Before I call the Secretary of State, I wish to make a short statement in the context of this session. I am exercising the discretion given to the Chair in respect of the resolution on sub judice matters to further extend the waiver granted for proceedings in January to allow full reference to the challenge to the Northern Ireland protocol and to allow limited reference to the active legal proceedings.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the Northern Ireland protocol and to lay out the next steps. Our first priority is to uphold the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions. That agreement put in place a new arrangement for the governance of Northern Ireland and these islands composed of three interlocking strands: a power-sharing Government at Stormont on the basis of consent and parity of esteem for all communities; intensified north-south co-operation on the island of Ireland; and enhanced arrangements for east-west co-operation. So much of the progress we have seen in Northern Ireland rests on this agreement, and for the agreement to continue to operate successfully, all three strands must function successfully. These arrangements are the foundation on which the modern, thriving Northern Ireland is built. It commands the support of parties across this House, and we will continue to work with all communities in Northern Ireland to protect it.
As a Government, we want to see a First Minister and Deputy First Minister in place, and we want to work with them to make further progress. The basis for successful power sharing remains strong, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister laid out yesterday. However, the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is under strain, and, regrettably, the Northern Ireland Executive has not been fully functioning since early February. This is because the Northern Ireland protocol does not have the support necessary in one part of the community in Northern Ireland. I also note that all Northern Ireland’s political parties agree on the need for changes to the protocol.
The practical problems are clear to see. As the House will know, the protocol has not yet been implemented in full, due to the operation of grace periods and easements. However, EU customs procedures for moving goods within the UK have already meant that companies are facing significant costs and paperwork. Some businesses have stopped this trade altogether. These challenges have been sharpened by the post-covid economic recovery. Rules on taxation mean that citizens in Northern Ireland are unable to benefit fully from the same advantages as the rest of the UK, such as the reduction in VAT on solar panels. Sanitary and phytosanitary rules mean that producers face onerous restrictions, including veterinary certification, in order to sell foodstuffs in shops in Northern Ireland.
These practical problems have contributed to the sense that the east-west relationship has been undermined. Without resolving these and other issues, we will not be able to re-establish the Executive and preserve the hard-won progress sustained by the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We need to restore the balance in the agreement.
Our preference is to reach a negotiated outcome with the EU; we have worked tirelessly to that end and will continue to do so. I have had six months of negotiations with Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, which follow a year of discussions undertaken by my predecessor. The UK has proposed what we believe to be a comprehensive and reasonable solution to deliver on the objectives of the protocol. This includes a trusted trader scheme to provide the EU with real-time commercial data, giving it confidence that goods intended for Northern Ireland are not entering the EU single market. We are already sharing over 1 million rows of goods movement data with the EU every week.
Our proposed solution would meet both our and the EU’s original objectives for the protocol. It would address the frictions in east-west trade while protecting the EU single market and the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. The challenge is that this solution requires a change in the protocol itself, as its current drafting prevents it from being implemented, but the EU’s mandate does not allow the protocol to be changed. That is why its current proposals are unable to address the fundamental concerns. In fact, it is our assessment that they would go backward from the situation we have today with the standstill.
As the Prime Minister said, our shared objective must be to find a solution that can command the broadest possible cross-community support for years to come and protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions. That is why I am announcing our intention to introduce legislation in the coming weeks to make changes in the protocol.
Our preference remains a negotiated solution with the EU. In parallel with the legislation being introduced, we remain open to further talks if we can achieve the same outcome through a negotiated settlement. I have invited Vice-President Šefčovič to a meeting of the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee in London to discuss that as soon as possible.
However, to respond to the very grave and serious situation in Northern Ireland, we are clear that there is a necessity to act to ensure that the institutions can be restored as soon as possible. The Government are clear that proceeding with the Bill is consistent with our obligations in international law and in support of our prior obligations in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. Before any changes are made, we will consult businesses and people in Northern Ireland as our proposals are put forward.
I want to be clear to the House that this is not about scrapping the protocol; our aim is to deliver on the protocol’s objectives. We will cement the provisions in the protocol that are working, including the common travel area, the single electricity market and north-south co-operation, while fixing those elements that are not, such as the movement of goods, goods regulation, VAT, subsidy control and governance.
The Bill will put in place the necessary measures to lessen the burden on east-west trade and to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland are able to access the same benefits as the people of Great Britain. It will ensure that goods moving and staying within the UK are freed of unnecessary bureaucracy through our new green channel.
That respects Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s customs territory and protects the UK internal market. At the same time, it ensures that goods destined for the EU undergo the full checks and controls applied under EU law. That will be underpinned by the data-sharing arrangements that I have already set out. It will allow both east-west trade and the EU single market to be protected while removing customs paperwork for goods remaining in the United Kingdom.
The Bill will remove regulatory barriers to goods made to UK standards being sold in Northern Ireland. Businesses will be able to choose between meeting UK or EU standards in a new dual regulatory regime. It will provide the Government with the ability to decide on tax and spend policies across the whole United Kingdom. It will address issues related to governance, bringing the protocol in line with international norms. At the same time, it will take new measures to protect the EU single market by implementing robust penalties for those who seek to abuse the new system, and it will continue to ensure that there is no hard border on the island of Ireland.
I will publish more detail on these solutions in the coming weeks, and let me be crystal clear that, even as we do so, we will continue to engage with the EU. The Bill will contain an explicit power to give effect to a new, revised protocol if we can reach an accommodation that meets our goal of protecting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We remain open to a negotiated solution, but the urgency of the situation means we cannot afford to delay any longer. The UK has clear responsibilities as the sovereign Government of Northern Ireland to ensure parity of esteem and the protection of economic rights. We are clear that the EU will not be negatively impacted in any way, just as we have ensured the protection of the EU single market since the existence of the protocol.
We must restore the primacy of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all of its dimensions as the basis for the restoration of the Executive, and we will do so through technical measures designed to achieve the stated objectives of the protocol, tailored to the reality of Northern Ireland. We will do so in a way that fundamentally respects both Unions—that of the United Kingdom and that of the EU—and we will live up to our commitments to all communities of Northern Ireland. As co-signatory and co-guarantor of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, we will take the necessary decisions to preserve peace and stability. I commend this statement to the House.
It is over two and a half years since the Government negotiated and signed the withdrawal agreement. That deal included the Northern Ireland protocol, which required, by its design, some trade barriers and checks in the Irish sea. That was clear from the outset and it was a choice by this Prime Minister and by the Government, yet now, barely two years later, the Government are trying to convince people that their flagship achievement was not a negotiating triumph, but a deal so flawed that they cannot abide by it. Either they did not understand their own agreement, they were not up front about the reality of it, or they intended to break it all along. The Prime Minister negotiated this deal, signed it and ran an election campaign on it. He must take responsibility for it and make it work.
The situation in Northern Ireland is incredibly serious. Power sharing has broken down, Stormont is not functioning and political tensions have risen, while people in communities across Northern Ireland face rising bills as the cost of living crisis deepens. The operation of the protocol has created new tensions that do need to be addressed by listening to all sides, as well as to business and to consumers, and both the UK Government and the EU need to show willing and good faith. This is not a time for political posturing or high-stakes brinkmanship.
Everyone recognises that the situation in Northern Ireland is unique, and we want checks to be reduced to their absolute necessary minimum and for them to properly reflect trade-related risks. It cannot be right, for example, that goods leaving Great Britain that have no realistic prospect of leaving Northern Ireland, such as supermarket sandwiches, face excessive burdens, and the EU needs to understand that practical reality. Unnecessary barriers will only hamper business, inhibit trade and undermine confidence and consent.
The Good Friday agreement was one of the proudest achievements of the last Labour Government. It is absolutely essential that it is protected. That is why we need calm heads and responsible leadership. We need a UK Government capable of the hard diplomatic graft to find solutions and an EU willing to show flexibility. The right response to these challenges cannot simply be to breach our commitments. It is deeply troubling for the Foreign Secretary to be proposing a Bill to apparently break the treaty that the Government themselves signed just two years ago. That will not resolve issues in Northern Ireland in the long term; rather, it will undermine trust and make a breakthrough more difficult. It would drive a downward spiral in our relationship with the EU that will have damaging consequences for British businesses and consumers. It is Cornish fisherman, County Down farmers and Scotch whisky makers who will lose out, holding back the economy while growth forecasts are already being revised down.
But this goes beyond matters of trade. Britain should be a country that keeps its word. The rest of the world is looking at us and wondering whether we are a country that they want to do business with. When we seek to negotiate new deals abroad, do the Government want to make other countries question whether we will keep our end of the bargain? There are wide-ranging and damaging repercussions, undermining our ability to hold others to account for their own commitments, when we should be pulling together in support of Ukraine, for example, not fuelling divisions with our European allies.
The right approach is for the Government and the EU to work together to find practical solutions to these problems, and to brief the media less and to negotiate more. There is no long-term unilateral solution, and only a solution that works for all sides and delivers for the people and businesses of Northern Ireland will have durability and provide the political stability that businesses crave and the public deserve. We believe that should begin with a veterinary agreement that would eliminate the vast majority of checks on produce going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. New Zealand has an equivalence agreement, and it should not be beyond the Government and the EU to negotiate one that reflects the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland.
We would also negotiate with the EU for more flexibility on VAT in Northern Ireland, to fully align Northern Ireland VAT rules with those of Great Britain. We would use that to take VAT off Northern Ireland energy bills, funded by a one-off windfall tax on oil and gas producer profits, to help ease the cost of living crisis.
If the Government are determined to plough on with the Bill that the Foreign Secretary has proposed, will they agree to prelegislative scrutiny by the Foreign Affairs Committee, and will they set out clearly to the House why this does not break international law?
Labour wants to make Brexit work and for Britain to flourish outside the EU. We want the Government to take responsibility for the deal they signed, to negotiate in good faith and to find practical solutions, not take reckless steps to prolong uncertainty in Northern Ireland and damage Britain’s reputation. We want the EU to show the necessary flexibility, to minimise all barriers, and to work with the UK Government and listen to all sides in Northern Ireland. That is the right approach, that is the responsible approach, and it is what is in the long-term interests of the people of Northern Ireland, and indeed of the whole of the United Kingdom.
Our priority, as the United Kingdom Government, has to be peace and stability in Northern Ireland and protection of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. It is vitally important that we get the Executive back up and running and functioning, and that we fix the very real issues with the Northern Ireland protocol.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s acknowledgment that there are issues with taxation, with customs, and with procedures and bureaucracy. Fixing those issues does require the EU to be open to changing the protocol. As yet, and I have had six months of talks with Vice-President Šefčovič—my predecessor had 12 months of talks—the EU has been unwilling to open the protocol. Without that, we cannot deal with the tax issue, we cannot deal with the customs issue and we will not sort out the fundamental issues in Northern Ireland. It is our responsibility, as the Government of the United Kingdom, to restore the primacy of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement to get the Executive up and running.
In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question about legality, we are very clear that this is legal in international law, and we will be setting out our legal position in due course.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
“The first duty of Government is to uphold the law. If it tries to bob and weave and duck around that duty when it’s inconvenient, if government does that, then so will the governed, and then nothing is safe—not home, not liberty, not life itself.”
Those are not my words, but Margaret Thatcher’s. Respect for the rule of law runs deep in our Tory veins, and I find it extraordinary that a Tory Government need to be reminded of that. Could my right hon. Friend assure me that support for, and honouring of, the rule of law is what she and the Government are committed to?
I can assure my hon. Friend that we are committed to upholding the rule of law. We are clear that this Bill is legal in international law, and we will set out the legal position in due course.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of her statement. We have heard plenty about the alleged shortcomings of the protocol, but there should be acknowledgement of the Government’s role in negotiating it; that does not even seem to have reached the level of being limited and specific, from what we have heard today. Ultimately the problem this legislation purports to deal with is not to do with the protocol, which was made necessary by the kind of Brexit that the Government eventually negotiated; the seed of the problem was in the very nature of the settlement.
Neither my colleagues nor I deny for one moment the hurt and upset caused to many in Northern Ireland by the protocol, but we must not forget that Scotland and Northern Ireland as a whole both voted against Brexit, and that there was not cross-Union consent for where we are now. If the consequences of that deal are judged to be not in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland, we need to be honest and recognise that the consequences of the entire withdrawal agreement are not in the interests of any place in the UK, because “getting Brexit done” has meant border checks for goods going from Great Britain to the EU or to Northern Ireland, but an absolute free-for-all for anything coming into Great Britain.
We on the SNP Benches have said all along that a stable agreement needs to be reached with the EU that works for all parts of the UK, and I genuinely wish the UK Government well in that, but with the crisis in Ukraine, the last thing we need to be doing is thrashing around here pointlessly in a snare of our own making. Domestic legislation will, even if passed, not wash away the need to comply with international commitments; nor will it change the fact that if the UK is neither in nor aligned with the single market and customs union, that still creates a trade border that needs to go somewhere.
Restoring devolved government in Northern Ireland and resolving the self-inflicted wounds of Brexit will require good will, trust and a negotiated settlement. I am sorry to say that the threats of unilateral legislative action by this Government to override their own deal are unlikely to be taken seriously in Belfast, and will not be taken seriously in Brussels; there is absolutely no reason why they should be taken seriously in this place either.
I have been very clear that we are open to a negotiated solution, but that negotiated solution needs to deliver on the ground in Northern Ireland and address the very real problems with the protocol, which the hon. Gentleman acknowledges—namely the fact that the people of Northern Ireland cannot currently benefit from UK tax and state aid decisions, and the fact that there is still full customs implementation on goods coming into Northern Ireland. In order to address those issues, it is not just the implementation of the protocol that needs to be addressed; the protocol itself needs to change, and we need that change in the mandate from the EU. It is absolutely our preference to have a negotiated solution with the EU, but we have to be clear that those changes need to happen; otherwise the protocol simply will not deliver on the ground in Northern Ireland, or restore the balance as set out in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and we will not see the Executive in Northern Ireland back up and running, which is what we want.
The EU’s approach to the protocol is so unreasonable that it is banning the movement of tree saplings from Great Britain to Northern Ireland for planting for the Queen’s platinum jubilee. Will the Foreign Secretary promise that her new enhanced green channel will disapply not just customs rules, but these unreasonable and excessive sanitary and phytosanitary rules on plants and foods?
My right hon. Friend is right to point out the very real issues the protocol is causing, particularly on SPS rules, and particularly in respect of goods that there is no plan to transport to the Republic of Ireland. She is right that our proposals will ensure those goods are able to travel freely through the green lane into Northern Ireland as part of a trusted trader scheme. For any company violating that scheme and not following the rules, there will be enforcement, so that we make sure we protect the EU single market. This is a pragmatic solution. We are supplying commercial data to the EU in real time, so that it can manage the EU single market while we protect our UK single market.
I agree that the Commission needs to move further to reduce unnecessary checks and paperwork on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland; a sandwich made in Yorkshire and sold in Belfast presents no threat whatsoever to the integrity of the European Union single market. However, why does the Foreign Secretary think that threatening to change an international treaty unilaterally—I look forward to seeing the description of why that is legal—will encourage the Commission to change its approach, especially when it is likely to undermine trust further, and may result in trade retaliation, which is not in the interests of any of our constituents?
The right hon. Gentleman points out that we need more flexibility from the EU, and need a changed mandate. His point about sandwiches from Yorkshire cannot be addressed through the operation of the protocol; the protocol itself needs to be changed. I have had six months of discussions with Maroš Šefčovič—my predecessor had a year of discussions—and there still has not been agreement from the EU on changing the protocol, which would fix the issues the right hon. Gentleman raised. We have seen the Belfast/Good Friday agreement undermined; we have seen the balance upset in Northern Ireland; and we have not seen the Executive fully functioning since February. In the absence of being able to achieve a negotiated solution with the EU, we are bringing forward legislation, but I am very clear that I am hopeful that the EU will change its position and be prepared to enter negotiations on that, in order to fix the very real issues that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned.
On the response from the EU, I point out that our solution makes the EU no worse off. We have proposals to protect the single market and to ensure enforcement of the green and red lanes. I hope that it looks at our proposals in a reasonable way, just as we are putting them forward in a reasonable way, and that we can work together on a solution.
I commend my right hon. Friend on her excellent statement, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on section 38 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, which enables the Foreign Secretary’s Bill to use our sovereignty, notwithstanding the protocol. Will she also ensure, through instructions to parliamentary counsel, that the Bill fully satisfies requirements when it comes to our sovereignty, the constitutional integrity of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, and the Good Friday agreement, and will she ensure that the European Court of Justice and EU law do not displace UK law? I also strongly urge her to take the advice of the Attorney General on matters of international law, despite siren voices to the contrary.
From the outset, the Democratic Unionist party warned this House of the consequences of the protocol, and that is why we opposed it from the beginning; we recognised the political and economic instability it would cause, and the harm that it would create for the Union.
Today’s statement is a welcome, if overdue, step. It is a significant move towards addressing the problems created by the protocol, and towards getting power-sharing based on cross-community consensus up and running again. We hope to see progress on a Bill to deal with these matters in days or weeks, not months. As the legislation progresses, we will take a graduated and cautious approach.
We want the Irish sea border removed, and we want the Government to honour their commitment in the New Decade, New Approach agreement to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market. The statement today indicates that that will be covered in legislation that brings about revised arrangements. Under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, power sharing can be stable only if there is cross-community consensus, but there is not consensus on this at the moment on the part of the Unionist community. We want the political institutions functioning properly as soon as possible, but to restore Unionist confidence, decisive action is now needed in the form of legislation, in order to repair the harm that the protocol has done to the Acts of Union, and in order to put in place sensible arrangements that, in the words of the Queen’s Speech, ensure the
“continued success and integrity of the whole of the United Kingdom...including the internal economic bonds between all of its parts.”—[Official Report, House of Lords,
The words today are a good start, but the Foreign Secretary will know that actions speak louder than words. I welcome her commitment to decisive action in her statement to the House.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman. What everybody in Northern Ireland agrees on—all parties—is that the Northern Ireland protocol is not working, and we do not have cross-party consent to move forward. It is vital to restore the primacy of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which provided for power sharing in Northern Ireland to ensure that we have the consent of all communities. The Government’s priority, above all else, is to protect peace and stability in Northern Ireland. That is our first duty as a sovereign Government of the United Kingdom.
We are hearing a lot in today’s discussion about the legal position of the United Kingdom, but having read the protocol carefully, it seems to me that there is a real question mark around the legal position of the European Union. The protocol contains many caveats relating to the protection of community relations in Northern Ireland, none of which appears to be being fulfilled. Will the Foreign Secretary ensure that she takes proper legal advice about the EU’s position, and that we do not just listen to all the comments about our position?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. The issue with the protocol is that although we entered into it in good faith, it has not operated as we foresaw, and it is causing the real problems that we see in Northern Ireland today. That is why our No. 1 priority is to seek a negotiated solution with the EU, but in the absence of that option, it is important that we act now to restore the primacy of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, so that we can restore the balance in Northern Ireland and ensure that all communities there are treated with esteem.
Why should the hard-pressed public of the United Kingdom, facing an unprecedented cost of living crisis, pay even higher prices as a result of a trade war with our main trading partners because the Foreign Secretary and the DUP want to tear up the agreement that the Prime Minister negotiated and the Foreign Secretary voted for?
I am clear that our priority is to seek a negotiated solution with the EU, and none of the proposals that I have put forward makes the EU any worse off. We want a solution that works for the EU single market and for the UK single market. The reality is that the people of Northern Ireland are paying higher prices as a result of the operation of the protocol—for example, the Road Haulage Association says that it has caused a 34% increase in the cost of moving goods to Northern Ireland—so we are facing a real cost of living impact in Northern Ireland. We want to fix the protocol to the benefit of both the United Kingdom and the European Union.
Article 1 of the protocol makes it clear that that agreement is to be “without prejudice” to the Good Friday/Belfast agreement regarding the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. That means, surely, that the Good Friday agreement takes primacy over the protocol. If that is right, what evidence will my right hon. Friend bring forward to make it clear that change is necessary if we are to avoid a degrading in the constitutional order, and order generally, in Northern Ireland?
My right hon. and learned Friend makes an important point about the primacy of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which has been vital for peace and stability in Northern Ireland. It is our priority to restore that. As I said, we will set out our legal position in due course.
What we have heard from the Government today is absolutely astonishing. This morning, they announced that they will ride roughshod over the wishes of victims in Northern Ireland by ripping up an international agreement called the Stormont House agreement. The Foreign Secretary has now confirmed that she will go against the majority of citizens in Northern Ireland—who, despite what she might say, support the protocol—by ripping up an international agreement called the withdrawal agreement. It is a very simple question, despite what some who may not want to listen to the majority of people in Northern Ireland might say: how can any international partner or any citizen in the north of Ireland ever trust this Government again?
An overwhelming proportion of people in Northern Ireland—78%—agreed that the protocol needed to change in polling conducted in December 2021. It is simply not true to say that a majority of people in Northern Ireland support the protocol. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is based on power sharing and esteem for all communities, and we want—ideally with the EU—to find a solution that works for all communities in Northern Ireland.
Last Thursday, the UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly met for the first time in Brussels, where we had a lively encounter between the Paymaster General and Commissioner Šefčovič. Members were able to ask about the sorts of points discussed today, and it was clear that Commissioner Šefčovič believed that there was a landing place for an agreement on these difficult matters. May I therefore urge my right hon. Friend to go the extra mile and see if we can get an agreement? If we could, that would open up opportunities for co-operation in energy, science and so many other things.
I assure my right hon. and learned Friend that that is absolutely what I want to do. I spoke to Commissioner Šefčovič last night, and I want to see a meeting of the Joint Committee immediately to discuss this issue. But, to fix the very real issues and change the situation on the ground in Northern Ireland, particularly on areas such as customs and tax where points are baked into the protocol, we need changes to the protocol. I have had numerous discussions with Maroš Šefčovič about that, but, as yet, there is not agreement for his mandate for change to include changes to the protocol. That is the fundamental issue that we are facing, but I am very, very willing to have those discussions. I will see the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, later this week for further discussions. We are very open to resolving the issues between the UK and the EU, but we do need real acknowledgment of what is happening on the ground in Northern Ireland and of the fact that the protocol needs to change.
So much for getting Brexit done and so much for oven-ready. What is the cost of the proposed actions? The Treasury has drawn up economic impact assessments for this course of action. When will the Government release them for the House to see?
The solution that we are putting forward will actually save costs by reducing the bureaucracy that traders currently face when shipping goods into Northern Ireland. So our overall proposal benefits traders into Northern Ireland and the people of Northern Ireland; it does not make the EU any worse off, and it helps to protect the single market.
I warmly welcome the statement, as I am sure will the Nobel laureate Lord Trimble, who wrote in a national newspaper this morning that it was urgent to address the problems of the protocol. As an architect of it with John Hume nearly a quarter of a century ago, he also raised the issue of the adverse influence of the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland. Can the Foreign Secretary assure the House that under her sixth heading, which I think she called governance, she will take action on that issue as well?
I can assure my right hon. Friend that we will take action to ensure that the arbitration mechanism is in place for Northern Ireland, as it is in the trade and co-operation agreement, rather than having the ECJ as the final arbiter, which it is at present. He is right to highlight the article today by Lord Trimble. We need to go back to the original thinking behind the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which was about treating the communities of Northern Ireland with equal esteem to make sure that we have successful arrangements in place to protect peace and political stability. That has to be this Government’s priority.
The protocol represents Northern Ireland’s soft landing from this Government’s decision to have a hard Brexit. Let me be very, very clear: in Northern Ireland there is a majority of voters, MLAs and the business community who want to see the issues with the protocol addressed in a pragmatic way, through building trust and partnership with the European Union, and not through damaging unilateral action that will damage the UK’s international reputation, including with the United States. Specifically on the European Court of Justice, does the Foreign Secretary understand that if she tinkers with that jurisdiction it will force Northern Ireland out of the single market for goods and undermine Northern Ireland’s ability to trap investment in terms of our dual access to both the European Union and Great Britain?
What we are proposing for Northern Ireland is a dual regulatory system that encompasses either EU or UK regulation as those businesses choose, which reflects its unique status of having a close relationship with the EU while being part of the UK single market.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. The powerful article by Lord Trimble, one of the architects of the Good Friday agreement, makes it very clear that the maintenance of that agreement overcomes everything else. To that extent, it would be helpful if Opposition Members who bang on about this read the protocol. Article 13.8 makes it absolutely clear that the protocol can, through negotiation, be changed in whole or in part. The point, therefore, is that my right hon. Friend is quite correct. The EU now needs to step up to its responsibilities in the protocol and do what article 13.8 tells it to do.
My right hon. Friend is right. The protocol was never designed to be set in stone. What we have seen are the very real consequences of the protocol, which has not yet been fully implemented, on the ground in Northern Ireland. It has caused political instability and an imbalance in the relationship between the communities in Northern Ireland, and we need to fix that. My strong preference is for the EU to secure a change in its mandate so we can find a negotiated settlement. I completely agree with Commissioner Šefčovič that there is a landing zone to be had, but we need to see flexibility so we can really make sure that there is a proper green channel operating into Northern Ireland, that the people of Northern Ireland benefit from the same tax benefits as the people of Great Britain, and that we can fix those problems in a sustainable way.
With a cost of living crisis and rising tension in Northern Ireland, the last thing our country needs is a poisonous stand-off with the EU and the prospect of a trade war with our largest trading partner. Until recently, the Prime Minister himself was saying, “Don’t worry, it’s all okay, there will be no border down the Irish sea,” and Ministers were incredulously parroting the line that we will only break international law in a limited and specific way. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is the pinnacle of incompetence or deceit for someone to negotiate and sign a deal when they have no intention whatever of honouring that deal?
As I have said, our priority is securing peace and stability in Northern Ireland, and restoring the primacy of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. The protocol was agreed in good faith, but it has had unintended consequences. It is the responsibility of the United Kingdom Government to take action to restore the balance. Our preference is a negotiated solution with the EU. We think there is a landing zone to achieve that, but it requires the EU to change its mandate.
May I just point out to my right hon. Friend that I only reluctantly voted for the protocol and the withdrawal agreement on the basis that we were not allowed to conclude a permanent trading agreement with the EU until we left and that it would be superseded or overtaken in due course? May I also just point out that apart from the disagreement about whether we should have legislation, there seems to be very broad agreement across the House, as there was when I proposed a motion to this House on
I am very happy to engage with colleagues across the House, in particular to explain why there needs to be a change in the protocol itself to fix the issues about making a clear green lane between GB and Northern Ireland and on resolving the taxation issues. That is the fundamental issue in the negotiations with the EU, which we have conducted in good faith. I have had numerous negotiations and conversations with Commissioner Šefčovič over the past six months, but fundamentally the EU’s mandate does not allow the changes to be made that would help us to create the green lane and the free flow of goods between GB and Northern Ireland, and to address the unfairness in the tax system whereby a cut in VAT on solar panels announced by the Chancellor cannot be implemented for the people of Northern Ireland.
However the Foreign Secretary may dress it up, unilaterally changing a previously agreed international treaty is breaking it, and it is doublespeak to suggest otherwise. The consequences are real: ordinary families up and down this country will have higher prices to pay because of a trade war. Will she take this opportunity to be honest with the British people? If we get to the point where tariffs are raised as a result of a trade war with the EU, how much will they have to pay? Or does she not care?
We are very clear that the Bill is legal in international law and, as I have said, we will set out our legal position in due course. Our proposals, which we will outline in more detail over the coming weeks, are very clear about how we protect the EU single market. Currently, businesses in Northern Ireland and Great Britain are facing increased costs as a result of the Northern Ireland protocol. Our proposals would deal with those costs while protecting the EU single market. The EU will be no worse off as a result of our proposals.
There is genuine anger in the loyalist community about the protocol and the way in which many people feel it undermines their British identity. Now it has been unanimously rejected at the ballot box by the Unionist community, what assurances can my right hon. Friend give me that if the negotiations continue to fail we will see a Bill in this House in the coming days and weeks, not months?
We are committed to introducing a Bill to resolve the very real issues on the ground in Northern Ireland. In parallel, we are open to negotiations with the EU, but in order to proceed on those negotiations the EU does have to be willing to change the protocol itself to fix those very real issues.
The Foreign Secretary knows that there were only three ways of protecting Northern Ireland’s special position after Brexit: a land border on the island of Ireland, which we all reject; closer alignment between the UK and the EU, which business wanted but the Government rejected; and a sea border. The Prime Minister chose a sea border. He knew the checks that that would involve, but he denied it to the Unionist community. There are solutions that can be negotiated, but is not the reason for today’s statement that the Government and the Foreign Secretary, for reasons of her own ambition, see advantage in fuelling Brexit divisions?
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s analysis. There is a solution, which we have put to the EU. Commercial data that is collected in the normal course of business can be shared, in real time, with the EU as well as making sure that there are strong protections on the trusted trader scheme so that any untoward activities are acted against. We can do all that, make that happen and protect the EU single market, while, at the same time, enabling the free flow of trade. What we need, though, is flexibility in the EU’s mandate so that it is prepared to change the protocol. As many in the House have said, the protocol was never intended to be set in stone, but it is our duty, as the United Kingdom Government, to act to restore peace and stability in Northern Ireland.
I agree with what my hon. Friend Sir Bernard Jenkin said about the deal we signed up to. Some of us were always clear this was a tolerable path to a great future. The thing that made it only tolerable was that we knew that this was unfinished business. Today, we face just the problems that the protocol foresaw. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said, the protocol has provision for it to be changed. As I welcome this as the right solution for the way forward—and what nonsense we have heard; this is a solution that could be negotiated—I ask her to repeat once again that we will protect the EU’s legitimate interests as we restore the primacy of the Good Friday agreement and the constitutional integrity of the UK.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have established the trusted trader scheme and the sharing of commercial data with the EU. What we are proposing, as part of this Bill, is proper enforcement to make sure that the EU single market is protected. In our view, that is the best solution; it makes sure that there is free flow of trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland while, at the same time, protecting the EU single market. As we have heard across the House, people recognise that there are real issues with the Northern Ireland protocol. My No. 1 preference is to get a negotiated solution with the EU, but it has to be willing to look at these types of pragmatic solutions that will both protect the EU single market and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the United Kingdom.
The Foreign Secretary must be alarmed at the comments that emerged this morning from the chairman of Marks & Spencer. He has already had to close his business in France. His business in the Republic of Ireland is about to close—[Interruption.] Oh, he is a Conservative; therefore, he should not be doing business—that seems to be the Liberal view emerging. To export goods, his business in the Republic of Ireland has to fill in 700 pages within an eight-hour period. It has to do some of the wording in Latin to satisfy the European Community, and it also has to be typed in a certain font or it will not be allowed. It costs him an additional £30 million. He said on the radio this morning that the EU told him that it would like the same procedures for his businesses in Northern Ireland. This is a power grab. People talk about a trade war—this is a trade war to crush business in Northern Ireland. Will the Foreign Secretary ensure, when she is speaking to the Cabinet, that it knows clearly that if it keeps the protocol, power sharing is not coming back?
I have been very clear in my statement that we are bringing forward legislation to sort this issue out and to deal with the bureaucracy that we are seeing—the requirement for customs declarations and customs codes from businesses that are simply operating within the United Kingdom. That is why we want to create the green lane that allows properly protected goods to move freely within the United Kingdom, and we are committed to that legislation. In the meantime, if the EU is prepared, in parallel, to move to a negotiated settlement to resolve the very issues that the hon. Gentleman raises, we are of course open to those talks, but we will not allow it to delay our taking the action we need to take to restore the primacy of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
In the last Parliament, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, under my chairmanship, produced a comprehensive set of alternative arrangements that were workable and high-tech and that would erase the need for the current perniciously applied checks that most in this House agree are unnecessary. Given that they would satisfy the EU’s stated objections, why does she think that the EU have stonewalled them?
I am not going to speculate as to why the EU has not changed its negotiating mandate, but it is very clear that there is a solution—my right hon. Friend worked very hard on that—that satisfies the requirement to protect the EU single market and, at the same time, restores the primacy of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We need to make sure that we move forward as fast as we can to that solution.
To make his EU deal work, the Prime Minister inserted a border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Some accepted the absurd claim that there would not be any checks across that border. That misjudgment has proved electorally disastrous and potentially fatal to the Union. The Foreign Secretary has announced today that the Government may well breach the agreement that the Prime Minister negotiated. What assessment has she made of the impact of that announcement on trade negotiations that are under way with other countries around the world?
As we have heard from Members on both sides of the House, there are very real issues about the way the Northern Ireland protocol is working. We need to fix the Northern Ireland protocol. Our preference is for a negotiated solution, but if that is not possible, we are putting legislation through the House of Commons and through Parliament. As I said, we are clear that the Bill is legal in international law, so there is no question of violating international law.
Depending on which newspaper I have read over the past two days, I can understand either that the Government want to tear up the protocol altogether or that they see this proposal as an insurance policy while negotiations continue. My right hon. Friend has been clear this morning that the latter interpretation would be correct. I welcome that very much and ask her to try to ensure that, while the negotiations are going on, there is some consistency in Government messaging that, actually, a negotiated settlement would be preferable.
There are some things that are within my powers and some things that are not, and controlling what the British media print is simply not within my power. We are very clear that we are not about scrapping or tearing up the protocol. We want to change the protocol, ideally working with the European Union, but the mandate does have to change to get the changes on the ground that we need to see. In the absence of that, the legislation will ensure that those changes are made. There is provision specifically in the legislation to implement a negotiated solution; I was very clear about that in my statement.
Last week it was reported that the Attorney General has provided legal advice as part of the background to this Bill. I have no doubt that that will be based on her views on parliamentary sovereignty and the supremacy of domestic law, with which she previously favoured this Chamber the last time we were planning on breaking international law. Sir William Cash says that we should ignore “siren voices to the contrary”, but the difficulty for the Foreign Secretary, the Attorney General and the hon. Member for Stone is that the siren voices to the contrary include the United Kingdom Supreme Court. Has the Foreign Secretary read paragraph 55 of the judgment in the first Miller case, which was about triggering article 50, in which the Supreme Court is clear that international treaties signed by the UK Government are binding on the UK in terms of international law and that, as such, our obligations under them cannot be unilaterally rewritten? Is she aware of that?
We fully respect the rule of law, and we are very clear that this Bill is in line with international law.
Order. I realise the importance of this statement, but I inform Members that we have a very well-subscribed debate to follow, so it would be helpful if we could have brief questions.
What is absolutely clear is that those hon. Members seeking to undermine the Government’s negotiating position have not emerged from the trenches they dug themselves in the last Parliament, have they?
What I think we have heard today is that Members on both sides of the House agree that there is a real problem with the way the Northern Ireland protocol is operating, and that needs to be solved. I hear people saying that they want to get an agreed solution with the EU. I hope that the EU will change its negotiating mandates so that we are able to achieve that.
The Foreign Secretary made it clear that one of her primary reasons for acting in this way is to try to get the Executive back up and running in Northern Ireland. However, she also said in her statement that the Bill
“ensures that goods destined for the EU under the full checks and controls”,
so there will still be checks. On that basis, has she received an assurance from the DUP that, even with these continued checks, it will agree to re-enter the Executive?
I have been clear that our No. 1 priority is to restore the balance in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which has been undermined by the operation of the protocol. What we are proposing—and I will be bringing out more details on this in due course—is a green lane of trusted traders that is properly protected for goods into Northern Ireland, and a red lane for goods that have to go through the full customs controls into the EU single market. I am very clear that, as well as the protection of the UK single market, part of our agreement is the protection of the EU single market.
I particularly welcome the Foreign Secretary’s repeated insistence on her intention for a negotiated settlement. Echoing the words of my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Oliver Heald, I emphasise that that is important not just in terms of the overall objective but in terms of the United Kingdom’s international reputation and our ability to demonstrate that we act with the greatest concern for our legal obligations. Will she consider making available in due course the draft of any proposed legislation, so that those of us who wish to work constructively with the Government to make sure that we do this lawfully can test the proportionality of the measures against the objectives and the legal advice she has received?
As I have said, our priority is to secure a negotiated solution. It will require the EU changing its mandate, and I hope that, following today’s statement and the comments by Members right across this House, we will see some more flexibility from the EU. We are committed to acting in line with international law—we are very clear about that. We will set out our legal position in due course, and I am very happy to have more discussions with my hon. Friend about the precise contents of the Bill.
The Secretary of State referred to the need to ensure that there is no hard border on the island of Ireland. Does she accept that there is no possibility that that could happen? It is simply not practical or possible. There is no political consent for it and it would be easily avoided if it were to come about. That is a nonsense that needs to be dismissed.
In terms of cross-community consensus, can the Secretary of State assure the House and the people of Northern Ireland that her Bill will be placed before Parliament before the summer recess, so that people can see what progress—practical rather than words—has been made?
I am very clear that we will be bringing the Bill out in the coming weeks. That is an important priority for this Government and we understand that we cannot see any more delay. We have already had 18 months of negotiations on this issue with the EU. Regrettably, we are not yet in a position where the EU is willing to consider changing the protocol. That is why we are obliged to take forward the Bill. During that time, as I have been very clear, we remain open to negotiations, provided that there is a willingness to address the real issues on the ground in Northern Ireland.
Members will remember the years of negotiating under the previous Prime Minister to try to withdraw from the European Union. That process was dragged out by the European Union, and it was only when we had a new Prime Minister, who acted decisively, that we withdrew from the EU and got a free trade agreement without any quotas. May I suggest to the Foreign Secretary that she should publish this Bill straightaway and get on with it, because the only way we will get the EU to come to the negotiating table and really negotiate with us is if we threaten them with that Bill? Can she be more precise about exactly when the Bill will be published—will it be next week or the week after?
I agree with my hon. Friend. It is urgent that we act and I assure him that the Bill is coming in the following weeks.
Businesses and communities dealing with the consequences of Brexit need honesty and certainty, not the chaos and confusion of a potential trade war, so will the Foreign Secretary reassure them? She has repeatedly said today that what she intends to do is in line with international law and has talked about the trade and co-operation agreement. I know that she will not as yet publish the legal advice, but will she tell us which international laws she intends to abide by, what the adjudication mechanism might be, and whether the EU has agreed to it?
As I have made clear, our proposals are legal in international law and we will set out the legal position in due course.
The Foreign Secretary has put forward sensible and practical proposals for protecting the integrity of the EU single market, and they could be quite easily reciprocated by the European Union. Has she put the proposals to Mr Šefčovič? If so, what was his response? If he has refused to accept them, what reason has he given?
I have put these proposals to Vice-President Šefčovič and we have had extensive discussions about how we make sure that both the UK single market and the EU single market have been protected. The issue for the European Commission in terms of accepting our proposals is that his mandate does not extend to changing the protocol, so he is unable to accept the proposals on that basis.
What the Foreign Secretary and her Government are proposing will impact on all of our constituents, so will she explain to the people of Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey how unilaterally breaking an international treaty and potentially sparking a trade war will help them with the £20 price increase they currently face on their average weekly shop?
Our priority in putting forward this legislation is to protect the hard-won peace and stability inherent in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. That is our priority and that is why we are taking this Bill forward. We are very clear that the EU is no worse off as a result of the proposals, which protect the EU single market and make sure that there is no irregular activity.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Sadly, last week at the UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, Vice-President Šefčovič used incredibly disappointing language in relation to the UK. Does she agree that it is incumbent on the EU to enter into sensible negotiations with the United Kingdom to find practical and deliverable solutions to the real problems faced by the people of Northern Ireland? It is incumbent on us and the EU to work together to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.
We have engaged in negotiations with the EU in good faith. We want to achieve the practical solution in all the areas that I laid out, including customs, taxation and governance. Fundamentally, that requires a new mandate, so that we can see the increased flexibility that will deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.
I welcome Foreign Secretary’s commitment to address the issue, but I urge her not to give in to those who today in this House have shamelessly almost urged the EU to engage in a trade war with the UK; who have urged her to dismiss the views of the majority Unionist community, contrary to the Good Friday agreement; and who have ignored the fact that the EU has not acted in good faith and lived up to its commitments to seek alternative arrangements to the Northern Ireland protocol. Does she realise that, given the broken promises of the past, we can only judge what has been said today when we see a Bill progress through the House that outlines the points that she has made?
We are committed to bringing forward legislation to deal with this very real issue that is upsetting the balance of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. That is why I am making this statement and why we are clear that we need to act.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the priority that she has given to the Belfast agreement is correct, and that the reasonable evolution of the protocol that she is proposing would not make the EU worse off, but would be better than its other border arrangements—for example, its trade arrangements on its eastern flank, with Belorussia?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Our proposals would secure the single market and allow data sharing, which we are already doing on commercial data, on goods crossing the Irish sea. They also include strong enforcement provisions that compare very favourably with other customs arrangements around the world.
A veterinary agreement would remove the vast majority of barriers to trade between GB and Northern Ireland, and is widely supported—by farmers, fishermen, the five parties in Northern Ireland, the European Union and the United States Government. Will the Foreign Secretary please explain why she has failed to agree a veterinary agreement with the European Union, as that is surely the pragmatic solution that she keeps saying she wants?
Various issues in the protocol are preventing the free flow of trade between GB and Northern Ireland, including customs codes. I want a comprehensive solution that creates a green channel in which commercial data is shared.
International agreements are renegotiated and reopened all the time. Indeed, the European Union is a persistent and repeat renegotiator of international agreements—so much so that it was written into the protocol that it could be renegotiated. I also heard Maroš Šefčovič say last week that we could get to a landing zone on the issue, but it is quite clear that the EU’s over-zealous interpretation of some elements of the protocol and his lack of a mandate to get us there is preventing us from making our way to that landing ground. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the legislation that she is proposing is the only way in which we can ensure the primacy of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the integrity of our United Kingdom?
Our proposals, which deal with customs bureaucracy and tax inequality, are ultimately the solution we need to deliver. If the EU has a new mandate and is prepared to look at those things, I am very clear that there is a landing zone with the EU. In the absence of that new mandate, we have to act, because this is about protecting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the balance between the communities in Northern Ireland. Ultimately, it is about protecting the entire United Kingdom.
The Prime Minister told this House in 2019 that the protocol that he negotiated was a
“great success for Northern Ireland…fully compatible with the Good Friday agreement.”—[Official Report,
So to be clear, why are the Government now abandoning their oven-ready Brexit deal?
I warmly welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement. Does she agree that, although we have heard many reasoned and well-evidenced examples from Opposition Members as to why the protocol is not working, we have not heard a single example—except for a veterinary agreement, I think—that shows the path towards solving any of the problems, other than saying that whatever she and this Government do must be wrong, obviously. Will she assure me that the proposed legislation will deal with all these complex matters and put to bed, once and for all, the issues in Northern Ireland for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland, as one United Kingdom?
The provisions in our Bill will do just that. We have heard acknowledgement from the Labour party that there are real concerns about the way in which the Northern Ireland protocol is operating, but we need to move to the solution, which requires the EU to change its mandate and the terms in the protocol itself. Otherwise, we cannot address the customs and tax issues. I urge the Opposition to look at that in more detail.
I sincerely lament that there are some MPs today—particularly from Northern Ireland—who have introduced a level of majoritarianism. That is not going to work in Northern Ireland; it is not how our system operates.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement and the work that the Northern Ireland Secretary has engaged in for some time. The House is aware of the White Paper that was published last summer and aware that the conditions to trigger article 16 had been met, and it is now fully aware of the constitutional imperative—for good governance and democracy in Northern Ireland—that this matter is resolved. I implore the Foreign Secretary, in recognising that urgency, that weeks and weeks for the introduction and passage of legislation is not quick enough; we need to see movement now.
I am giving this statement to the House today because we are bringing forward legislation in the coming weeks to address the precise issues mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. He is right that, ultimately, the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is founded on power sharing and respect for all communities in Northern Ireland, and that is what we are reflecting in our proposed solutions.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement. The path that she has set out is exactly the right one, but there have been 18 months of negotiations so far, which have been met with what Lord Trimble describes in an article today as a “brick wall of intransigence”. Although a negotiated agreement is indeed the preferable solution, the protocol and its interpretation by the EU today are throwing up serious consequences for the Good Friday agreement, our economy and our Union, so will my right hon. Friend set a deadline by which the negotiations must be completed?
To be clear with my hon. Friend, we are bringing forward legislation in the coming weeks that will progress through Parliament as legislation normally does. In parallel, if we are able to reach a negotiated solution with the EU, which will require it to change its mandate, we can put that solution into the Bill by the time it gets to Royal Assent, but we will not allow the negotiations to slow down the path of legislation. That is important, because the situation is urgent. We have already had 18 months of negotiations that have not yet borne fruit, so we cannot allow any more delays.
Can I press the Foreign Secretary on why she is laying the ground for a trade war with our largest trading partners just as the Bank of England is warning of an “apocalyptic” rise in food prices? Those are the tactics she is using and the threats she is making. Will she meet the UK Trade and Business Commission to discuss our recommendations for a way of removing the bulk of checks in the Irish sea with a veterinary agreement and standards protection? Stephen Kinnock has made that same point. The Foreign Secretary says that she wants a wider agreement, but why not start with that veterinary agreement and with standards—unless she is in fact aiming to dilute and remove standards?
I am very clear that our proposed solution reduces bureaucracy all round. It will make the EU no worse off, in that we will continue to protect the single market, supply the commercial data and have strong enforcement mechanisms. I am very happy to hear the hon. Lady’s ideas in more detail, but the fundamental issue is that the customs requirements that are baked into the protocol are creating this bureaucracy, and without changing the protocol we are not able to deal with that.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and her determination to see progress. I also welcome the point made by many Members that change is necessary. Does she agree that we share the common goals of maintaining economic prosperity for Northern Ireland and preserving the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the integrity of our respective Unions? Does she think that a focus on those goals is the key to getting through the next months?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We share those goals, and I know that everyone in this House is committed to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. I have heard many across the House express an understanding of the problems that the Northern Ireland protocol is causing, and I think that where there is disagreement it is on how we pursue those goals. As I have said, I am open to a negotiated settlement, but it does require changes to the protocol. We cannot allow any further delay that would have a worsening effect on the position in Northern Ireland and further undermine the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
Brexit is already making people poorer, and the Government are now risking plunging the UK into a trade war with our closest neighbour and biggest trading partner. For farmers in Somerset and Devon, this will be a disaster. The Foreign Secretary has already sold farmers down the river when she was International Trade Secretary. Is she prepared to do the same again to farmers across the south-west who are already teetering on the brink?
I do not agree with the hon. Lady’s characterisation of my time as Trade Secretary, when we opened new opportunities for British farmers around the world. I have always believed that the food Britain produces is so excellent that it is well capable of competing with other offers around the world.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should send a clear message to those in Brussels who would wish to see us backslide on Brexit or undermine and break up our precious Union that this will never be acceptable to this Government?
I have been clear that our priority is restoring the balance of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. While our preference is to secure a negotiated outcome with the European Union, we cannot delay in taking the action we need to take to restore that balance in the Good Friday agreement and protect our precious Union.
The emergency safeguarding measures are provided with a legal basis under the protocol, but under the protocol they can only be temporary. The problem the Secretary of State has is that there is no legal basis within the protocol for a permanent change. She says that she wants a negotiated settlement, and of course we would all seek that, but how is the Bill that she proposes to introduce unilaterally in this House going to change the position in international law, which is that she cannot unilaterally abrogate the treaty that she has signed?
As I have said, the Bill is legal in international law and we will set out the position in due course.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement. Will she comment on the transfer of data within the UK’s trusted trader scheme to the EU and on how could that process be further improved?
We are already sharing large amounts of data that we collect as part of the trusted trader scheme with the EU to give reassurance that trade is not being diverted from the GB-Northern Ireland route into the EU. We want to build on that with enforcement measures so that those violating the trusted trader scheme are not allowed to continue to do so.
I am just wondering where we would be to today if the DUP had given in and set up an Executive. Would we be in this position where we can start—I call this a start—to try to redress some of the problems with the Northern Ireland protocol?
I want to highlight one area. Many people in Northern Ireland have seen the protocol as the introduction of a surrender Act for Northern Ireland to become part of an all-Ireland economy. That has created its own difficulties. Many Members have focused on measures to do with veterinary medicine and food, but this affects every aspect of our economy, and I am mainly worried about the constitutional position and the message that that has given to Northern Ireland. To those who have seen it as a surrender Act, I am telling them today: it is no surrender.
There are fundamental issues that have been exposed since the protocol came into being that have damaged the east-west relationship for Northern Ireland, which is a key tenet of the Good Friday agreement. Those issues will have to be fixed; otherwise, they will be a running sore.
If the Foreign Secretary had some self-awareness, she would realise that saying that the protocol had unintended consequences, and that the EU needed to change because it had somehow acted in bad faith by upholding the deal that the UK Government negotiated, was a ridiculous argument. If she has such an obvious customs solution that will not cost companies any more in IT roll-out, that will actually save companies money in the UK and Europe and that will protect the European single market, why does she not publish her proposals now, if they are so obvious and easy to move forward on?
I have explained the outline of the proposals, and I will be publishing more details in due course.
It is curious that the Foreign Secretary chose to quote polling rather than the fresh election results that show a comfortable majority of people supporting the protocol and an even larger majority rejecting the idea of holding the institutions to ransom. She is misrepresenting our position and that of the people of Northern Ireland, who want the protocol as a protection from Brexit. While they are happy to see it evolve, they know that there was not a whisper about consent or consensus when the Conservatives and the DUP were voting gleefully for ever-harder versions of Brexit. Where there is unanimity, it is in distrust of the cynical approach of this Government. When will this Government stop using our fragile shared society for their own malign political needs?
The hon. Lady knows that the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is based on the principle of power sharing. That requires the consent of all communities in Northern Ireland, and that is what we seek to achieve with the legislation we are putting forward.
Other Members have referenced Lord Trimble’s article in which he says that the Government must now
“act on its responsibility to safeguard the future of Northern Ireland and replace this damaging and community-splitting protocol”.
The Foreign Secretary’s statement is welcome. It correctly identifies some of the fundamental problems with the protocol and the need to act in the absence of agreement with the EU. Given that she has accepted the need to address these issues urgently, does she understand that good intentions for another day will do nothing to address the urgent problems we face, and that we need to have words backed up by actions immediately?
Does the Foreign Secretary appreciate the extent of the frustration and anger not only on this side of the House but in the country? She talks about the unintended consequences of an agreement that this Government signed and were warned would have exactly these consequences, and she talks of protecting our precious Union. Does she appreciate that a unilateral withdrawal from the Northern Ireland protocol would have serious implications for the Union she seeks to protect?
Let me be clear that we are not talking about withdrawing from or scrapping the protocol. What we are talking about is legislating to fix the specific issues in the protocol that are causing problems in Northern Ireland.
It is not just about how people in Northern Ireland voted recently. In August 2016, the former DUP First Minister wrote to the UK Government calling for a special position for Northern Ireland, and people supported that. Issues have been raised about supermarket goods, and anyone who has been to Northern Ireland recently, as I have, will realise there are pragmatic issues to solve, but they need to be solved with the EU. Exactly how do unilateral threats and legislation build the trust and good will necessary to get to the best outcome?
I believe there is a landing zone and a negotiated outcome that can work for the people of Northern Ireland, for the UK and for the EU, but that landing zone requires a change of mandate. We have now had 18 months of discussions with the EU, which has not yet agreed to change the protocol. The protocol was never designed to be set in stone, and we have seen that it is not working for the people of Northern Ireland. Of course I encourage a pragmatic solution, and I encourage more flexibility from the EU, but we cannot allow the situation in Northern Ireland to deteriorate by not taking the action we need to take now to fix the protocol.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement and for her clear attempt to find a way forward, which we all want.
There is rising anger in Northern Ireland in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol. Simon Hoare said on the radio this morning—I notified him at 10.46 am that I would be mentioning him—that filling out a form to buy something should not make someone less British, which illustrates his woeful misunderstanding of the Unionist position and, further, undermines his ability to act impartially as Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.
Does the Secretary of State agree that this is precisely why tensions have been escalating? And does she understand that this typifies why the Unionist community my party represents has lost faith, and that words cannot restore that faith? As I think she is saying, we need to see concrete legislation and less harmful discourse.
We are very clear that we need to restore the balance of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and we need to ensure that all communities in Northern Ireland are treated with esteem.
We spent so much time debating the Northern Ireland protocol that this Government could not have been unaware of a single dot or comma. Were they simply unable to understand the implications of their own protocol deal, or did the Prime Minister present his oven-ready Brexit deal knowing that he would end up deliberately breaking international law? Is this Government stupidity or Government duplicity?
We negotiated the Northern Ireland protocol in good faith, and I have been negotiating with Maroš Šefčovič in good faith, but we have seen real consequences for the people of Northern Ireland that need to be addressed.
Under the current Brexit arrangements, freight trade through Holyhead is down 34%, whereas north-south trade in Ireland is up by 34% and south-north trade is up by 49%. Does the Foreign Secretary accept that such economic fundamentals argue against her taking precipitous unilateral action on the protocol?
Those figures demonstrate that there has been trade diversion in Northern Ireland, and they demonstrate that we need to restore the balance of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement to make sure east-west is treated with equal esteem to north-south.