clearly be ramifications for trade should the Government persist with this Bill.
This amendment is, if you like, a get-out clause for my noble friend if he were to follow my advice and better judgment and pause the Bill at this time. There are other ways of dealing with the very real sentiments raised by my noble friends on the DUP Benches and others, and I do not believe that the Bill is the right vehicle to do that. It is my firm belief that the best way forward is through negotiation, not intimidation. I am sure my party would wish to distance itself from any form of intimidation, in whatever shape or form it comes.
That is my plea to my noble friend the Minister and the Government at this time: if they persist with the Bill, they should agree with Amendment 71 that the Act would not come into effect before 31 December 2026. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for moving the amendment. I understand and acknowledge that she wishes to create the space for negotiations, but the Government have passed the Bill through the other place and introduced it to your Lordships’ House because of the situation in Northern Ireland. For more than four years the situation has continued in a very challenging way. Furthermore, it is the Government’s view that this amendment, if agreed, would remove their ability to rapidly implement any new agreement via Clause 19.
As my noble friend will be aware—we have discussed it several times during the passage of the Bill in Committee and at Second Reading, and it was a point made by several of our colleagues and my noble friends from Northern Ireland—the Assembly has not sat since February and there is ongoing business disruption across the economy. Much of this can be aligned to the unworkability and lack of operability of the protocol.
From our perspective as the Government, it would be a sad dereliction of our duty if we were just to let the current situation continue. Although I hear what my noble friend says—she expressed her opinion about my right honourable friend meeting the President of the European Commission and our continued discussions with the EU Commissioner leading the negotiations—there is nothing more I can really add to what I have said already.
From my perspective and that of the Government, we do not feel that this amendment would be helpful to our current position. Therefore, we cannot support it and I hope my noble friend will be minded to withdraw it.
I am grateful to my noble friend for his response and I will consider what to do between now and Report. I believe this amendment would give the possibility of reaching consensus and agreement in Northern Ireland, so that democratic legitimacy can be returned, and enable us to meet our international obligations. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 71 withdrawn.