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[2nd Allotted Day]

Part of Immigration (Time Limit on Detention) – in the House of Commons at 4:10 pm on 5th December 2018.

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Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean 4:10 pm, 5th December 2018

One of the things we are seeking to do as we leave the European Union is to make sure that we do not have a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The way I think we should solve that—I think this is the Government’s position—is to have a free trade agreement. The problem I have is the backstop in the withdrawal agreement.

The Prime Minister was clear that a backstop that treated Northern Ireland differently and put a border in the Irish sea was unacceptable and not something any British Prime Minister could sign off. I am afraid to say that she has done exactly that. I was not 100% convinced of that, based on my own analysis of the withdrawal agreement. I am just a humble accountant, not an expert lawyer. This morning, however, I read the legal advice—the letter from the Attorney General to the Prime Minister about the legal effect of the protocol. Paragraph 7 is plain and clear:

“NI remains in the EU’s Customs Union, and will apply the whole of the EU’s customs acquis, and the Commission and the CJEU will continue to have jurisdiction” over it, and:

“Goods passing from GB to NI will be subject to a declaration process.”

That means that, if a company in my constituency wins an order with a business in Northern Ireland—in our own country—it will have to have the deal signed off by a British bureaucrat, and if our rules in Great Britain have deviated from those in Northern Ireland, it may be told that it cannot ship that order to a part of our own country. I do not find that acceptable. I think the Prime Minister was right when she said that no UK Prime Minister should sign off such a deal. I still stick to that, which is why I will not be able to support the withdrawal agreement as it is currently set out. This is the first time in my 13 years in this House that I will not be able to support my party. I regret that. I also regret being put in a position where, in order to hold to the promises that we made in our general election manifesto to the people of our country last year, I am forced to vote against a proposition put before this House by my Prime Minister. But I think it is important in politics that we keep our promises because that is how we maintain the trust of the British people. Breaking our promises is not something we should do.

Furthermore, the backstop is also of concern for those who may not be concerned about Northern Ireland because of the indefinite nature of it. The Attorney General set out earlier this week the indefinite nature of the customs union if the backstop is triggered. I fear that that will critically weaken our negotiating position as we negotiate the future trade relationship, which I agree with my right hon. Friend Stephen Crabb is the thing that is really important. But if we cripple our negotiating position, we will end up with a very bad future relationship, which will stick with us not just for years, but potentially for decades.

The legal advice we have now seen—published this morning—is, again, clear. The Attorney General makes it clear that

“despite statements in the Protocol that it is not intended to be permanent, and the clear intention of the parties that it should be replaced by alternative, permanent arrangements, in international law the Protocol would endure indefinitely until a superseding agreement took its place”.

He also makes it clear that there is no mechanism that will enable us to leave the UK-wide customs union “without a subsequent agreement” and that

“remains the case even if parties are still negotiating many years later, and even if the parties believe that talks have…broken down and there is no prospect of a future relationship agreement.”