“No later than two weeks after any finding by any international court, tribunal or arbitration panel that any provision of this Act, or any action taken by a Minister in exercise of powers granted by this Act, is inconsistent with the international obligations of the United Kingdom, a Minister of the Crown must—
(a) report to each House of Parliament setting out the extent to which the relevant court, tribunal or arbitration panel has found that any provision of, or any exercise of power under, this Act is inconsistent with the international legal obligations of the United Kingdom; and
(b) set out what steps Ministers propose take in order to bring the United Kingdom into compliance with those international obligations.”—(Stephen Doughty.)
This new clause would provide that, if an international court, tribunal or arbitration panel found as a matter of fact that any actions taken by the government under the Bill were inconsistent with the UK’s international legal obligations, the Minister must report this finding to the House, and set out what steps the government will take to ensure the UK is in compliance with its international obligations.
Brought up, and read the First time.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
While the debates in Committee have been heated—literally, given the ambient temperature—the exchanges have been productive. Members heard detailed scrutiny of the Bill and the Government’s planned solutions to the problems that the protocol is causing in Northern Ireland. Some Members do not agree with the Government’s diagnosis, but it has been reassuring to note how many Opposition Members do agree and accept the problems, even if they do not currently accept that the Government have no choice but to proceed unilaterally. I can understand that, but unfortunately, while our door is always open, there does not appear to be a fruitful negotiation to be had with the European Union at present.
We have not had a Report stage debate, as the Committee did not see fit to amend the Bill. I, and the Government as a whole, see that as a strong vote of support for our proposals, and we hope that those who are eagerly waiting for them to come to pass in Northern Ireland will take heart in the knowledge that they may not have to wait too long, and that the House of Commons has heard them. I hope that Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson and his party will hear that too, and will continue their moves towards returning to power sharing.
The Bill is a powerful toolkit. I know that there are noble Lords in the other place who might think it too powerful, but the Government have been clear on our policy and the range of detailed regulations that will be required, and these are the tools for the job. The Bill provides certainty that the elements of the protocol that have developed into problems will no longer apply in our domestic law and, alongside that, ensures that the Government can honour their promises to the people of all the communities in Northern Ireland. We will protect that which is working to maintain the economic and social framework for north-south traders and nationalists, and we will fix that which is undermining the lives and livelihoods of east-west traders and Unionists.
This Bill is the Government’s top legislative priority. Given the grave situation in Northern Ireland, it must be so. Negotiations will always remain a possibility, and the Bill ensures that implementation of any agreement will not cause further delays. Negotiations tomorrow are always a day away, but it is today in Northern Ireland and the issues are clearly with us now. In the absence of other comprehensive and durable solutions, the Government and Parliament must act. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.
As if we needed any more evidence that this zombie Government are even now doing everything they can to avoid proper scrutiny, here we are as they push this Bill through its Third Reading with less than 24 hours’ notice—[Interruption.] We had 24 hours’ notice of Third Reading, despite what the Secretary of State is chuntering. If only Conservative Members had had the courage to remove the Prime Minister sooner, Northern Ireland and Britain’s international standing could have been spared the fallout that will be inevitable from this legislation. Just now we have heard that there are two candidates vying to take his position who are just as tied up in this mess and in whom trust has fallen to at an all-time low.
This week, Labour Members—indeed, hon. Members on both sides of the House—have tabled amendments to improve the Bill by ensuring that it would comply with our international legal obligations, to prevent a brazen ministerial power grab not just from this House but from the people on Northern Ireland, and to ensure that the changes to the protocol would have the consent of all the communities of Northern Ireland. Conservative Members have voted each one of them down, but not without knowing the facts. They know what this Bill is and what it means—but don’t take my word for it. Take it from Jesse Norman, who called the Bill “unamendably bad”, or from the former Attorney General—
I will not give way. The hon. Gentleman has not been here throughout the course of the debates on the Bill today.
“I do not believe that this legislation will produce a permanent solution”.—[Official Report,
Even the former Prime Minister, Mrs May, said that the Bill failed on all three counts of upholding international law, achieving its aims and maintaining our global standing. From these assessments and countless others, it is clear that the Bill does not address the challenges of the protocol.
Only to this outgoing Prime Minister, his zombie team of Ministers and those who have not yet had the courage to disown him completely is the Bill worth defending. Regrettably, it could be said to represent the state of certain parts of the Conservative party today. We can say that because it proposes a complete abdication of responsibility from resolving challenges that the Government themselves have created. We must remember that it was this Prime Minister who negotiated the protocol and ran an election campaign on it, and now it is the Foreign Secretary who, in vying for his job, seeks to advance her own political fortunes by unravelling it. We are truly through the looking glass. Time and again we have seen senior members of the Government attempt to make political gains from what is a very serious and fragile situation. To them, damaging our reputation on the world stage is a second thought and risking trade barriers during a cost of living crisis is a price worth paying—never mind the issues that this Bill could cause for the people of Northern Ireland.
When it comes to the protocol, Labour would not act like this. As the party that negotiated the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, we would do what we have always done: get around the table and negotiate in good faith. We would find workable, practical and sustainable solutions such as a veterinary agreement and a data sharing deal that would eliminate the need for the vast majority of checks. We would negotiate with the EU to seek more flexibility on VAT and use that to take VAT off energy bills to help with the cost of living crisis. We would not breach our international obligations or derail our relationship with European partners while gifting Ministers powers without proper scrutiny, as this outgoing Government seem ready to do.
Before Members are tempted to go there, this is not about trying to relitigate Brexit. We want to see it work, which means leadership and negotiation to defend the UK’s interest, to safeguard peace and stability in Northern Ireland and, crucially, to ensure that our word continues to mean something internationally. Trustworthiness and a commitment to the international rule of law are British values, yet those values are impossible to reconcile with this Bill and the Government’s agenda in forcing it through.
We know the protocol is not perfect, but we have all known that from the very beginning. The Government, however indignant they may be today, knew we would reach this moment. We have listened to the legitimate concerns expressed by colleagues on both sides of the House and from all communities about the functioning of the protocol and its ability to deliver for Northern Ireland and its people. Those legitimate concerns need to be addressed, and the EU needs to show flexibility and understanding in addressing them. We are under no illusion in that regard, but let us be crystal clear that this Bill does nothing whatsoever to remedy that. Labour will be voting against this Bill tonight to uphold the rule of international law and to protect our global reputation.
It is a great pity that Stephen Doughty says I have not participated. I did not participate this afternoon, as the House can well understand, but what difference does it make? I spoke in Committee on previous days, and I spoke on Second Reading. We only have this Bill because of the work done by a number of people to ensure it got its Second Reading. I will leave it at that for the moment.
The hon. Gentleman, in his arguments on international law, and my right hon. Friend Mrs May and the other people whose assertions he quoted, are talking through their hats. The reason I say that is terribly simple: for those who have any knowledge of these matters—[Interruption.] Yes, I mean that. For those who understand these matters, this Bill is the only way to address the democratic deficit created by the protocol.
I am the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, and we receive a tsunami of legislation every single week that comes into Northern Ireland as a matter of EU law and binds voters and businesses, whom the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth claims to be trying to protect, without their having any involvement or influence. They have no protection from Westminster, and this Bill is so important because it gives back to the people of Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, through a sovereign Act of the United Kingdom, the right to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland are listened to and protected.
This democratic deficit—[Interruption.] I see that some Opposition Members obviously know nothing about this Bill and its content, or any of the principles of international law that quite clearly—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth is shouting at me across the Chamber, but it makes absolutely no difference whatsoever. He does not know what he is talking about, and some people who have studied this do.
The words on state necessity are “grave and imminent peril”. Nothing could be more perilous to the people of Northern Ireland than to be legislated for in absentia by an unelected Commission making proposals that are agreed in the Council of Ministers, behind closed doors, without so much as a transcript and by a majority of other countries.
Northern Ireland belongs to the United Kingdom, and it belongs to the democratic decision making of its people, just as constituencies such as mine do. I do not have to enlarge upon this but to say that the Bill is essential to protecting Northern Ireland and its constitutional integrity, irrespective of the rantings of those who claim it is a breach of international law when, actually, state necessity does provide an answer and a remedy to the democratic deficit that the hon. Gentleman does not seem to understand and clearly does not care about.
I rise to confirm on Third Reading that the SNP will also oppose this Bill, and to take the opportunity to thank Maria-Clorinda Luck from our research team and all the House staff for the support they have given us throughout this process. It has been very much appreciated.
Despite our opposition to this Bill throughout, and despite the fact that the protocol was of the Government’s own doing, we have always accepted that seeking a renegotiation of its terms was a legitimate aim. So we have tried to stay focused throughout on the content and intent of the Bill, and through doing that I have learned a number of things. Perhaps first and foremost, I have learned that the words “urgent” and “necessity”, at least in the eyes of the Paymaster General, do not mean quite what I previously thought. That was an education.
More importantly, the people of Scotland will have learned something about their own place and standing in the Union. The Paymaster General has more than once in Committee dismissed amendments that would have given the Northern Irish Assembly oversight and democratic control over whether aspects of the Bill would ever be switched on; they have been dismissed on the grounds that there is, clearly, no Assembly sitting. He has, however, also been happy to go past the fact breezily that a Parliament within these islands that is sitting, in Edinburgh, at Holyrood, has declined to give its legislative consent—but still the legislation continues without that consent.
I have tried throughout to empathise with and understand how Unionists in Northern Ireland would feel, and I have said on more than one occasion in this House that I cannot for the life of me understand how any Unionist Government who seek to have that label attached to them could ever have left Northern Ireland in a situation where there was, in effect, a trade border down the Irish sea; it is inconceivable that any competent Government could have done that. However, if this Bill brings some satisfaction to some in Northern Ireland, it throws a few issues for voters in Scotland into very sharp relief. We have found out that the precious Brexit has at all stages throughout this pantomime been much more important than the previous Union. We have found out that we do not exist in anything remotely approaching a partnership of equals. We have also found that we are no longer part of a state that can claim with any shred of credibility to stand up for international law and the rule of law and that can be respected for the stance it takes as part of that rules-based international order.
Sadly, this is not going to be the end of the process, because if the measures in the Bill are used, owing to the Government’s inability to negotiate and push at, what is, an open door, we are going to find ourselves, at the height of a cost of living crisis, experiencing even more frictions than we are currently for our manufacturers and our consumers. We will also find this legislation being prayed in aid by despots around the world as they seek to escape their own obligations under international law. What is clearest of all is that the Union in which Scots were invited to vote to remain in 2014—to “lead not leave”, as the slogan had it—has been changed utterly and is now unrecognisable. That, above all, is why we can, we must and we will have a referendum on Scotland’s future.
I will be brief. I thank the Minister and his team for the work they have done on this Bill, and I thank other right hon. and hon. Members for the contributions they have made to the Committee stage. The Democratic Unionist party supports this Bill. We believe that the Government are right to act at this time; that a very real issue needs to be addressed; and that Northern Ireland at the moment is without a fully functioning Government, because the consensus essential for power sharing to operate has broken down, and the reason for that is the protocol—that is acknowledged.
Even those parties that supported the protocol initially recognise that change is required. We have waited and we have been patient. The European Union has refused to change the negotiating mandate of Maroš Šefčovič, which means he is limited in his scope as to what can be negotiated. The solution that is required necessitates the EU changing its negotiating mandate. If it does, let us see where a negotiation—a meaningful negotiation—leads, but I am sceptical that the EU will change its mandate. In the absence of such a change, the Government are right to act, because their first priority is the integrity of the United Kingdom and ensuring that all parts of the United Kingdom can function properly, that the Acts of Union are respected and that article 6 and the rights that flow from it mean that Northern Ireland has the right to trade freely with the rest of the United Kingdom.
This Bill offers a framework to correct the difficulty that we face and to deal with the real problems that the protocol has created not just for business and consumers in Northern Ireland but by undermining the identity of the majority of people in Northern Ireland who want to remain part of the United Kingdom. We have heard a lot in this debate about majorities, but there is no evidence whatever that anything other than the greater number of people in Northern Ireland want to remain part of the United Kingdom. That is their settled will, and it should be respected. The protocol does not respect it, and that is why change is required. This Bill offers the opportunity to deliver that change, and we support it.
In closing, I say this to the Members of the House of Lords, who will consider the Bill in due course. They may be tempted to make radical changes to it, but they need to understand that the choice is not merely one of determining whether the Bill is a good thing or not. The Bill is essential to protect the Belfast or Good Friday agreement, to protect political stability in Northern Ireland, to restore the political institutions in Northern Ireland and to restore the consensus that is at the heart of power sharing. That is the choice, and if they should try to wreck the Bill, they need to understand that, in so doing, they will also destroy the consensus—the basis, the foundations—for the Belfast agreement. That will fall to them. Without that consensus the agreement does not work; that is what we are talking about here—that is the choice for those in the other place. Do they want to protect the Belfast or Good Friday agreement and restore stability in Northern Ireland and the consensus that is required for the agreement to operate, or do they not? I put that choice to them, and I hope they will be wise in the decisions they have to make.
I promise to be brief, because we have heard a lot over the last number of days and we have heard a lot repeated as well. The Bill clearly and blatantly breaks international law. It breaks an agreement that the Government made with the European Union and that was trumpeted to the electorate as a fantastic deal. I think the Bill will end up going the same way as the Prime Minister.
I will not. Sit down!
This Bill is a sop to the DUP and a campaigning tool for the Foreign Secretary in the Conservative party leadership election. If it is driven through, the only likely outcome is a trade dispute with the European Union. Well, good luck to the next Prime Minister if they want to go into the general election with prices going even higher than they already are.
I have heard a lot from some interesting people about the Good Friday agreement. I have always supported the Good Friday agreement, and I am delighted that so many people support it now. However, there is a nonsense at the heart of the argument that the Good Friday agreement is based on consensus. It is not; that is not possible. I sat in the Northern Ireland Assembly for almost nine years, and there was very little consensus in that place. Things got gone and things got voted on, but majorities made decisions.
The reality for all those people who say they care about the people of Northern Ireland is that the people of Northern Ireland do not want this Bill. Their elected representatives do not want this Bill. The representatives of the business groups we have been told so much about do not want this Bill. Anybody with any sense knows that this is a blatant breaking of international law.
We have also heard an awful lot about the Union. I think that some people in this place, who have talked a lot about the Union but have acted in a certain way around this Brexit farce since 2016, will come to regret it. There will be statues erected in the new Ireland to Boris Johnson and some of the Members of the DUP, because that is the road that they have taken us down. I fully respect—by the way—the principle of consent, and it was my predecessor who made sure that it was in the Good Friday agreement. The constitutional position of Northern Ireland, whatever anybody says and however much I want to change it, cannot be changed until the people of Northern Ireland and the people of the Republic of Ireland vote to change it. To say anything else is just not true.
I wish to end my remarks with an ask of the DUP. We have been told over the past number of months that the Northern Ireland Assembly cannot meet unless this piece of legislation goes through. Well, this piece of legislation is just about to go through the House of Commons. Will the DUP now take the opportunity to go back into Stormont to live up to their responsibilities as democratically elected leaders in Northern Ireland and do the job that people are crying out for them to do? If they do not do so, the SDLP will put a recall motion into the Northern Ireland Assembly tonight, asking them to come back in to nominate a Speaker and to nominate a Deputy First Minister, who I hope will be Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson.
Despite all the talk about the Good Friday agreement, we have to get back to working together, to working the common ground, to dealing with the issues in our health service, in our economy and in all those issues that people say they care about. We will not be able to do that if we stay out of Government for months upon months upon months, because that is how long it will take for this Bill to get Royal Assent. That is my appeal to the DUP.
I make this appeal to the Government: there is no option to unilaterally rip up an agreement. The only way that we can do these sensitive, difficult things is to sit down with our partners and negotiate. I met Lord Frost many, many times when he was in that position. I did not get the sense that he was a man determined to find accommodation and compromise. Whatever things may look like in September, I appeal to the Government to sit down with the European Union and stop using Northern Ireland as a political football.
There is a problem with the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol and it needs to be sorted out, but this Bill is not the way to do it. Indeed, it will end up making matters worse, because it has damaged trust—the very thing that is required to solve the problem. That is why I will not be voting for the Bill tonight.
You will be glad to know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I will also keep my remarks very brief.
Tonight, we have reached a milestone and we can say that we are off to a good start in this place. I am pleased that the amendments designed to wreck this Bill have been defeated, safe in knowledge that they were more about grandstanding than actually helping the businesses and constituents who, day in, day out, are affected by the protocol.
The Bill, as it is, certainly does have the potential to restore devolution in Northern Ireland and preserve the constitutional balance. Although the SDLP Members have consistently called for the re-establishment of the Executive, they fail to recognise why that Executive are not sitting—it is the fact that not one Unionist party in Northern Ireland supports the protocol. We are actually elected on that mandate. The SDLP forget and ignore our mandate, which is to ensure that our constitutional place within the United Kingdom is restored and the economic impediments to trade are scrapped.
Throughout the course of the debate, it was and is very clear that there is no alternative to the Bill. This Bill is the only solution, after everything else has been tried, to help restore devolution.
Let us now address the EU and the pipe dream of further negotiations. It is fact that negotiations have been tried and have failed. It is abundantly clear, as per the reports today in The Daily Telegraph, that the EU is not in a position to renegotiate a satisfactory outcome. We only have to look at the fact that it is continuing to pursue legal action against the UK for grace periods that virtually everyone in Northern Ireland supports as essential.
As the EU continues to demonstrate a complete indifference to the real challenges in Northern Ireland, it is naive to believe that there is a negotiated solution that comes close to delivering the objectives of this Bill. A new Prime Minister is not going to change the EU’s fundamentally belligerent approach, which in truth is less about protecting the single market and more about punishing the UK and warning other countries not to consider leaving.
Today is an important staging post, but we know there is a long road ahead. I have no doubt that the other place will try to thwart the will of this House—those actually elected to legislate on these matters—but I warn those in the other place that, if they wish to see devolution restored, they will leave well alone.
The Social Democratic and Labour party and the Alliance party parrot the narrative of others who will not even come and sit in this House. They were slow to realise the damage the protocol was doing in Northern Ireland. They eventually caught up and sought mitigations, but they still bury their heads in the sand regarding the consent of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland to the protocol. It is all smoke and mirrors to deflect from the folly of their own position.
The UK as a whole voted on the same ballot that the whole UK should leave, and leave on the same terms. It does not matter who the leader of the Conservative party is; it only matters that they repair the damage that has been done in the form of the protocol and are not bullied by the EU.
The hon. Lady makes an important point about the leadership of the Conservative party. As one of many on the Conservative side of the House who pushed for this Bill, I think it is important that the House understand that the two candidates who go forward for the leadership have also given strong undertakings on the importance of Northern Ireland within the UK and the importance of the protocol. I hope she can take that as reassurance.
I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Member. We welcome those comments, but we hope and trust that the incoming Prime Minister will not be bullied by the EU, but will bring Northern Ireland with them, restore its place in the UK’s internal market and allow it to trade on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom.
A number of assertions have been made during the course of this debate about the breaking of the international rule of law and the rest of it. Has the hon. Lady heard of the House of Commons Library paper that clearly indicates that de Valera himself broke the Anglo-Irish treaty in 1938? Not only that, but A. J. P. Taylor, in his extremely erudite book, also says that the treaty was ripped up by de Valera in 1938.
I thank the hon. Member for that wonderful point. I genuinely thank every hon. Member who has put their trust in this Bill and supported it; Robin Millar has been a real friend to Northern Ireland. We will be supporting the Bill tonight.
Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time.