Mr Speaker, I have been asked to reply.
The Government have been consistent in their commitments to Northern Ireland as the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. First, we will never accept any solutions that threaten the economic or constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom. Secondly, we will not accept a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, which would reverse the considerable progress made through the political process over recent decades. That position has been consistent from the Prime Minister’s article 50 letter through to our position paper published last summer and the Prime Minister’s Florence speech last autumn.
Most recently, the Government enshrined both these commitments very clearly in the joint report we agreed with the European Union in December. That set out very clearly our
“commitment to preserving the integrity of” our
“internal market and Northern Ireland’s place within it”.
It also included our
“guarantee of avoiding a hard border” between Northern Ireland and Ireland, including any related checks and controls. These commitments were agreed collectively by the entire Cabinet, and I believe they have wide support across the House. Those commitments have not changed, nor will they.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and while I am always pleased to hear from the Minister of State, I have to say that it is an absolute disgrace, and a huge discourtesy to the House, that the Foreign Secretary is not here himself to answer questions on the contents of his memo, especially given that we saw him in London a few hours ago jogging in the snow and stopping to answer questions from the media: if he can answer their questions, he really should be prepared to answer ours. What is he afraid of?
Perhaps the Foreign Secretary is afraid that these questions go to the very heart of his credibility and the credibility of previous statements that he has made in this House. On
“repeated exactly the pledge…there can be no return to a hard border…That would be unthinkable, and it would be economic and political madness. I think everybody…understands the ramifications of allowing any such thing to happen.”—[Official Report,
But last night, despite that clear public statement from the Foreign Secretary, we discovered his private memo to the Prime Minister on the same subject. In it he wrote:
“It is wrong to see the task as maintaining ‘no border’”.
The Government’s task is, he said, to
“stop the border becoming significantly harder. ”
But, he wrote:
“Even if a hard border is reintroduced, we would expect to see 95 per cent plus of goods pass the border” without checks.
Let us be clear what this memo reveals. Contrary to the Foreign Secretary’s previous statements, he accepts that there will have to be changes to the current border arrangements, and he accepts there will need to be border controls that do not exist at present; the only debate is their degree of hardness. But surely the Foreign Secretary has learned by now that you cannot just be a little bit pregnant: either there is a border or there is not.
My first question for the Minister is that the Foreign Secretary told the House that there would be no new border arrangements and no changes to the status quo, but this memo says the exact opposite, so which is the truth: what the Foreign Secretary said three months ago in public or what he said three weeks ago in private?
The Foreign Secretary has already said what we have heard so many times on this issue: that there is some magical technical solution which will allow goods to be checked, smuggling to be prevented, and points of origin proved as easily as paying the congestion charge and without—here is the truly magical part—even the installation of cameras. As I have pressed the Foreign Secretary repeatedly to tell us, how on earth is that possible, or is it just another addition to his ever-growing list of fantasies from ‘Boris island’ to the ‘channel bridge’?
I welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary has already promised the media today to publish his leaked memo in full, and I hope that will provide some answers, but may I ask the Minister now—for the benefit of the House, and so that my colleagues can question him on his answer—to spell out in detail how this proposed invisible border will actually work in practice? If he cannot provide that detail, we are left with the conclusion that all of us on this side, and increasing numbers on his side, accept—that the only way to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland is by staying in a customs union. The fact is that the Government know that—
Very well, but—[Interruption.] Order. I will be the judge of these matters; I require no assistance. Anna Soubry is always willing to help and I am grateful to her for that gratis voluntary offer of services, but I feel able to cope without them. The Minister will have a suitable period of time to respond, and the shadow Foreign Secretary can now add one brief sentence.
The truth of this memo is that the Government are saying one thing in public while preparing for the reality in private, and it is about time the deception was ended.
Anybody would have thought that the right hon. Lady was nervous about facing me across the Dispatch Box again.
The right hon. Lady started by questioning my credentials to be here. Since I have Cabinet responsibility for constitutional affairs, including the implementation of devolution throughout the United Kingdom, and since I also chair the Cabinet Committee on the domestic implementation of our Brexit arrangements, it seems to me to be perfectly reasonable that I should respond to the right hon. Lady’s urgent question.
The right hon. Lady asked about the position of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. Like every other member of the Cabinet, he stands foursquare behind our support for the Belfast agreement and the December agreements reached between the United Kingdom and the European Union. We are now at the very start of a negotiating period during which we will discuss with our partners in the EU how to give practical effect to the commitments that were entered into then, both to ensure there is no hard north-south border between the Northern Ireland and Ireland and to ensure there is no kind of border, customs or otherwise, between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have both said publicly that they believe the priority is to settle these issues in the context of the ambitious, deep and special partnership that we are seeking between the UK and the EU in the future, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will set out more detail about her proposed approach to this in her speech on Friday.
We have just heard the Prime Minister reconfirm her commitment to full regulatory convergence if necessary to keep the Irish border open, but I did not wholly understand the second half of her reply to me. Does my right hon. Friend really believe it will be possible to negotiate a position whereby the British Government decide what regulatory convergence they are going to have, the British Government decide what regulatory convergence they are not going to have, and the British Government are free to change their mind and move those boundaries at any time? What does my right hon. Friend think the prospects are of agreeing that with 27 other sovereign Governments?
With respect to my right hon. and learned Friend, I do not think that there is a need for any misunderstanding about what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was saying. On the date when we leave the European Union, the treaties will, in the words of article 50, cease to apply to the United Kingdom. The effect of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which is currently before the House of Lords, is that the direct effect and primacy of European Union law in the United Kingdom will be extinguished. We are now seeking an agreement, which will take the form of a treaty governed by international law, between the United Kingdom and the continuing entity of the European Union. That is what we are seeking to do, and the Prime Minister has said that she will talk about that in more detail on Friday.
We know from the Government’s leaked figures that they are prepared to play fast and loose with jobs and the economy in order to try to prevent another Tory civil war, and there is concern that they might do the same thing in relation to the Good Friday peace process to prevent a Tory civil war. Will the Minister tell us whether it is wrong to see the Foreign Secretary’s task as maintaining no border? Will he also tell us what the impact on the border will be if the implementation period is based on World Trade Organisation principles? Finally, it is always good to see the Minister here, but I have to tell him that, although I enjoy a game of “Where’s Wally” as much as the next person, it is frankly astonishing that the Foreign Secretary is not here.
The entire Government are committed to there being no border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, or between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Both those elements were central to the December joint report, and they are both firm commitments of the entire United Kingdom Cabinet and the Government. The hon. Gentleman’s strictures about the Government’s approach to jobs and employment stand somewhat in contrast to the reality, which is that employment is at a record high in the United Kingdom at the moment and unemployment is at a 40-year low.
Has my right hon. Friend seen the report prepared by the European Parliament’s policy department for citizens’ rights and constitutional affairs, which concludes that a technical solution allowing free movement of persons under a common travel arrangement and a low-friction border for the movement of goods will be possible, and that there is no reason why we should not start to implement that straight away?
I have not had the pleasure of reading that particular report from the European Parliament yet, but I shall certainly add it to my reading list. What my right hon. Friend has just said is evidence that there are people here, as well as in the Brussels institutions and the 27 national Governments of our EU partners, who are keen to work constructively together to find an outcome that brings benefits to us all.
Instead of complaining that the draft withdrawal agreement published this morning proposes to keep Northern Ireland in the customs union and subject to the single energy market and to EU rules on the environment and agriculture, is it not time that Ministers finally accepted that it is their continuing failure to explain how they are going to keep an open border while leaving the customs union and the single market that is the cause of this problem? When will they explain how they propose to achieve that?
I draw the right hon. Gentleman’s attention to the fact that last December’s joint report contains three options to ensure that there will be no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The first—which the Government of Ireland and this Government are strongly committed to and want to see as the option that we are able to deliver—is the one that settles this matter in the context of the overall future economic partnership between the UK and the European Union. We are looking forward to beginning the negotiating process that I hope will start after the publication today.
We are coming up to the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement—an agreement that allowed the people of this nation, wherever they live in these islands, to have their own identity and yet be citizens of the United Kingdom. That agreement also locked in three conditions. The first was that the agreement could change only with the agreement of the citizens of Northern Ireland. The second was that Dublin would have to agree to a change, and the third was that the United Kingdom would have to agree. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that agreement must not be undermined, and that those who voted against it in the past should hang their heads in shame, because it is an agreement that has kept the peace for 20 years?
I am certainly proud of what the Belfast agreement has achieved in making possible a period of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. None of us would claim that that process was complete yet, but the Belfast agreement was an historic start that was attributed to the hard work of successive Governments under John Major and Tony Blair. I am happy to pay tribute to both of them for that. The Government are four-square behind the Belfast agreement, and my hon. Friend made an important point in talking about the principle of consent. The principle of consent, including over the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, was also written into the joint report and signed up to not just by the UK Government but by the European Union as well.
I welcome what the Secretary of State has said in his statement and also what the Prime Minister said at Prime Minister’s questions. It is ironic that some of the people who complain the hardest about creating a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic have today welcomed proposals from the EU that would actually create a hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. The fact is that there is a border between north and south: a currency border. There are different currencies, different fiscal regimes, different tax regimes and different economic policies, but this is managed in a sensible and pragmatic way. The same can be done in relation to the future relationship. This has already been spelled out in the Government’s paper last August. To use the Belfast agreement—or, more despicably, the peace process—as an excuse either to thwart Brexit or to shape it in the way that some people want is quite frankly outrageous and disgraceful. Let us back the arrangements that are in place, but let us go forward in a pragmatic, sensible way and not create shibboleths that are not there.
I welcome what the right hon. Gentleman has said. Yes, there is of course a jurisdictional border that gives rise to tax and other differences, but they are currently managed in a way that allows people to go about their lives on either side of that jurisdictional border without any hindrance or delay whatever. This Government and the Irish Government are determined to try to ensure that that state of affairs continues, while also respecting the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom.
Of all the areas of the Brexit negotiations that give rise to high emotion, perhaps the one that most needs to be treated calmly, rationally and unemotionally is the question of the Irish border. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the UK Government and their negotiators will continue to deal with this issue in that calm, rational way? In doing that, could they perhaps persuade the Commission’s negotiating side to concentrate not just on one area of the December joint report but on all three areas that were originally put forward by the British Government?
I agree wholeheartedly with what my right hon. Friend says. His emphasis on all three strands is correct. It is important that there should be no cherry-picking between the different elements of the December joint report, and it is important that we should try to approach these matters in the calm, pragmatic way that he urges.
The Foreign Secretary claimed that congestion charge technology is the answer to border checks outside a customs union. However, he will know that the congestion charge checks vehicles, not what is in them, and that it includes 197 camera sites around London that no one notices, because they are in built-up areas, and that no one cares about because the last time I looked there had been a long history of peace between inner and outer London. In Northern Ireland last year, there were four attacks on the lives of police officers, 58 shooting incidents and 33 bombing incidents, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland has warned that any infrastructure at the border is a threat. Will the Minister for the Cabinet Office confirm that Ministers rule out any physical infrastructure at the border and that cameras are physical? Do they rule out new cameras at the border—yes or no?
We stand by the words to which we committed ourselves in December, which include no physical infrastructure at the border.
I support everything that has been said by my right hon. Friend and the comments of my right hon. Friend Damian Green. The country has to wake up and realise that we are not going to tear our nation further apart. We need an approach to Brexit that is not only pragmatic but honest. The only solution to a hard border is membership of the customs union and the single market, and we will get there in the end.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about a democratic deficit? We know that 56% of people in Northern Ireland voted remain—I wonder why. In the absence of an Executive, and given the composition of the right hon. and hon. Members who sit in this place to represent Northern Ireland, where is the voice of the 56% in all this?
It is the Government’s hope that the political parties in Northern Ireland can agree to reconstitute the Executive and the Assembly as soon as possible. I think there is agreement across the political parties in Northern Ireland that that is what they would want to do, and I hope that the remaining differences can be overcome.
Why does the Minister for the Cabinet Office think that the Foreign Secretary wrote this letter? Was it because he did not know that the Government had committed in paragraph 49 of the December agreement to
“its guarantee of avoiding a hard border” or was it because any commitment can be set aside in the service of the cause that the Foreign Secretary really cares about: the furtherance of his own career? Or was it something more sinister than Boris’s self-love, which is that faced with the incompatibility of red lines around the customs union and the single market and the commitment to no hard border, there is a concerted ideological attack on that commitment and, indeed, on the Good Friday agreement itself?
I do not think that I could be clearer than I have been so far. The Government are absolutely resolved to stand by both the Belfast agreement and all parts of the joint report of last December.
I am encouraged that everybody seems to want to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland. The only people who seem to be threatening such a border are those who are trying leverage their political advantage in domestic politics in the Republic of Ireland or trying somehow to blackmail the whole of the United Kingdom into substantially reversing the substance of the referendum result. Far more constituencies voted leave than remain, and it would be as politically unsustainable for issues around Northern Ireland to leverage the whole of the United Kingdom back into some kind of customs unions as it would be to erect any wholly unnecessary infrastructure at the border in Northern Ireland.
We are at the very start of the negotiations about the detail of the withdrawal agreement and then of the creation of the future deep and special partnership that we are seeking with our European Union friends and neighbours. The depth and comprehensive nature of the economic partnership that we are seeking is something that the Prime Minister will talk about on Friday.
Order. This exchange is eliding into a debate, which it should not be. It is supposed to be a question and answer session, and I am getting enthusiastic nods of assent from the Minister for the Cabinet Office. I exhort colleagues to resist the temptation to orate. What is required is not oration, but inquiry, which will now be brilliantly and pithily exemplified by Lady Hermon.
The Irish Government, like the rest of the EU, signed up to and support the joint report of last December in its entirety, and paragraph 42 of the report commits both parties—the UK and the EU—to uphold the “totality” of the relationships embodied in and expressed by the Belfast agreement. That totality embraces east-west every bit as much as north-south.
Pithiness personified—Sir Desmond Swayne.
I am afraid that that is not a question that I can readily answer. However, it is important that the Commission recognises, as the Prime Minister said earlier, that as far as the Government are concerned, whichever side those of us around the Cabinet table voted or campaigned for during the EU referendum, our commitment to the Union of the United Kingdom is absolute. There is no division whatsoever on that matter, and I hope that our negotiating partners understand that.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on not being provoked by the ridiculous statements coming from the European Union on this subject. I commend to my right hon. Friend the wise words of Nigel Dodds, because they show that we can have a border with regulatory divergence, as there is at the moment. Why can that not continue into the future?
The Foreign Secretary’s absence tells us all that we need to know about how accountable he feels he should be to this House. I must therefore ask the Minister instead why the Foreign Secretary was speculating about the Northern Ireland-Ireland border becoming “significantly harder”. What measures was he considering that might be necessary on the border?
The right hon. Gentleman served in the coalition Government, so he knows that Government business involves Ministers writing and conversing with each other all the time. The Government’s policy is the policy that has been collectively agreed by the Cabinet, and that is what the Prime Minister and I have set out this afternoon.
Will the Minister for the Cabinet Office confirm for the benefit of his Back Benchers, and perhaps the Democratic Unionist party, that the Northern Irish border backstop provision embodied in today’s draft EU withdrawal agreement is exactly what the Prime Minister agreed to as a backstop in December 2017? If he disagrees, will his Government produce an alternative text explaining what she did agree to?
What we have today is something that Monsieur Barnier has described as not necessarily the final version, because this is a draft that the Commission is tabling not for negotiation, but for discussion among the EU27 member states and the European Parliament. When the text comes to the table for negotiation, we will obviously consider that option. As the Prime Minister said earlier, it is important that there is not cherry-picking, and that the text of the withdrawal agreement, when it is eventually concluded, reflects all the paragraphs of the joint report equally. My feeling, from the brief reading I have had so far, is that the current draft does not do that.
I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said in pointing back to the joint report from just before Christmas, which underlined the commitment of the UK and the EU both to the Belfast Good Friday agreement and to the constitutional settlement of the UK. In that regard, will he confirm that the joint report highlighted that primarily, we need to focus on dealing with the Northern Ireland border through the broader negotiations, and will he encourage colleagues to focus on the August report that the Government published, which set out in detail how we should do that?
My right hon. Friend gives some very good advice. We are certainly committed to taking the negotiations forward in that spirit.
If the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster really wants a united United Kingdom, as we move forward with some of the most complicated decisions the nation has had to make for the best part of 100 years, is he not going to have to try to build a bigger consensus than just that around the Cabinet table? He is a fine parliamentarian, so does that not mean that he will have to turn round to his colleagues and say, “Yes you will come to Parliament. You will explain to Parliament what your views are,” and that he will have to say, “Yes, Prime Minister, just sometimes you will not make a speech somewhere else; you will make a speech about the European Union—the most important issue facing this country—in this Chamber.”?
Order. Before the Minister for the Cabinet Office replies, I advise the House of what I have been advised: namely, that the Prime Minister will make a statement on Brexit policy in this Chamber on Monday. That is extremely welcome.
I should just say, in the name of the intelligibility of our proceedings to people who are not Members of the House, that the decision as to whether to grant an urgent question is a matter for me as Speaker—two have been granted today because I judged that they warranted the attention of the House—but, as colleagues also know and others might not, the matter of whom the Government field to respond to a question is a matter for the Government. That is the situation.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the European Union continues to put the cart before the horse on this aspect? Surely we cannot know with any degree of certainty what arrangements will be needed on the Irish border, if any at all, until we know what kind of trade agreement we are going to strike.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. That is precisely why not just the Prime Minister but the Taoiseach believe that by far the best option is to settle the issue of the border in the context of the overall economic partnership between ourselves and the European Union.
By leaving the European Union, we are taking control of our borders, such as that at Holyhead. The Government have also committed to there being no border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. Can the Minister name any pair of countries where trade between them is regulated by two different customs regimes?
This is exactly the point that I made in response to my hon. Friend Mr Robertson: the right way forward is to resolve these matters in the context of the broader negotiation about the future economic partnership.
It is rightly the determination of the Government to deliver the current effectively open border, with the qualifications that were given by Nigel Dodds. Surely all the people of the island of Ireland have the right for that same practical determination to be shared by the EU27, without it being taken hostage by conditions that would, in effect, override the sovereign decision of the British people to leave the European Union—an agenda that is rather transparently on display today.
As I said, we are at the start of a process of negotiation, not the end of it. I do not think the Prime Minister could have been clearer. No Prime Minister of any party who has served up until now, including my right hon. Friend, would countenance an agreement that led to a customs border between one part of the United Kingdom and another.
The Minister has said that he wants there to be no border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. He has also said that he wants there to be no border between the integral part of the United Kingdom in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Wales, which I represent, has two borders: one with Northern Ireland through the port of Holyhead and one with the Republic of Ireland. What will happen in that situation?
That is precisely why this matter needs to be set within the overall arrangements. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will have noted the endorsement in the joint report of the continuation of the common travel area between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, and the fact that that commitment was reflected in today’s draft text from the Commission.
Would it not be more sensible and logical if Michel Barnier focused more on the trade arrangements between the United Kingdom and the European Union, where the EU has a £70 billion surplus with the United Kingdom, rather than on just one part of the United Kingdom? If we only did that, we might obviate the need to focus on one part of the United Kingdom.
The trade surplus that the EU27 enjoy with the United Kingdom, particularly in trade in goods, is just one more compelling reason why it is to our mutual advantage to negotiate a future economic partnership that allows trade to be as frictionless as possible.
The Minister is doing his level best to fudge the principal question: if we go into the negotiations with a view that there will be no hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland and no hard border down the Irish sea, how do we begin to negotiate—what is the mechanism?
The mechanism is that which is set out in the joint report and in the Government’s various speeches and publications over the past 12 months, the latest of which the Prime Minister will deliver this Friday.
I wonder whether my right hon. Friend has pointed out to the Irish Government that the biggest loser if there is not a sensible agreement and tariffs are imposed on Irish goods coming into the United Kingdom will be the Irish economy. There would be huge devastation to the Irish agricultural economy in particular. I wonder whether he has suggested to the Irish Prime Minister the question of whether he is willing to sacrifice the interests of the Irish economy on the high altar of European political integration.
The economies of Ireland and the United Kingdom are indeed intertwined, but I reassure my hon. Friend that the Irish Government and the Taoiseach are committed to trying to resolve these matters through option A, as set out in the joint report—namely, through the means of an overall economic agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union.
Does the Minister share my astonishment at the obsession that the Labour party now has with a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, when for years its leadership supported Sinn Féin-IRA’s campaign of genocide along the border, which led to border posts, Army patrols, watchtowers and closed roads? Does he agree with me that there are clear, practical proposals to avoid a hard physical border and that this pseudo-concern about the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is more about undermining the referendum result and keeping us in the single market and the customs union and under the jurisdiction of the European Court?
The interventions by the official Opposition Front-Bench team throughout this week have been more about political opportunism than about principle. The way forward is to take forward the negotiations that will shortly commence in a calm, pragmatic spirit.
Given that goods and services are routinely traded across land borders elsewhere in the EU, is it not possible that the political will to achieve the desired outcome is all that is needed? Will my right hon. Friend ensure that we do not sign up to what the EU dictates now but look at the creative solution that has been used elsewhere in EU borders?
The European Union approach to sequencing these negotiations means that the Commission at the moment has a mandate to negotiate only the implementation phase, so these issues cannot be dealt with until after the end of March. Does my right hon. Friend agree that during this period the guiding star for us all has to be the fact that the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and the EU are all agreed that there will be no hard or physical border? Does he also agree that this debate is more about the shadow Foreign Secretary’s continued spat with our Foreign Secretary than anything else?
From the Foreign Secretary’s comments, it seems that the Government are happy to contemplate a hard border with Ireland, which would be a disaster for Northern Ireland. Is it not now clear that the Government have been negotiating in bad faith with Ireland and the other countries of the EU?
I have sometimes felt that the hon. Lady’s party would be happy with a hard border between Scotland and England. I do not want her or anyone in the House to be under any misapprehension about this: the Government are absolutely committed to what they agreed in the joint report. Ever since the referendum, we have made it clear that we are not going to support a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is far greater in volume than that between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, between Northern Ireland and the European Union and between Northern Ireland and the rest of the world?
Does the Minister agree that the success of modern Northern Ireland can be seen in the fact that my friends, whose parents used to dread the school run, can now wave their kids off in the morning with barely a second thought? Will he assure me that all the options considered by the Government will be accompanied by a full security assessment?
A proper analysis of security will be undertaken by the appropriate agencies in any and all circumstances where that is required. My hon. Friend is right to say that one of the great achievements of constitutional politics in Northern Ireland over the past 25 years has been to bring about a measure of peace and security, after decades when people lived under the threat of terrorism. We should welcome that and re-dedicate ourselves to making sure that that process continues.
The Secretary of State is in danger of forgetting that he is in the Chamber this afternoon for no other reason than the memo the Foreign Secretary wrote. Will he therefore answer the question from my right hon. Friend Mr McFadden and my hon. Friend Vernon Coaker and tell us why the Foreign Secretary wrote the memo to the Prime Minister?
As I said to Tom Brake, in any Government, Ministers write letters and memorandums and have conversations from time to time. The policy of the Government under our system is the policy that is agreed collectively by the Cabinet, and the policy of the Cabinet and the Government is what I have set out today.
May I associate myself with what the Minister has said and with what the Prime Minister said at Prime Minister’s questions about the inconceivable nature of the EU’s proposals to date? Does he agree that the evidence given by the permanent secretary of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to the Public Accounts Committee that a two-tier system, including a trusted trader scheme and derogations for small business, could help to avoid the physical infrastructure that we all want to avoid at the border?
Those items were also mentioned in the Government’s position paper that was published last summer about the Irish border. I am not saying that those will necessarily provide a comprehensive solution, but that is evidence of our good will in seeking pragmatic, constructive ways forward.
I am sorry to say this, but the Foreign Secretary’s conduct in this has been deeply disrespectful to this place and deeply irresponsible on such a sensitive issue. Let me ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster something very clearly. In that memo, the Foreign Secretary wrote the words
“if a hard border is reintroduced”.
When Ministers have private conversations or private correspondence, they engage in all sorts of speculative thinking to test out ideas before they are brought for collective discussion and decision. The Government collectively are accountable to this House for the policies they have adopted. The Government have ruled out both a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland and a border in the Irish sea.
How dare the EU propose the break-up of the United Kingdom into two separate trading zones? Some 61% of my constituents voted to leave, but both leavers and remainers are increasingly angered by the stroppy, petulant and unreasonable approach to these negotiations taken by the EU. Will my right hon. Friend tell the EU that it has not got off to a very good start in these negotiations?
What we learned at the end of 2017 was that despite all the predications about the imminent collapse of the negotiating process at that time, with political will, both from London and from our 27 partners and the European Commission, an agreement could be reached. That provides a good basis on which to move further forward now.
Sir John Major and Tony Blair warned during the EU referendum campaign that this would be an issue, and I am sorry to say that what the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who is a serious person, has said today at the Dispatch Box is simply implausible. We are not talking about a Back Bencher or the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for paper clips; we are talking about the Foreign Secretary, who has a central role at the heart of the Brexit negotiations. He is entertaining, in memos to the Prime Minister, the prospect of a hard border, which the Minister for the Cabinet Office says has been ruled out. So the only question, which he has not answered, is: if what he says is the settled position of the Government, why is the Foreign Secretary setting this out in the memo? If the Foreign Secretary says he is going to publish the memo, when is he going to do it? If the Minister cannot answer those questions, should the Foreign Secretary not have had the guts to come here to answer for himself and clean up his own mess?
The Government’s policy is as I have set out. We are now, at the very start of the negotiating process, bringing forward ideas about how we would wish to give practical application to the commitments that we have entered into and developing them internally among the Government. The Prime Minister will say more about that on Friday.
The differences in tax, economic strategy and, indeed, currency have proven to be no hindrance to the free and open land border. I recommend to my right hon. Friend that we give an absolute declaration that the UK will not, under any circumstances, implement a new Northern Ireland-Republic of Ireland border. If the EU requires a new hard border, that is a matter for it and the Republic to decide and implement. We—unilaterally, if necessary—will honour the Belfast agreement and, indeed, strengthen the Union of the UK.
My hon. Friend is right to talk about the United Kingdom Government’s resolution, but in fairness we must acknowledge that the Government of Ireland is absolutely committed to trying to make sure that no hard border is created. The Taoiseach and his Government are committed to working with us constructively, as part of the EU27, to find a way forward in the context of a future economic partnership.
I live closer to the Northern Ireland border than anyone else in this Chamber. On this bogus issue of a hard border, do the Minister and all his Government colleagues, the Irish Government and the EU negotiators understand that any talk about a hard border, even in principle, is irrelevant because it would be totally and utterly impossible to police 310 crossing points? Even if that was tried, everyone locally would know how to circumvent them.
I am particularly conscious that in County Londonderry people commute to and from work, businesses supply customers and people travel to and from the doctors across the international jurisdictional border. For people to be able to go about their everyday lives, it is important that we reach the kind of agreement to which our Government and the Irish Government are committed.
Will my right hon. Friend define for the House what the Government meant when they said that they would guarantee that there would be no hard border? What would such a hard border involve and what are we guaranteeing will not exist?
It is exactly what we said in our commitment to the joint report in December and in the position paper that we published last summer.
Last night, the Haulage Permits and Trailer Registration Bill—the first piece of contingency planning—had its Second Reading in the other place. Will the Minister clarify how the Government are going to ensure that there will be no checks on the registration for trucks and trailers between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland? How will that be consistent with the haulage Bill?
We believe that that Bill is completely compliant with our commitments under the joint report, but I shall ask the Secretary of State for Transport to write to the hon. Lady with the detail.
The Good Friday agreement is an international multi-party agreement that was overwhelming endorsed by referendums on both sides of the Irish border. The decisions to leave the customs union and single market were taken by the Government unilaterally, without being put to any referendum anywhere. Does the Minister accept that it is entirely his Government’s responsibility to bring forward detailed, workable proposals on how his Government’s unilateral red lines can be made compatible with the multilateral agreement? How much longer do we have to wait before we see those proposals in print?
We are at the start of a process of negotiation. The hon. Gentleman would not expect this or any other Government to go into detail about their entire negotiating position. I hope that when he hears what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister says on Friday and when he has the opportunity to question her after her statement next Monday, he will feel reassured.
Points of order normally come after urgent questions, but I think this one relates to the recent exchanges, so I shall take it now.
I am very grateful, Mr Speaker. Would it be in order for it to be recorded that, although in the exchanges on the urgent question, you quite rightly admonished a number of us for speaking for too long and not asking the short questions that some Members, but not all of us, are very good at, the reason why Members spoke for too long was that—I am sure you will correct me if I am wrong—we have never had a proper, meaningful debate or, indeed, vote on this or any other Brexit matter that would help the Government in their negotiations and reunite our country? This is just one of many examples of where Parliament’s voice is profoundly lacking in the whole Brexit process.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her point of order. There have of course been debates in the Committee of the whole House and Report stage on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, but outside of legislation, if memory serves me correctly, what the right hon. Lady says is factually correct. She will know that I have an unbridled enthusiasm for debate, for votes and for sitting in the Chair for extended periods listening to the intellects of Einstein and the eloquences of Demosthenes, which are so regularly on display from my colleagues in all parts of the House. I cannot get enough of it. It may seem eccentric on my part, but I love to listen to my colleagues. The more debates and the more votes, the better. I am most grateful to the right hon. Lady, of whose point of order I had only a moment’s notice, but which I enjoyed.