My Lords, I shall now repeat a Statement made in the other place.
“Mr Speaker, before I begin, I know the whole House will join me in paying tribute to Betty Boothroyd, who passed away earlier yesterday. She was a remarkable woman who commanded huge admiration and respect as the first female Speaker of this House. She was as firm as she was fair, and she presided over many historic moments in this House, among them the debates on the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. Her passion, wit and immeasurable contribution to our democracy will never be forgotten.”
My Lords, although those were the words of the Prime Minister yesterday, if I may break off, the House has already made it clear that I speak for the whole House in saying how much we in this House agree with those words from the Prime Minister about our late and much- loved colleague.
“And, Mr Speaker, let us also send our very best wishes to Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell and his family. He is a man of immense courage, who both on and off duty has devoted himself to the service of others. This House stands united with the people and leaders of all communities across Northern Ireland in condemning those who are trying to drag us back to the past. They will never succeed.
With permission, I would like to make a Statement on the Northern Ireland protocol. After weeks of negotiations, we have made a decisive breakthrough. The Windsor Framework delivers free-flowing trade within the whole United Kingdom. It protects Northern Ireland’s place in our union, and it safeguards sovereignty for the people of Northern Ireland. By achieving all this, it preserves the delicate balance inherent in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. It does what many said could not be done: removing thousands of pages of EU laws and making permanent, legally binding changes to the protocol treaty itself. That is the break- through we have made. Those are the changes we will deliver. Now is the time to move forward as one country, one United Kingdom.
Before I turn to the details, let us remind ourselves why this matters. It matters because at the heart of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the reason it has endured for a quarter of a century is equal respect for the aspirations and identities of all communities and all its three strands. But the Northern Ireland protocol has undermined that balance. How can we say the protocol protects the Belfast/Good Friday agreement when it has caused the institutions of that agreement to collapse? So, in line with our legal responsibilities, we are acting today to preserve the balance of that agreement and chart a new way forward for Northern Ireland.
I pay tribute to: our European friends for recognising the need for change, particularly President Von der Leyen; my predecessors for laying the groundwork for today’s agreement; and my right honourable friends the Foreign and Northern Ireland Secretaries for their perseverance in finally persuading the EU to do what it spent years refusing to do—rewrite the treaty and replace it with a radical, legally binding new framework.
Today’s agreement has three equally important objectives: first, allowing trade to flow freely within our UK internal market; secondly, protecting Northern Ireland’s place in our union; and, thirdly, safeguarding sovereignty and closing the democratic deficit. Let me take each in turn.
Core to the problems with the protocol was that it treated goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland as if they were crossing an international customs border. This created extra costs and paperwork for businesses, which had to fill out complex customs declarations. It limited choice for the people of Northern Ireland and it undermined the UK internal market—a matter of identity as well as economics. Today’s agreement removes any sense of a border in the Irish Sea and ensures the free flow of trade within the United Kingdom.
We have secured a key negotiating objective: the introduction of a new green lane for goods destined for Northern Ireland, with a separate red lane for those going to the EU. Within the green lane, burdensome customs bureaucracy will be scrapped and replaced with data sharing of ordinary, existing commercial information. Routine checks and tests will also be scrapped. The only checks will be those required to stop smugglers and criminals. Our new green lane will be open to a broad, comprehensive range of businesses across the United Kingdom.
I am pleased to say that we have also permanently protected tariff-free movement of all types of steel into Northern Ireland. For goods going the other way, from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, we have scrapped export declarations, delivering, finally, completely unfettered trade. The commitment to establish the green lane is achieved by a legally binding amendment to the text of the treaty itself. That is fundamental, far-reaching change and it permanently removes the border in the Irish Sea.
Perhaps the single most important area of trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is food. Three quarters of the food in Northern Ireland’s supermarkets comes from the rest of the United Kingdom, yet the protocol applied the same burdens on shipments from Cairnryan to Larne as between Holyhead and Dublin. If it was implemented in full, we would see supermarket lorries needing hundreds of certificates for every individual item, every single document checked and supermarket staples such as sausages banned altogether—more delays, more cost, less choice.
Today’s agreement fixes all this with a new, permanent, legally binding approach to food. We will expand the green lane to food retailers, and not just supermarkets but wholesalers and hospitality, too. Instead of hundreds of certificates, lorries will make one simple, digital declaration to confirm that goods will remain in Northern Ireland. Visual inspections will be cut from 100% now to just 5%. Physical checks and tests will be scrapped unless we suspect fraud, smuggling or disease, so there will be no need for vets in warehouses.
Of course, to deliver this we need to reassure the European Union that food imports will not be taken into the Republic of Ireland, so we will ask retailers to mark a small number of particularly high-risk food products as ‘Not for EU’, with a phased rollout of this requirement to give them time to adjust. More fundamentally, we have delivered a form of dual regulation for food, the single biggest sector by far for east-west trade and one of the most important in people’s lives.
Under the protocol, retail food products made to UK standards could not be sold in Northern Ireland. Today’s agreement completely changes that. This means the ban on British products such as sausages entering Northern Ireland has now been scrapped. If it is available on supermarket shelves in Great Britain, it will be available on supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland. We will still need to make sure that goods moved into Northern Ireland do not risk bringing in animal and plant diseases, but that is clearly a common-sense measure, never opposed by anyone, to prevent diseases circulating within the long-standing single epidemiological zone on the island of Ireland.
That brings me to the treatment of parcels. If the protocol were fully implemented, every single parcel travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland would be subject to full international customs. You would have needed a long, complex form to send every single parcel, even a birthday present for a niece or nephew, and you could only have shopped online from retailers willing to deal with all that bureaucracy, with some already pulling out of Northern Ireland. Today’s agreement fixes all this. It achieves something that we have never achieved before: removing requirements of the EU customs code for people sending and receiving parcels. Families can, rightly, send packages to each other without filling in forms, online retailers can serve customers in Northern Ireland as they did before and businesses can ship parcels through the green lane, all underpinned by data sharing by parcel operators, with a phased rollout and time for them to adjust.
There is no burdensome customs bureaucracy and no routine checks. Bans on food products: scrapped. Steel tariff rate quotas: fixed. The tariff reimbursement scheme: approved. Vet inspections: gone. Export declarations: gone. Parcels paperwork: gone. We have delivered what the people of Northern Ireland asked for and the Command Paper promised: we have removed the border in the Irish Sea.
However, to preserve the balance of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, we also need to protect Northern Ireland’s place in our union. The Windsor framework is about making sure that Northern Ireland gets the full benefit of being part of the United Kingdom in every respect. Under the protocol, in too many ways that simply was not the case. Take tax: when I was Chancellor, it frustrated me that when I cut VAT on solar panels or beer duty in pubs, those tax cuts did not apply in Northern Ireland. Now we have amended the legal text of the treaty so that critical VAT and excise changes will apply to the whole of the United Kingdom. This means that zero rates of VAT on energy-saving materials will now apply in Northern Ireland. Reforms to alcohol duty to cut the cost of a pint in pubs will now apply in Northern Ireland. Because we now have control over VAT policy, we can make sure that the EU’s plan to reduce the VAT threshold by £10,000 will not apply in Northern Ireland, nor will the SME VAT directive that would have brought huge amounts of EU red tape for small businesses.
We are also making subsidy control provisions work as intended. Already, just 2% of subsidy measures in Northern Ireland fall within the scope of EU approvals under the protocol. Nevertheless, today’s agreement goes further, addressing the so-called reach-back of EU state aid law by imposing stringent new tests. For the EU to argue that we are in breach of its rules, it would now have to demonstrate that there is a real, genuine and material impact on Northern Ireland’s trade with the EU. That is a much higher threshold than the protocol, limiting disputes to what the 2021 Command Paper called
‘subsidies on a significant scale relating directly to Northern Ireland’.
We have also protected the special status of agriculture and fisheries subsidies in Northern Ireland, which will be completely outside the EU’s common agricultural policy. All of which means that the problem of reach-back is fixed.
As well as tax and spend, the UK Government have a responsibility to protect the supply of medicines to all their citizens, but our ability to do that was constrained by the protocol. The biggest problem is that drugs approved for use by the UK’s medicines regulator are not automatically available in Northern Ireland. Imagine someone suffering with cancer in Belfast seeing a potentially life-changing new drug available everywhere else in the UK but unable to access it at home. When the current grace period ends in 2024, the situation will get worse still: expensive and burdensome checks on all medicines, companies having to manufacture drugs with two completely different labels and supply chains, and pharmacies needing to check every package with complex scanners. When 80% of Northern Ireland’s medicines come from Great Britain, those frictions pose a serious risk to the supply of medicines to the people of Northern Ireland.
To fix this, today’s agreement achieves something unprecedented: it provides dual regulation for medicines. The UK’s regulator will approve all drugs for the whole UK market, including Northern Ireland, with no role for the European Medicines Agency. This fully protects the supply of medicines from Great Britain into Northern Ireland, once again asserting the primacy of UK regulation. The same medicines, in the same packs with the same labels, will be available in every pharmacy and hospital in the United Kingdom. Crucially, dual regulation means that Northern Ireland’s world-leading healthcare industry, which brings much-needed jobs and investment, can still trade with both the EU and UK markets. This is a landmark deal for patients in Northern Ireland. It is a permanent solution that brings peace of mind.
The protocol also banned quintessentially British products going to Northern Ireland. When people wanted to import oak trees to mark Her late Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee, the protocol stood in their way. It suspended the historic trade in seed potatoes between Scotland and Northern Ireland. If implemented, it would create massive costs and bureaucracy for people travelling around the UK with their pets, disrupting family life and our family of nations. That is why today’s agreement will lift the ban on shrubs, plants and trees going to Northern Ireland. It lifts the ban on the movement of seed potatoes, particularly important for Scottish businesses. We will deliver that by expanding the existing UK plant passport scheme.
When it comes to pets, we have made sure that people from Northern Ireland will have completely free access to travel to Great Britain. If you are a pet owner travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, just make sure that your pet is microchipped and then all you will need to do is simply tick a box when booking your travel. Whether it is lower VAT rates, lower beer duty, jubilee oaks in garden centres, seamless travel with pets, seamless trade in seed potatoes or the seamless supply of cutting-edge medicines, all that is now available for everyone everywhere in the United Kingdom.
The Windsor framework goes further still, safeguarding sovereignty for the people of Northern Ireland and eliminating the democratic deficit. Fundamentally, the protocol meant that the EU could impose new laws on the people of Northern Ireland without their having a say. I know that some Members of this House, whose voices I deeply respect, say that EU laws should have no role whatsoever in Northern Ireland. I understand that view and I am sympathetic to it, but for as long as the people of Northern Ireland continue to support their businesses having privileged access to the EU market, and if we want to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland—as we all do—then there will be some role for EU law. The question is: what is the absolute minimum amount necessary to avoid a hard border?
Today’s agreement scraps 1,700 pages of EU law. The amount of EU law that applies in Northern Ireland is less than 3%, and the people of Northern Ireland retain the right to reject even that 3% through next year’s consent vote. However, that consent vote is about the whole protocol so it cannot, by its nature, provide oversight of individual new laws. It does not address the No. 1 challenge to sovereignty made by the protocol: the ability of the EU to impose new or amended goods laws on Northern Ireland without its having a say. To address that, today’s agreement introduces a new Stormont brake.
The Stormont brake does more than just give Northern Ireland a say over EU laws; it means that it can block them. How will that work? The democratically elected Assembly can oppose new EU goods rules that would have significant and lasting effects on everyday lives. It will do so on the same basis as the petition of concern mechanism in the Good Friday agreement, needing the support of 30 Members from at least two parties. If that happens, the UK Government will have a veto. We will work with the Northern Ireland Assembly and all parties to codify how the UK Government will use that veto.
Let me tell the House the full significance of this breakthrough. The Stormont brake gives the institutions of the Good Friday agreement a powerful new safeguard. It means that the United Kingdom can veto new EU laws if they are not supported by both communities in Northern Ireland. Yes, it is true that until now the EU had refused to consider treaty change; we were told that it was impossible and that EU negotiators would never consider it. The Stormont brake has been introduced by fundamentally rewriting the treaty—specifically, the provisions relating to dynamic alignment. That is a permanent change. It ends the automatic ratchet of EU law and, if the veto is used, the European courts can never overturn our decision.
The EU has also explicitly accepted an important principle in the political declaration. It is there in black and white that the treaty is subject to the Vienna convention. This means that, unequivocally, the legal basis for the Windsor Framework is in international law. I would like to thank my honourable friend the Member for Stone for his support in negotiating this point. It puts it beyond all doubt that we have now taken back control.
Mr Speaker, from the very start, we have listened closely and carefully to views on all sides of this debate. I am grateful to many Members of this House, the communities of Northern Ireland, and the voices of business and civil society for putting forward their suggestions. I want particularly to thank the Northern Ireland business groups that I have spoken to. I hope in today’s agreement they recognise that we have addressed their concerns. We are delivering stability, certainty, simplicity, affordability and clarity, as well as strengthened representation for the businesses of Northern Ireland.
I also want to speak directly to the unionist community. I understand and have listened to your frustrations and concerns, and I would not be standing here today if I did not believe that today’s agreement marks a turning point for the people of Northern Ireland. It is clearly in the interests of the people, and those of us who are passionate about the cause of unionism, for power-sharing to return.
Of course, parties will want to consider the agreement in detail, a process that will need time and care. There are, of course, many voices and perspectives within Northern Ireland, and it is the job of the Government to respect them all, but I have kept the concerns raised by the elected representatives of unionism at the forefront of my mind, because it is their concerns with the protocol that have been so pronounced.
What I can say is this: our goal has been to ensure the economic rights of the people of Northern Ireland under the Act of Union and Belfast/Good Friday agreement, placing them on an equal footing with the rest of the UK with respect to tax, trade and the availability of goods. We have worked to end the prospect of trade diversion, removed any sense of a border for UK internal trade, removed routine customs or checks for goods destined for Northern Ireland, removed thousands of pages of existing EU law and introduced a UK veto on dynamic alignment through the Stormont brake. We have created a form of dual regulation, where it works and is needed the most, in sectors such as medicines and food retail. We have delivered unfettered access to the whole UK market for Northern Ireland’s businesses, and we will take further steps to avoid regulatory divergence in future. We have secured a clear EU commitment and process to manage future changes with a special goods body.
All of this means that Northern Ireland’s businesses have continued access to the EU market, as they requested. It means we have protected the letter and the spirit of Northern Ireland’s constitutional guarantee in the Belfast agreement, with the Stormont brake creating an effective cross-community safeguard. There are two distinct economies on the island of Ireland, and that will remain the case. Today’s agreement puts it beyond all doubt that Northern Ireland’s place in the internal market and the United Kingdom is fully restored.
I want to conclude by directly addressing the question of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. As I and my predecessors always said, the Bill was only ever meant to be a last resort, meant for a world where we could not get negotiations going. As the Government said at the time of its introduction, our
‘clear preference remains a negotiated solution’.
Now that we have persuaded the EU to fundamentally rewrite the treaty text of the protocol, we have a new and better option.
The Windsor Framework delivers a decisively better outcome than the Bill, achieving what people said could not be done and what the Bill does not offer. It permanently removes any sense of a border in the Irish Sea. It gives us control over dynamic alignment through the Stormont brake, beyond what the Bill promised. The Bill did not change a thing in international law, keeping the jurisdiction of the ECJ and leaving us open to months—perhaps years—of uncertainty, disruption and legal challenge. Today’s agreement makes binding legal changes to the treaty itself and is explicitly based on international law. Unlike the Bill, it is an agreement that provides certainty, stability and, crucially, can start delivering benefits almost immediately for the people and businesses of Northern Ireland.
Of course, the House would expect to be informed of the Government’s updated legal position on whether there is a lawful basis to proceed with the Bill, so I am publishing it today. It says that, because we have achieved a new negotiated agreement, which preserves the balance of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, the original and sound legal justification for the Bill has now fallen away. In other words, neither do we need the Bill, nor do we have a credible basis to pursue it. As such, we will no longer proceed with the Bill, and the European Union will no longer proceed with its legal proceedings against us. Instead, we will pursue the certainty of a new way forward, with the Windsor Framework.
Let me remind the House of the full breadth and significance of what we have achieved today. We have achieved free-flowing trade, with a green lane for goods, no burdensome customs bureaucracy, no routine checks on trade, no paperwork whatever for Northern Irish goods moving into Great Britain and no border in the Irish Sea. We have protected Northern Ireland’s place in the union, with state aid reach-back fixed, the same tax rules applying everywhere, vet certificates for food lorries gone, the ban on British sausages gone, parcel paperwork gone, pet paperwork gone, garden centres now selling the same trees, supermarkets selling the same food and pharmacies selling the same medicines. We have safeguarded sovereignty for the people of Northern Ireland, with the democratic deficit closed, the Vienna convention confirmed and thousands of pages of EU law scrapped. With the Stormont brake, we have safeguarded democracy and sovereignty for the people of Northern Ireland.
That is the choice before us. Let us seize the opportunity of this moment—the certainty of an agreement that fixes the problems we face, commands broad support and consensus, and offers us, at last, the freedom to move forward together. That is what the people of Northern Ireland deserve; that is what the Windsor Framework delivers. As a Conservative, a Brexiteer and a unionist, I believe passionately, with my head and my heart, that this is the right way forward—right for Northern Ireland, right for our United Kingdom. I commend it to this House.”
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement—that was quite a feat of endurance. He should be grateful that we have a time limit today; the Prime Minister was on his feet for over two hours yesterday.
I also thank the Minister for his comments about Betty Boothroyd—the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd. So many Members of this House will have memories of her that we cherish and enjoy sharing. I can hear her voice today: I remember answering the phone and hearing her opening words, “Now listen, luvvie”—and of course I would. As sad as we are at her passing, we can only celebrate a long life, well lived. We look forward to the opportunity to commemorate her and share our stories with a smile.
It is with real sadness that I echo the comments about the shocking and cowardly attack on PSNI Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell. The impact on him, his family, his friends, his colleagues and all who know him is devastating. For DCI Caldwell and his family, life may never be the same again. For his colleagues and the community he serves, this is a stark reminder that there remain a few who do not share their commitment to peace. The most moving, emotional and, in many ways, uplifting scenes that I saw on TV this past weekend were of the people of Omagh—a town that suffered so much—standing united to proclaim, “No going back”. They represent the people of Northern Ireland. The immediate and unequivocal joint statement from Sinn Féin, the DUP, the SDLP, the Alliance Party and the UUP was, in so many ways, a manifestation of how far we have come since the signing of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement in 1998. The shooting of DCI Caldwell is a reminder of just how crucial it is to continue working together to uphold peace and support Northern Ireland’s institutions.
When the people of Northern Ireland overwhelmingly endorsed the Good Friday agreement, the UK Government took on responsibility as a joint guarantor, so a key question for many of us, when the protocol was negotiated and signed by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, was its compatibility with the agreement. We knew it could never be perfect, but we also recognised that the assurances given by Mr Johnson that there would be
“no forms, no checks, no barriers of any kind”
on goods crossing the Irish Sea post Brexit were not based in reality. Who can forget his flamboyant promise to an audience of Northern Ireland businesspeople that they should call him if anyone tried to get them to complete a form? That was not just wrong; the lack of honesty was disrespectful to those who had raised legitimate concerns.
The solution to the problems was never going to be the aggressive approach of, in effect, tearing up an international treaty that the Prime Minister and Ministers had negotiated and signed. Not only would it not work but it would signal to the world that the UK could not now be trusted to keep its word. That is a dangerous position to be in when we have to negotiate post-Brexit trade deals.
It is no surprise that, during our long and at times passionate debate on the Second Reading of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, the key questions from across the House were: why were Ministers not at the negotiating table trying to resolve legitimate outstanding issues with the protocol, rather than standing at the Dispatch Box trying to defend the unilateral tearing up of that binding international treaty? Why were the Government not engaging effectively with unionists’ concerns? Why were they not listening to businesses about the need for common sense, clarity and honesty? Why did the Government negotiate and sign the treaty, given its failings?
On a recent visit to Northern Ireland with Keir Starmer and Peter Kyle, businesses had a common message for us. They had different concerns about the protocol, but they all wanted to make it work and they all had suggestions of how, through negotiation, changes could be made that would minimise problems. My party has always said that if the Prime Minister were serious about negotiating a deal with our partners in the EU, we would back him. So we welcome the Prime Minister’s Statement and the publication of the Windsor Framework announced by Mr Sunak and President von der Leyen. It proves that the complex legal and trade issues are best resolved through diplomacy, not unilateral action or headline-seeking bluster. We welcome the Prime Minister’s change of approach.
We also welcome that Mr Sunak has now, as part of the agreement, finally committed not to proceed with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. We will never know how much sooner this new framework could have been agreed if the time and energy put into that Bill had been used instead to focus on negotiations from the beginning.
The noble Lord heckles me from a sedentary position. I suggest that he should apologise to those who have had to deal with these negotiations to change the protocol that he supported. Had he not—
No, I am not giving way. I am not prepared to give way to the noble Lord who tried to heckle me from a sedentary position. He will have the opportunity to ask questions later. If he wants to heckle, he should understand that people respond to heckles like that. We just do not know—
No, I am not giving way, and he should not heckle. He should behave in this House; he has been here long enough.
How much sooner could this new framework have been agreed if the time and energy put into the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill had been put into negotiating the framework? The outline of a deal has been clear for months. Business organisations have been crying out for certainty for even longer, not only because of short-term stock issues or the burdens of additional paperwork but because the uncertainty was creating systemic problems on the ground. A lack of clarity on trade terms, both within the UK internal market and with the EU, was extremely challenging to those seeking to attract investment into Northern Ireland’s economy.
As the detail of the agreement is examined, debated and challenged, we urge the Prime Minister to be honest about the compromises that have had to be reached —compromises made in the best interests of Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole.
When arguing against the protocol, a key issue raised by the DUP, as we heard in yesterday’s debate on the Northern Ireland executive formation Bill, is the democratic deficit caused by the protocol. Those concerns must be understood but, as my noble friend Lord Murphy of Torfaen, who has considerable experience on this issue, asked the House yesterday, is there not a bigger democratic deficit in the people of Northern Ireland not having a functioning Assembly or Executive? Crucial decisions are either not being taken or being taken by civil servants rather than Ministers. Meanwhile, the people of Northern Ireland are not being served properly in the face of a cost of living crisis affecting the entire UK. If we are making the case that the Good Friday agreement is undermined by the protocol, we must understand that the absence of those political and related institutions is also breaching the agreement.
The tone of DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson’s comments yesterday, when he said he would examine the detail of the new framework, is welcome, as is the Prime Minister’s commitment to giving Northern Ireland’s political parties the time and space for their own deliberations and to address any points raised. This new agreement should provide a path through the political stalemate and towards the restoration of power-sharing, even if that is not immediate. In this 25th anniversary year of the Good Friday agreement, I hope we can move forward in a spirit of co-operation rather than seeking more negotiations.
The Windsor Framework will not in isolation solve all Northern Ireland’s problems, nor completely reset the UK’s relationship with the EU. Beyond the protocol, the Government are pressing ahead with the revocation of vast swathes of retained EU law at the end of this year. Such a step would likely have implications for the trade and co-operation agreement, which relies on minimum standards in several areas. We accept that the Government want a framework for replacing retained EU law and that we need to establish the future status of laws carried over from our time in the European Union.
However, having sought the Windsor Framework to provide certainty for businesses in Northern Ireland, it is counterintuitive to create uncertainty for businesses across the whole UK by introducing a regulatory cliff edge at the end of this year. Surely it is illogical, impractical and reckless to allow potentially important pieces of law to fall off the statute book by default because a department lacks the capacity to identify and rewrite them in the next 10 months. Perhaps the Leader can help me on this. Was it discussed with the Commission President yesterday? Can he now look again at our common-sense and pragmatic approach to review the process of existing retained law?
In conclusion, this important deal may not be perfect, but it represents a significant step forward. In welcoming it, we should pause for a moment to consider the wider context. For the past six and a half years, the at times toxic debate around Brexit, both in Parliament and in the wider country, has cast a shadow over our politics and civic debate. One of the worst aspects has been that the expression of any doubt about the process, let alone the outcome, has generated abuse and false accusations of not respecting the referendum. At the very outset of our debates, I said that the process and delivery of Brexit should not be led by those who had no doubt, because it is through doubt that we have challenge. It is through challenge that we have scrutiny and through scrutiny that we get better decisions and better legislation. The Prime Minister’s Statement is an admission that the Government made mistakes in negotiating and signing the protocol, and that there was a lack of honesty. We welcome today’s Statement. As we move forward, this should be an opportunity to reset our politics.
My Lords, I too thank the Leader for repeating this very long Statement. My principal emotion on hearing that an agreement had been reached and on reading the documentation was overwhelmingly one of relief. I suspect that this feeling is shared on a widespread basis across the House. For months the wrangling over the protocol has taken up a huge amount of time and political capital. It preoccupied your Lordships’ House with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill and acted as a blockage to constructive engagement between the UK and the EU on a range of other issues that had absolutely nothing to do with the protocol itself.
The Windsor framework represents an outbreak of common sense on both sides and it should bring great relief to many in Northern Ireland who were worried about the practical costs of the previous trading arrangements or what they saw as threats to the Good Friday agreement. The Prime Minister and other Ministers involved in securing this agreement are therefore to be heartily congratulated on achieving it. It would perhaps be churlish to point out, however, that the only reason all this effort was needed, and that all the contortions required to get to today’s position were necessary, was the deeply flawed original agreement, an agreement enthusiastically supported at the time by those who have now fundamentally renegotiated it. So I shall not dwell on that point today.
On the actual contents of the agreement, the only aspect which raises an immediate warning flag to me is the Stormont brake. If it is indeed used in only exceptional circumstances, that is one thing; but if it came to be used regularly, it could in itself lead to serious instability and uncertainty. I know that this issue is of particular concern to my colleagues in the Alliance Party. Having had an initial brief meeting today, they have asked to see the Prime Minister again to discuss this in detail. I hope the Leader can give me an assurance that the Prime Minister will not now simply be spending a lot of time with the DUP but will equally meet with the other parties in Northern Ireland to discuss any outstanding issues they might have.
In the short term, however, yesterday’s agreement will bring relief for many people in Northern Ireland and will hopefully, one would have thought, lead to a rapid resumption of the Northern Ireland Executive. This, though, is entirely down to the attitude taken by the DUP. We have heard much from them about the democratic deficit caused by the protocol, but as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, pointed out, the democratic deficit caused by the continued absence of an Assembly is surely even more pressing for the daily lives of the population in Northern Ireland. To make an obvious point, if the Stormont brake is to rectify the democratic deficit, there needs to be an operational Administration in Stormont to pull it, so I hope the DUP will now allow the Assembly to function once again without further delay.
Beyond this, we need to use this outbreak of civility and the commitment by the Government and the EU to, in the words of the Command Paper,
“a positive, constructive relationship as partners”
to serve as a reset of our overall relationship with the EU, so that we can begin to mitigate some of the other costs of Brexit. It is, for example, welcome that the EU is now prepared to unblock the UK’s participation in the Horizon programme. This is long overdue, and I hope the Government grasp this opportunity with both hands, but this should surely be only the start. If it were possible, following the precedent of this agreement, to remove many of the costly barriers to trade with mainland Europe itself, there would be an even greater benefit for the economy as a whole than sorting out the protocol. If, for example, much of the red tape created by the TCA could be removed, small businesses, fishermen and farmers could trade with the EU at much lower cost. With a spirit of good will, the problems facing travelling artists could be mitigated, the lack of comprehensive financial services arrangements could be rectified and the many remaining issues on immigration between the UK and EU could be addressed in a serious manner.
This agreement offers the prospect that, if the EU believes that the UK is acting in good faith and can be a reliable partner, we can make progress across a much broader range of issues. Reaching agreement on the Northern Ireland protocol is a good start, but there is a lot more to do.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for the manner of their responses and the broad and deep welcome, I felt, they gave to the great and distinguished efforts made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the other parties in the negotiation—any negotiation needs two parties—in getting to this place. I will take back to the Prime Minister those very positive comments.
I do not wish to put anybody in any kind of box or to say that anyone will be responsible for anything at this time. This is a moment of opportunity but, as the noble Lord said, it is right that all parties be given time and space to reflect on the details of what has been placed before Parliament, not only the Command Paper but the detailed text alongside it. I will not challenge anybody at this Dispatch Box to do anything, although obviously we would all agree that the restoration of the institutions in Northern Ireland is a high priority and in the interests of its people.
I can give the noble Lord the assurance he asked for: not only are we committed to providing a proper say for Stormont in the joint committee process and will codify the process around the Stormont brake in domestic legislation, but we will engage in detail with the political parties in Northern Ireland, not just one set, on the best way to enshrine a meaningful say for Stormont in the scenario where the UK Government are deciding whether or not to veto a completely new rule being applied under Article 13.4. Those conversations must go on.
The House always indulges itself in criticising my right honourable friend the former Prime Minister. I must put on the record that, but for him, we would never have left the EU, as the public requested in a referendum. We should also remember that the Northern Ireland protocol, with all its imperfections, was born of a situation where a majority in both Houses were seeking to frustrate that. However, I agree with the sentiment expressed by the noble Baroness in her very statesmanlike response that we should leave these matters behind us.
On the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, we will have to leave it to future memoir writers to know the motivations of the people who came to the negotiating table, or not. I am not as certain as others might be about whether the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill had an effect or not, but I do not believe it is a fruitful subject for debate. To repeat what the Prime Minister has said and I have said from this Dispatch Box on a number of occasions, the important thing is that His Majesty’s Government—and Her Majesty’s Government, as they were in those days—always preferred agreement and negotiation as the way forward. For whatever motivation and reasons, that negotiation has been undertaken in good faith and has delivered this framework agreement, which will hopefully secure the prosperity of Northern Ireland, the key aim of us all.
I do not know whether the retained EU law Bill, about which I was asked, was discussed yesterday. Obviously, the Government intend to proceed with the Bill, but I was present on the Front Bench to hear some of the discussions on the first day and will continue to listen to your Lordships’ House. I hope that we make reasonable progress in considering it.
I thank noble Lords for their response. I agree with those who have said that good relations between us and all our allies and neighbours is in our interests and theirs. On the basis of this agreement and the remarks made across this House, I hope we can now move forward in that purposive and positive spirit.
Many matters between the UK and the EU remain in cold storage: Horizon, as the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said; the agreement to have co-operation in financial services regulation; and, indeed, the 24 committees that exist under the trade and co-operation agreement, which today are operational but are not truly operating to the benefit of all 500 million people concerned. Could the Minister say what has been agreed with the European Union about the speed of the thaw—the speed with which these things can be started up—now that we are set on a new track of a relationship?
My Lords, I have only just served out breakfast to your Lordships’ House, so I am not going to describe when we might reach dinnertime. I think that the intent and aim is there that we should proceed constructively. Indeed, the Windsor Framework envisages not consent mechanisms but mechanisms for consideration and discussion of some of the aspects of the agreement going forward. Nor am I going to speculate on specific instances or committees. I repeat that, in these difficult times, when we face peril and violence in eastern Europe among other things, we hope that the earnest and the spirit that the Prime Minister and the President of the European Commission both put on the table will be fruitful in many ways.
Would my noble friend agree that the unionists in Northern Ireland are sensible to want a full analysis from the lawyers before they decide whether this is something they can implement? However, all of us can agree that the Prime Minister has achieved a major step forward. This is infinitely superior to what was in the protocol and validates his decision to ignore those who wanted to make a temporary and transitional arrangement permanent and implement it in full, as so many on the other side of the House did. Was not the Prime Minister right to follow Teddy Roosevelt’s advice and negotiate with a quiet voice but carrying a big stick?
My Lords, that last remark takes me back to the memoir writers. We shall see whether the big stick played its part. As I said—I am grateful to the noble Baroness opposite for also saying this—it is absolutely right and reasonable that all parties in Northern Ireland should look very carefully at the text and the details that the Government have laid out. That is why we have sought to lay out a detailed text in co-operation with the European Union. Of course this is better than the Northern Ireland protocol. I am delighted that that is the case, and I clearly agree with what my noble friend said on that point.
My Lords, this is an occasion for bringing the House together rather than dividing it, given the importance of this issue. For my part, I have no hesitation in congratulating the Government and all the Ministers who were involved—including those on the Front Bench—on what I think is quite a stunning success. As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said earlier, two successes in two days is quite a record at the moment.
I would merely make a couple of comments on the Stormont brake. The first is that it is a major step forward in negotiations with the European Union but, as I understand it, it can work only if there is an Assembly sitting, as has been said. Effectively, not to have that Assembly sitting snatches defeat from the jaws of success and allows the EU to impose anything it likes. I know that our colleagues in the DUP will be considering this, and that is one of the aspects they will wish to look at. I will say no more on that. The second point is that the brake is a sort of sudden, 100% brake—a veto —even if the Assembly is sitting. Is there not a mechanism for allowing consultation prior to a brake being used, or prior to the EU bringing in legislation? If there is the possibility of that, could we look at what mechanism we might have for discussing this?
I thank the noble Lord for his opening remark, from his long personal perspective of service. That is why I said I did not want to put anybody in a box on this occasion; I think time, space and consideration are extremely important.
As far as the brake is concerned, the noble Lord is of course right to say that it will need the Stormont Executive to be in place. We believe that this agreement could mark a turning point for Northern Ireland and potentially puts power back into the hands of the people of Northern Ireland, where it always should be and should have been, and a restored and functioning Executive are important. To repeat, it is now for the parties to decide how they want to move forward with that mechanism. The advantage of the brake over what we had before is that it can be applied to points of detail, provided they have a significant impact, potentially, on the people of Northern Ireland; whereas, with the protocol, it was all or nothing, throwing a lot of stuff out. Within the process of the brake, which I am sure will be carefully examined over the coming days and weeks, there are various points for discussion and scrutiny.
My Lords, the crucial question is whether or not people in Northern Ireland are to continue to be denied equal status, democratically and constitutionally, with our fellow country men and women, and the resultant consequences for separation and economic divergence from the rest of the United Kingdom.
Overnight, we have had greater analysis and some of the unhelpful exaggeration around the deal has been stripped away. For accuracy, can the Leader, for whom I have great personal respect, confirm to what extent Northern Ireland will continue to be governed by EU laws and subject to EU legal jurisdiction for large parts of our economy, for which no consent has ever been sought or given? Can he confirm how many of the 300 areas of EU sovereignty in Annex 2 to the protocol will be removed? He talked about pages being removed, but how many of those areas will be removed? On the Stormont brake—it is important to remember that this is still, as I understand it, subject to negotiation—can he confirm that, as currently set out, it does not give the final say or block to the Northern Ireland Assembly, even on a cross-community vote, but can be overridden by a Minister here and will leave us subject, in terms, to retaliatory measures against the United Kingdom as a whole by the EU?
My Lords, on the last point, as the noble Lord has set out, clearly the initiative comes from the request, which is consonant with the existing petitioning system that action should be taken and then that matter discussed in the joint committee between the two Governments. It would be the British Government who would operate the veto, but that would be a very open process. Obviously, I cannot commit future British Governments, but one would expect that, in those circumstances, the British Government would give the very greatest weight to the points that have been put forward by the Stormont Assembly.
As for as the range of EU law, I will have to write to the noble Lord on the specific number of instruments, but, as the Prime Minister set out very clearly, about 1,700 pages of EU law will be removed. The Statement was absolutely honest that about 3% of EU law provisions will remain in relation to goods and the matters covered by the protocol, but I submit that some of them, for instance, relate to the single electricity market on the island of Ireland. These are matters where Northern Ireland itself gains a great deal from being within the all-Ireland and wider single market, and Northern Ireland businesses have argued for it. I must repeat that we are talking about 3% here, as against 97% removed.
It was very kind of the noble Lord to speak kindly of me, and I have equal respect for him. I urge him and his colleagues to reflect and think carefully in the future, and realise that there may be some aspects where it may be to the advantage of all the people of Northern Ireland for that 3% to stay. But on the other areas, the Statement is absolutely clear, and this is an important treaty change—I repeat, a treaty change—that what will apply to so much in this framework now is not EU law but international law governed by the Vienna convention.
My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for the Statement. I welcome the progress made in the Windsor Framework because it will lead to a reduction in Brexit friction and lead the way forward for those in Northern Ireland who are interested in consensus and prosperity. Does he agree that there should now be a restoration of the political institutions in Northern Ireland, notwithstanding the concerns around the Stormont brake? We should also consider the fact that 56% of the people of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union and support the protocol because of its provisions on dual access. Can he provide the House with an assurance that dual access to both markets, which is required by businesses in Northern Ireland, will continue? Further, can he provide clarification in relation to the Stormont brake? Who will trigger the process, what will that process contain, and what will constitute the need for such a triggering of the process?
My Lords, as set out in the Statement, I say that the brake will come from the Assembly and, as with the petition, from 30 MLAs; however, it will have to come from more than one party, as in the current arrangements. Obviously, the intention of the framework is not to deny Northern Ireland access to the market in the rest of the island of Ireland. Indeed, for some industries, there is great dependency on trade across the border; that is inherent in the small part of the trade and co-operation agreement that I was discussing with the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull. We hope that openness to the Republic of Ireland in respect of the market and trade in it will be preserved in this agreement; however, the fundamental point is that the agreement also addresses our UK internal market and strips down unacceptable barriers to east-west trade, which have rightly caused concern and regret in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, this is an ambitious and far-reaching agreement with a great deal of material that will need to be digested and carefully analysed; the Northern Ireland protocol committee, which I have the honour of chairing, will start on that shortly. Can the Minister assure us that, now that an agreement has been reached, the Foreign Secretary will give evidence to our committee and therefore help us in the inquiry that we are about to start? Secondly, on behalf of the committee, I wrote to the Foreign Secretary last Friday on the supply of medicines to Northern Ireland. I argued that the falsified medicines directive might be disapplied and, for example, that single packs of medicines should be available throughout the United Kingdom. Yesterday’s announcement suggests that this has all been agreed. Can the Minister confirm that? Does he agree that a letter sent on Friday and a positive reply received on Monday represent a remarkably quick turnaround, even by the high standards of your Lordships’ House?
The noble Lord should not ask for too much; he cannot ask me to control the Foreign Secretary’s diary, but I will certainly let the Foreign Secretary know about the great interest of the noble Lord and his committee, whose work I very much value, in that matter, but I cannot commit to him in any way. Although I think it invidious to single out individuals I say that, in addition to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland have both played an enormously distinguished part in bringing about these arrangements. As we laid out in the Statement, we believe that we now have a situation where we will have a single medicines pack for the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. To supply to Northern Ireland, business will need to secure approval for a UK-wide licence from only the UK’s MHRA and not the EMA as well.
My Lords, I am a big admirer of Northern Ireland and its people, having served there for some years. Does my noble friend agree that those who argue that they now want Northern Ireland to be treated and governed in exactly the same way as the rest of the United Kingdom are quite wrong? On the contrary, does not the Windsor Framework confer or confirm an enormous advantage on the people of Northern Ireland and the economy of Northern Ireland which will give them great gain and benefit in the future? All that is needed now is for the people of this nation with the most devolved and established parliament of its own in the United Kingdom to get together and make that parliament work.
My noble friend is right. There are certainly advantages which this framework enables to continue in north-south access and north-south trade. However, I repeat that there is the corollary, which was neglected and which the UK and the EU have addressed in this agreement, of obstruction to east-west trade. I agree on the institutions, but I stick by what I said at first. I am not going to put anybody in a box. It is reasonable that all those who have suffered and considered and laboured in very difficult years across many decades—indeed, I go back to the time when my noble friend was a Minister—reflect and examine the documents before us.
My Lords, I welcome the Statement. However, we should pause and remind ourselves that there were two parties in this negotiation. Justifiably, the House has already been generous to the Government. We should show similar generosity to the European Union, without whose concessions this agreement would not have been reached.
I believe that I had sought to do that, my Lords.
My Lords, I am trying to be as fair as possible and get as many people as possible in. Can we hear from my noble friend Lord Cormack, followed by the noble Lord, Lord Hain?
My Lords, I salute the courageous persistence of the Prime Minister in achieving this for our country. Will my noble friend make another appeal to those who represent the people of Northern Ireland in the Northern Ireland Assembly? Surely they should seize the opportunities that my noble friend Lord Howell talked about a second ago and meet. This is not perfect, but it is the right way forward.
My Lords, it is in the nature of any agreement, particularly one that is ultimately successful, that there must be some element of compromise. However, I will not add further to what I have said, which was the right position. We wish to see restitution of the institutions but that must come, like everything else, from and for the people of Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I congratulate the Prime Minister on achieving an agreement which frankly has far surpassed all expectations. Can the Minister comment on those rather intemperate instant reactions that we have seen from some in his own party, and indeed from Northern Ireland, which are almost saying that Northern Ireland should not remain within the single market? The logic of that would be that the external customs frontier of the European Union would be across the island of Ireland and would be a hard border. They should come clean on that if that is what they really mean.
My Lords, I always think it is good to reflect before speaking; being at this Dispatch Box does not always give you that opportunity, but I agree with what the noble Lord said. It is also the case, and again I repeat myself, that trade between the north and south is important to business and to the life of the island. The best thing for the people of Northern Ireland and the whole of the United Kingdom is prosperity, which is assisted by free and wide trade. I hope that this agreement contributes to both north-south and east-west trade.
My Lords, I think that concludes the time for questions, unless the House decides otherwise.
My Lords, can I just appeal to the House to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey?
Thank you, my Lords. This is a hugely optimistic Statement from the Prime Minister and understandably, because it makes things so much better than the protocol did. But sometimes optimism can be taken back when the detail is examined. I have a specific question for the Leader of the House. Yesterday in Parliament, and in an article today for the Belfast News Letter, the Prime Minister stressed the importance of the Acts of Union. That is welcome, but the agreement is lacking a legal text and the Command Paper is lacking further explanation on how the Government plan to lift the subjugation of the Acts of Union in domestic law. Could the Minister tell me what actual steps will be taken in domestic law to release the Acts of the Union from their present subjugation, as said by the Supreme Court? In the absence of legal provisions to remedy the effect of Section 7(1)(a) of the 2018 Act on the Acts of Union, all references in the world to our foundation and constitutional situation will mean nothing.
My Lords, we believe that the framework we have put forward is consistent with the Act of Union in its fullest sense. In my personal opinion as a unionist, that is a vital text. On the noble Baroness’s specific questions about how we will take this forward and what action might be taken, I will write to her, if she will allow me, as part of the ongoing discussion. If there are any worthwhile observations, I will put that in the Library.
I am sorry; time is now up.