With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Clause stand part.
This amendment changes the threshold for giving a Minister power to make regulations under this Clause. The threshold is amended to make it objective rather than subjective.
Clause 14 stand part.
Amendment 12, in clause 18, page 10, line 9, leave out subsection (1).
This amendment would remove the Minister’s power to engage in any conduct in relation to any matter dealt with in the Northern Ireland Protocol, not otherwise authorised by this Act, if the Minister considers it appropriate to do so.
Amendment 42, page 10, line 11, leave out
“the Minister of the Crown considers it appropriate” and insert “it is necessary”.
This amendment changes the threshold for giving a Minister power to make regulations under this Clause. The threshold is amended to make it objective rather than subjective.
Amendment 48, page 10, line 12, after “this Act” insert
“and a motion approving the conduct has been passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly.”
This amendment would subject the exercise of the Minister’s power to engage in conduct in relation to any matter dealt with in the Northern Ireland Protocol that is not otherwise authorised by the Act to a motion approving the conduct in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Amendment 49, page 10, line 15, at end insert—
“(3) Each Minister of the Crown must have due regard for the principle that the Belfast Agreement, including its subsequent implementation agreements and arrangements, should be protected in all its parts.”
This amendment is based on the fourth point in the Preamble to Northern Ireland Protocol.
Clause 18 stand part.
Amendment 46, in clause 20, page 10, line 32, at end insert—
“But this section may not be brought into force unless it has previously been approved by a resolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly.”
This amendment would prevent the Bill’s proposed departure from the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol, or from any related provision of the EU withdrawal agreement, in respect of the previously agreed role of the European Court (CJEU) unless clause 20 had first been approved by the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Amendment 13, page 10, line 37, leave out subsection (2)(b).
This amendment would remove the prohibition on a court or tribunal referring any matter to the European Court, where the matter relates to the Northern Ireland Protocol or any related provision of the EU Withdrawal Agreement, or domestic law relating to the Northern Ireland Protocol or any related provision of the EU Withdrawal Agreement, given that subsection (4) would give ministers the power to make regulations regarding references on a question of interpretation of EU law to be made by Courts and Tribunals.
Amendment 43, page 10, line 38, leave out “the Minister considers appropriate” and insert “is necessary”.
This amendment changes the threshold for giving a Minister power to make regulations under this Clause. The threshold is amended to make it objective rather than subjective.
Clause 20 stand part.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair today, Dame Eleanor, as we enter the third day of Committee on the Bill. As we do so, it is evident that instead of working to fix the genuine challenges that the protocol poses, the Government continue to push forward with a Bill that disregards the UK’s international legal obligations and threatens to throw Britain’s global reputation into disrepute, and which also—we shall discuss this today—gives them sweeping powers without restriction. Tearing up binding agreements, threatening to break international law and walking away from the table are not the composites of a good negotiating strategy; they are the hallmarks of a zombie Government, out of steam—a Government who have constantly put their own party squabbles and obsessions before the interests of the people of the UK, and indeed the people of Northern Ireland.
Tragically, they also risk dividing the UK and the European Union when we should be standing shoulder to shoulder in opposing Putin’s barbaric war in Ukraine, and in finding ways to make Brexit work in a spirit of trust and co-operation. This is not how a responsible Government should behave, and many Members across the House know that. What we need is cool heads, statesmanlike behaviour and a search for long-term solutions.
On the Opposition Benches, we feel that the Bill is counterproductive, but that solutions are there if the Government are prepared to seek them. That requires compromise, hard work, and flexibility on all sides, including of course the EU, not knee-jerk reactions. I have listened to the very many genuine concerns that have been voiced about the functioning of the protocol. I have the pleasure of being a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly in addition to my shadow Front Bench role. I have listened to businesses. I have been in Dublin and Belfast. I have listened to people on all sides and have heard genuine concerns, including from those in the Unionist community.
For months, Labour has called on the Government to do the responsible thing—get back around the table to do what we have always done, and what any Government worth its salt would do, which is to negotiate, in the interests of finding workable, practical and technocratic solutions that command the consent and support of all communities in Northern Ireland, and have the means to bring back power sharing in a meaningful and lasting way. In that spirit, we have offered amendments to the Bill today in good faith, to begin to correct the issues that are manifest across this legislation—starting today with the Henry VIII clauses that we have heard about, and which the amendment that we have tabled in this group address.
As the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy, set out during Second Reading, 15 of the 26 clauses included in the Bill confer powers directly on UK Ministers. Those include the power to use secondary legislation to amend or modify Acts of Parliament—Acts that have been subject to the full scrutiny of this House. As the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law sets out, the Henry VIII powers given to Ministers in the Bill
“are numerous, extensive and subject to very low hurdles before those powers may be exercised.”
Indeed, Professor Catherine Barnard of Cambridge University has called these powers “eye wateringly broad”. The Hansard Society, deeply respected on both sides of the House, describes them as “breath-taking”. And we should not just take their word for it. The Chair of the Justice Select Committee, Sir Robert Neill, last week put it perfectly when he said,
He went on to describe the Henry VIII powers as
“almost Shakespearean or Wagnerian in their scope and breadth.”—[Official Report,
Awarding Ministers these enormous powers is not a strategy, and the people of Northern Ireland will see it for what it is—a blatant power grab.
The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst identified one of the key problems with these powers when he explained that the test that Ministers must meet before using these powers is “extraordinarily low”. I agree. As the Bill currently stands, in many cases Ministers may use these powers merely if they consider it “appropriate” to do so. That is simply not good enough. Not only is that a woefully low threshold, but it lacks any kind of objectivity. We cannot have a situation where Ministers can make sweeping changes that are not necessarily in the interests of all communities of Northern Ireland, and without proper scrutiny and process; and those of us on the Opposition Benches are extremely concerned about what Ministers may deem appropriate in the future.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. I have just one point to add. Does he agree that there is a certain irony in the fact that probably large numbers of the 52% who voted for Brexit voted to strengthen, solidify and consolidate parliamentary sovereignty, but these Henry VIII powers are strengthening the hand of Government and weakening the hand of Parliament? Does not that seem to run directly counter to what many people who voted for Brexit were voting for?
Further to that point, I do not understand why the official Opposition don’t get it. There is a democratic deficit as a result of the Northern Ireland protocol. The hon. Member bemoans the fact that Parliament might lose some powers to the Government, but in Northern Ireland we today are faced with the imposition of regulations—hundreds and hundreds of them—over which neither Parliament nor the Government have any say, nor the Northern Ireland Assembly or Executive, yet I hear nothing from the Opposition Benches about that democratic deficit. At least the Government are attempting to address it. What do the official Opposition intend to do about it?
I always listen with great respect to the right hon. Gentleman. He talks about a democratic deficit. The Government, of course, negotiated the protocol. He has been consistent in his criticisms of it. The Government knew that when they negotiated it. They knew there were issues that needed to be addressed. It seems to me very odd that the Government are proposing to take a huge amount of powers that would have no scrutiny in this place and no scrutiny in Northern Ireland.
We hear a lot about the egregious use of powers and regulations being imposed, but we hear very little about what specific powers people do not want to have. I think they are about the volume of lawnmowers and other such crucial things. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is more damaging to democracy to withhold the Northern Ireland Assembly, in which elected Members are supposed to address wider issues around health, education, the economy and everyday issues for Northern Ireland? The Assembly being withheld creates a far wider democratic deficit.
Indeed. The point I have made is that the powers the Government are taking remove responsibilities from the Northern Ireland Assembly. We want all communities to have a say on matters that affect them going forward. I am sure we will come on to a number of those amendments in due course.
In the same vein, we would support amendment 12, which relates to clause 18, tabled in the name of my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn, were he to press it to a Division. As the Hansard Society points out, clause 18 would give Ministers the power to “engage in conduct” relevant to the Northern Ireland protocol if they consider it—again this word—“appropriate” in connection with one or more of the purposes of the Bill. However, the Bill provides no elaboration on what type of activities that “conduct” could involve. Nor have the Government given a justification for why the additional power is needed. Indeed, the former head of the Government Legal Service, Sir Jonathan Jones QC, someone who has said a lot about the legality of the Bill, described this as a
“do whatever you like power”.
Given that the Government can provide no assurances on what types of “conduct” the power will be restricted to and that we have no justification for why it is even needed, this is not something we can support. That is why we support amendment 12, tabled by my right hon. Friend. The Government are in no position to expand their powers to such a degree, particularly in areas so sensitive. Not only are they a gross overreach of power, but they are also disrespectful to the constitutional role of this House.
I turn to some of the amendments that have been tabled. Labour has been clear, since the Bill was first introduced, that the way to solve the problems before us is to negotiate, and to do so in good faith. We recognise that the operation of the protocol has created genuine tensions that need to be addressed, but that is best done by all sides listening to each other and acting in good faith, and with the Belfast/Good Friday agreement at the heart of those discussions. I contend that the Bill simply does not do that. It is not an act of good faith for Westminster to unilaterally impose a solution, not least across Northern Ireland, and nor, tragically, will the solution proposed achieve its ultimate objectives. Only an agreement which delivers for the people and businesses of Northern Ireland, and respects the wishes of those on all sides and all communities, will provide a long-term and sustainable solution to this problem. That is why we support amendment 49, which references the fourth point in the protocol and the importance of protecting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its parts, if it were to be pressed to a Division. Unilateralism is not the way forward on matters of such sensitivity.
I do not want to detain the Committee further at this stage. We have many amendments to get through today. To conclude, Labour’s amendments will prevent handing the Government overreaching powers that they are simply not fit to hold. Our amendments will protect the much-valued scrutinising and functioning of this House, and give a voice in this hugely delicate and important process to the people of Northern Ireland.
Allow me, Dame Eleanor, for I think the penultimate time, to thank hon. Members who have spoken in Committee. I would like to turn to the clauses under discussion in this debate. With the leave of the Committee, I will deal with some of the amendments very briefly.
Clause 13 outlines the exclusions that seek to redress the feeling that there is a democratic deficit created by the arrangements for the implementation and enforcement of the protocol. The present role of the Court of Justice of the European Union clearly causes Unionists to feel less connected to, and part of, the United Kingdom. That was reflected in the September 2021 joint statement by all Unionist parties on the protocol. Clause 13 provides that any provision of the protocol that confers jurisdiction on the CJEU over arrangements in Northern Ireland is excluded provision. That means that CJEU decisions, including infractions, will no longer have effect in domestic law across the entire protocol.
I confirm to the Committee that the Bill does not disapply the withdrawal agreement’s arbitration process, which would be convened at the international level in the event of a dispute. It simply affirms that the arbitration provisions in the withdrawal agreement do not have effect in our domestic law, and that is normal for international treaties. It then helps to restore the UK Government’s sole oversight of arrangements on the ground in Northern Ireland, providing that the provisions relating to the powers and presence of EU representatives are excluded. Finally, via subsections (4) and (5), clause 13 allows for the establishment of new arrangements for co-operation with EU authorities to monitor the trade boundary regime, and enables us to implement robust data sharing on the operation of the trusted trader scheme and on all goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That will support assurance processes to uphold our commitment to protect both the UK internal market and the EU’s single market.
Clause 14 supports the coherent functioning of the Bill by fully insulating any excluded provision from being brought back into our domestic law as a result of obligations arising from other provisions of the protocol and withdrawal agreement. If needs be, regulations under subsection (4) can be used to make appropriate provision in connection with any provision of the protocol or withdrawal agreement to which this clause relates. The clause provides important clarity on the interaction between excluded provision and any wider provisions in the protocol or withdrawal agreement related to it.
Clause 18 provides a power for a Minister to engage in non-legislative conduct where they consider it appropriate in connection with one or more of the purposes in the Bill. The clause also clarifies the relationship between powers to make secondary legislation under the Bill and those arising by virtue of the royal prerogative. The clause will ensure that actions not requiring legislation, such as issuing guidance to industry or providing direction to officials, can be taken in a timely manner by a Minister of the Crown. It is not, as I think has been misconstrued in some quarters, an extraordinary power. It simply makes clear, as would normally be taken for granted, that Ministers will be acting lawfully when they go about their ministerial duties in support of this legislation.
Clause 20 allows for the proper functioning of domestic court proceedings following the removal of the domestic effect of CJEU jurisdiction. That means that domestic courts would no longer be bound by CJEU principles or decisions when considering matters relating to the protocol. The clause provides a power to make related new provision. Regulations made under the power could, for example, provide for a procedure to refer questions of interpretation of EU law to the CJEU if a domestic court considered it necessary to conclude its proceedings.
Clause 20 is important to the functioning of the Bill to allow domestic courts to consider proceedings relating to the protocol without being subject to CJEU jurisdiction, in line with the general principles of the Bill.
I now move on to the amendments in order. Some, with the leave of the House, I can deal with very briefly. Amendments 38, 39, 42 and 43, in the name of Mr Lammy and Stephen Doughty, would, as has previously been explained regarding similar amendments, in our view wrongly apply a necessity test for the use of such powers. Parliament has previously determined, for example in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, that “appropriateness” is the appropriate word. That is my response to that series of amendments.
Amendment 12 in the name of Hilary Benn would remove the power for Ministers to engage in conduct in relation to the protocol which is normally within the Executive’s competence but not otherwise authorised by the Bill. As I explained a short while ago, this provision simply makes it clear that, as would normally be taken for granted, Ministers of the Crown would be acting lawfully when they go about their ministerial duties—for example providing instruction to civil servants or guidance to industry—in support of this legislation. It is not an extraordinary power, but rather it provides certainty that the Government can implement our proposals. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.
Amendment 48 from Colum Eastwood would be unworkable. It would require the Assembly—which is of course not sitting, which is part of the whole essence of this Bill—to pass a prohibitive number of votes to enable swift implementation of the solutions delivered by the Bill, so I ask him to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 49 also from the hon. Gentleman would require Ministers to have due regard for the principle that the Belfast/Good Friday agreement should be protected in all its parts. The hon. Member states this amendment is based on the fourth point in the preamble to the protocol which sets out the United Kingdom and the European Union’s affirmation of their commitment to do just that. The Government’s overriding commitment—I emphasise this as strongly as I can—is to protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions. That commitment is absolute, but the balance within that agreement, and which was critical to its negotiation, must be maintained, and it is for that very reason that the Government have introduced this Bill. Although I welcome and endorse the sentiment underlying the amendment, it is, for the same reason, unnecessary, and I urge the hon. Member to withdraw it.
Amendment 46 from Stephen Farry would require the Assembly to approve clause 20. That is inappropriate under the devolution settlements because it would prevent the Bill from making important changes that go to the heart of the current democratic deficit. Does the hon. Gentleman wish me to give way now?
Yes, I am grateful to the Minister, and I assure him this is only a probing amendment and I will not be putting it to a vote. In terms of the Government’s position of removing the ultimate jurisdiction of the ECJ, do they recognise that in doing so they will in effect unpick Northern Ireland’s access to the single market for goods in that we would not be fully in line with the required EU law for that to take effect?
I do not accept that characterisation. This is very important to the whole community in Northern Ireland and it is very important that we have cross-community consensus in the working of these operations. I do not accept the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s point.
The right hon. Gentleman is certainly right about the dual regulatory regime, as the Committee discussed at some length yesterday; I agree with his contention.
Will the Minister please clarify? I am struggling to understand. He repeatedly refers to the need for cross-community consent. Does he understand and has he noted the letter from a majority of MLAs—[Interruption.] Does he acknowledge that all MLAs representing others and representing nationalists reject this Bill in the strongest possible terms, and can he outline how these recommendations and powers have cross-community consent if they are rejected by two of the three traditions in Northern Ireland?
As I think the hon. Lady knows, this cannot be about majoritarianism, and by the way I note a poll in December 2021 that indicated there was 78% agreement in Northern Ireland that the protocol needed to change. There is a requirement that there is cross-community consensus and—
Order. Claire Hanna knows she cannot shout like that while she is sitting down. If she wishes to intervene again she can try to intervene; I will not have this shouting.
Thank you, Dame Eleanor.
I simply reiterate to the hon. Lady and the whole Committee that our overriding priority is preserving peace and stability in Northern Ireland, and I make no apology for repeating that. The situation as it stands is undermining the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and it is undermining power-sharing, as proven by the very fact that we do not have an operating Northern Ireland Assembly—surely that is proof positive.
“the principle that the Belfast Agreement, including its subsequent implementation agreements and arrangements, should be protected in all its parts”, yet at the same time we are being told that a majority in the Assembly—which does not include one Unionist: a key principle of the Belfast agreement—should override any of the views being expressed by Unionists on these Benches today.
The right hon. Gentleman makes his point with his usual eloquence, and the citation he makes from the agreement is irrefutable; it is simply on the face of the document.
The hon. Gentleman is being mischievous in the best possible sense of that word; he is very familiar with the agreement and does not need me to cite the passages in question. I am sure all sides would agree that what is most important is the preservation of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement; that surely is irrefutable.
Amendment 13, tabled by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central, would bind domestic courts into the existing CJEU reference procedure without any choice as to what the new arrangements are. In the Government’s view, that would not resolve the current democratic deficit.
I have given the position of Her Majesty’s Government on the amendments; I hope I have outlined that in sufficient detail. I therefore recommend that these clauses all stand part of the Bill.
I am happy to follow the Minister. Reference has been made to the oversight of the European Court of Justice. Although our primary concern about the protocol is in respect of trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, we do have a concern about the role of the European Court of Justice in respect of oversight, where there is a dispute between the United Kingdom and the European Union on matters pertaining to the protocol. We believe it is unfair and unreasonable that the European Court of Justice should be the final arbiter on such matters.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that in no other trade agreement would one side be able to adjudicate on whether the terms were to be accepted? However, in this case, the EU, which has skin in the game, would be the final arbiter in any dispute. That is totally unfair, totally unwarranted and totally unprecedented.
Indeed, and that speaks to the issue that I raised about the democratic deficit. The Government are endeavouring, through the Bill, to correct the flaws that were evident in the protocol. Although some in the House will point out that the Government signed up to the protocol, I welcome the fact that the Government recognise that the protocol is not working, that it is harmful to Northern Ireland and that changes need to be made. That is very important.
We believe that the democratic deficit needs to be addressed. The European Union has so far shown an unwillingness to introduce proposals that would meet the United Kingdom’s concerns in that regard. We do not yet know whether there will be a change of heart, but in the absence of that, we are with the Government on this: we want a fair and reasonable system.
I repeat what I have said throughout the Committee: if we set aside the process of how we got here and examine the detail of the Government’s proposals as a framework to provide solutions to the problems, I believe that that framework is fair. It respects the integrity of the EU single market and its right to protect that market. However, for us, it also fundamentally recognises and respects the United Kingdom’s right to protect the integrity of and to regulate its internal market. The protocol prevents the Government from doing that for the whole United Kingdom. Northern Ireland is currently subject to regulations that are introduced by the EU in a manner over which we have no say.
Other Members have raised the fact that, at the moment, we do not have a fully functioning Assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland, yet I still do not see or hear an understanding from them of how that situation has arisen. It was with great reluctance that we took the decision to withdraw the First Minister back in February. It only happened after much delay; I stood on the green outside this building and was mocked by Colum Eastwood for not having followed through on the warning that I had given to withdraw the First Minister. He goaded us, saying that we had not followed through, and he sits on these Benches now and attacks us for taking the decision that we warned we would have to take if progress was not made towards addressing the issues related to the protocol.
I have also said, and reiterated during these debates, that as we make progress and as decisive action is taken by the Government in implementing this legislation, we will of course restore those political institutions, because we want them to work and function in the way that they were intended to. The hon. Members for Foyle and for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) seemed to suggest from a sedentary position that the concept of power sharing and consensus was not a fundamental principle of the Belfast agreement. I have to differ from them on that: I believe that power sharing is at the heart of the Belfast agreement and in the principle that, in a divided society such as Northern Ireland, we cannot have one side with all the power and others excluded from power. Therefore, the concept of power sharing was embraced by the political parties in Northern Ireland and has been the basis on which those political institutions have operated. However, if power sharing is to work, it requires cross-community consensus.
I hear this new language from the SDLP, in particular, and also the Alliance party, who constantly talk about a “majority” of this and a “majority” of that. When Unionists had the majority, however, we were told that majority rule was anathema to the Alliance party and the SDLP—that we could not have a Unionist majority governing in Northern Ireland and there had to be cross-community consensus. However, when Unionists have concerns and issues and say that the cross-community consensus does not exist, our concerns are almost dismissed. Lip service is paid to them but, at every opportunity, there is opposition to reasonable change that would address Unionists’ concerns.
I have not heard from the likes of the SDLP what the solution is, beyond saying, “Let’s have negotiations with the EU”. But negotiations have been tried—there have been 300 hours of negotiations. If the EU is prepared to come back to the table, change its negotiating mandate and act in good faith to get a solution that restores the cross-community consensus in Northern Ireland, bravo. But we see no inclination from the EU that it will do that.
So what do we do? Do we sit back, rub our hands, say, “It’s all too difficult” and wait for the day when, hopefully, the EU will come riding over the hill and rescue the political stability in Northern Ireland, rescue the Belfast agreement and rescue the concept of power sharing on the basis of a cross-community consensus? That has not happened, despite the EU’s bold claims that the protocol was designed to protect the Good Friday agreement and the political institutions. Those institutions are not functioning precisely because there is not a cross-community consensus in support of the protocol.
We need arrangements that reinstate and restore Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market, which respects the outcome of article 1 of the agreement—that Northern Ireland remains an integral part of the United Kingdom—as was recognised by the Irish Government and by the people of the Republic of Ireland, who voted in a referendum to change its constitution to recognise that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. I am afraid that the protocol has disrespected that constitutional settlement—that recognition that, for the time being, that is the settled will of the people of Northern Ireland. These issues are fundamentally important, and addressing the democratic deficit is important.
Despite what the right hon. Member has been saying, I am very grateful to him for giving way. I know that he is a new convert to supporting the Good Friday agreement; in fact, he left the talks before they were concluded and then opposed the Good Friday agreement from the outset. That is fine—that is his right—but I wonder whether he can explain what version of Brexit can get this mythical cross-community consensus. The word “consensus”, in that sense, is not in the Good Friday agreement.
I am not going to delve back into the history of Northern Ireland and leave the Committee bemused by an exchange on the Opposition Benches about the wherefores and merits of the Good Friday agreement in 1998. Yes, I did vote against the agreement in 1998, because I was opposed to what I regarded as deep flaws in it—not least its abject failure to address the needs of the innocent victims of the troubles, which were trampled over in the initial format of the agreement.
We are now trying to deal with the legacy not just of 30 years of violence, but of almost 25 years of an agreement that failed to address the issue in the first instance. I happen to believe that an important part of it that ought to have been dealt with in 1998 was not dealt with. I voted against the agreement on that basis, but, to be clear, at no stage did I ever oppose it on the basis that I opposed power sharing or that I believed that the only way forward was anything other than cross-community consensus. I have argued consistently as a Unionist that in a divided society, cross-community consensus has to be the way forward.
If I am a relatively recent convert to the agreement, my conversion—if it be that—was at St Andrews, when we got the changes that we needed so that its flaws could be addressed in a proper way. I would rather have experienced that than pedal in the opposite direction, saying, “We are moving towards majority rule. Those Unionists should get back in their corner; they may have their concerns, but we don’t want to hear about them.”
Yes, nationalist concerns need to be heard. I believe that the proposals that the Government have made address the concerns on both sides of the community. They address the need to protect the integrity of the European Union and the need to protect the integrity of the United Kingdom.
Do you know what? In 1998, when the referendum was held on the Good Friday agreement, I voted against it—but on the day the result was announced, I stood outside at Balmoral, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Belfast South, and declared that I accepted the result and would continue to work to change the agreement in a way that would benefit all the people of Northern Ireland. I would love to hear some day from SDLP Members that they finally accept the result of the largest democratic vote ever held in this United Kingdom, in which the people of this nation voted to leave the European Union. If they do not like what has happened, they should work to change the arrangements, as we are trying to do, rather than going back to 2016 and saying, “It’s all too difficult, it’s all terrible and therefore we can’t do anything about it.” The essence of democracy and the essence of good politics is that when you do not like something, you seek to change it.
Can my right hon. Friend understand why nationalists will not accept this Bill? I cannot, because first, it will ensure their primary consideration, which is that there be no border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic in terms of infrastructure. Secondly, it will address their concerns about the EU single market and ensure that their friends in the EU are protected, because goods going into the Republic will be examined as they come through Northern Ireland and companies in Northern Ireland will be required to abide by EU rules. Thirdly, courts in Northern Ireland will ensure through heavy sanctions that those who try to break the regulations will be punished. At the same time, the Bill will address Unionist concerns about the democratic deficit and ensure that goods can move freely into Northern Ireland from elsewhere in the UK and are not impeded in any way. Does my right hon. Friend agree that both sides can find something in the Bill?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I believe that if we examine the proposals that the Government are making, we can see that they are fair and balanced. Despite the criticism that some have made that my party supported Brexit, at no stage in the process have we argued for a hard border on the island of Ireland. That is because we recognise the sensitivities of nationalists—it is precisely because as Unionists we are alive to and aware of the sensitivities of nationalists about having infrastructure on the border. We have therefore sought to encourage a solution that respects and acknowledges their concerns, but it would be nice to have a bit of reciprocation from the nationalist side for a change, and a recognition of our concerns that a border in the Irish sea is offensive to us in the same way that a hard border on the island of Ireland is offensive to nationalists.
There are reasonable solutions that can ensure that we avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and that we avoid a border in the Irish sea for goods moving within the United Kingdom. That is what this Bill does. That is precisely the outcome that it seeks to achieve, and in that respect it is, I think, balanced and fair.
Can the right hon. Gentleman explain why, in the case of all the Bills that preceded Britain’s exit from the European Union, he repeatedly voted against all the SDLP’s amendments to design in consent for the people of Northern Ireland? Where was this regard for the delicacies of the Good Friday agreement then?
I am a democrat, and I accepted the outcome of the referendum. The British people had voted for Brexit, and I was not going to go along with the SDLP’s desire to hold the United Kingdom within the European Union and its proposals to keep us in the single market and the customs union, because I believed that that was contrary to what the British people had voted for. We therefore sought a solution.
At the time, in 2016, the former First Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster—Dame Arlene Foster—wrote to the then Prime Minister and to the Irish Prime Minister, the Taoiseach, making it clear that we needed a solution for Northern Ireland that took account of the distinct situation that pertained. We always recognised that arrangements in respect of Northern Ireland would take account of the sensitivities, but that should and must include the sensitivities and concerns of Unionists as well as nationalists. The solution provided for in the Bill, I believe, does that. It avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland, meeting the needs and the sensitivities of nationalists—of the constituents, in particular, of the hon. Member for Foyle: I acknowledge that many of them cross the border every day. I do not want impediments to be put in their way, but nor do I want impediments to be put in the way of my constituents, because trade with the rest of the United Kingdom is the lifeblood of their business, or of the consumers who live in my constituency, who simply want to buy British products from British companies in England, Scotland and Wales in the way that they have always enjoyed. For all those reasons, we will oppose the amendments. On balance, we believe that the Government’s proposed framework for the solutions that will flow in the form of regulations will protect Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom.
Let me say this to the Government. I said it yesterday, I repeat it now, and we will come to it again later today. I know that the Government are currently consulting on what schemes they want to introduce to give effect to the Bill. It is important that there is consultation with business and with the political parties, that we have an input, and that the regulations are published as soon as possible so that we can all see that they do not pose the threat that some suggest they do, but instead offer us the solution that we need.
It is a pleasure to follow Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson. I oppose all the amendments and I support all the clauses standing part of the Bill, and the reason I do so is that, as we have heard repeatedly in the Chamber over the past days, the Northern Ireland protocol is causing unacceptable disruption and friction to the UK’s internal market. So radical is the impact of the protocol that we have seen the astonishing court ruling that, in voting through the protocol, this Parliament has partly suspended article 6 of the Acts of Union, one of its foundational statutes.
The EU’s insistence that the protocol requires full compliance with its regime for food and goods, which is applied in a one-size-fits-all way to countries around the world with far lower standards than ours, is simply unreasonable. Northern Ireland’s chief veterinary officer has estimated that if the current grace periods were removed, the number of food certificates required in Northern Ireland could soon almost match the total number processed in the entire EU, so 50% of all food-related EU certificates would be issued in relation to trade between Britain and Northern Ireland. That is not just unreasonable; it is disproportionate, and arguably violates the fundamental international trade principle that border-related checks and controls need to be based on evidence and risk. The millions of checks being asked of us by the EU are in no way proportionate to the risk posed by GB food to the internal market of the European Union.
I noted the comments of the shadow Minister, Stephen Doughty, about what he perceived as some kind of democratic deficit in relation to the delegated legislation clauses, but I think the democratic deficit is far more serious, in that we are asking the people of Northern Ireland to live indefinitely under rules made in the European Union over which they and their elected representatives have no say whatsoever. That is not sustainable. I believe that the protocol arguably violates a core principle of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, because it has altered the status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom without the consent of its people, and the one-off majoritarian vote every few years provided for by the protocol is just not sufficient to signify consent or to deliver political stability under the Good Friday agreement.
There can be no doubt that the protocol is the root cause not only of the practical disruption but of the political instability we have witnessed in Northern Ireland over the last few months. We cannot ignore the fact that every single one of the recently elected Unionist Assembly Members is against the protocol, and we cannot stand by while Northern Ireland is deprived of its power sharing agreement.
I genuinely share the right hon. Lady’s concern that all the elected Unionist Members oppose the protocol. It is not a desirable situation, which is why I poured six years of my life into preventing it at the time. Will she also acknowledge that every single other Member of the Assembly is against this Bill? Could she also please outline what aspects of societal disruption she is referring to and which products are not available in Northern Ireland?
What I want to emphasise is that this Bill, once it is adopted, will deliver a system that will deal with the worst aspects of the friction and disruption that have been occurring. I also believe that it is important to build support for the Bill among all sides of the community in Northern Ireland. It is not in the interests of one side for other side to be alienated, as it is at present.
On the disruption being caused, the hon. Lady will be aware that it is partially mitigated at the moment by the grace periods that are in place. However, if we were to have the full panoply of EU rules on food, it would mean huge disruption to food being transferred between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and it is essential that that is dealt with.
As everyone here knows, I represent my constituency of Strangford, but I have had representations from people in the South Down and Belfast West constituencies—people with different political aspirations and different religious viewpoints—who have asked me to make sure that this Northern Ireland Protocol Bill goes through because it will advantage them as well. So it is wrong for some people in this Chamber to adopt the attitude that this is all to the advantage of Unionists. It is more than that; all the people of Northern Ireland will gain the advantage if this Bill goes through. The right hon. Lady knows that—[Interruption]—unlike this yapping person on my right-hand side.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The reason I am supporting this Bill is that I believe it is in the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland. On the disruption, whether it is related to food, to the movement of pets and assistance dogs or to the soil and trees for planting as part of the Queen’s green canopy for the jubilee, these are disruptions that need to be addressed. What also needs to be addressed is the fact that, for the moment, Northern Ireland is subjected to laws made in Europe that it does not influence. For all those reasons, we need this Bill.
We cannot stand by while Northern Ireland is deprived of its power sharing Government and its devolved institutions because of the intransigent attitude of the European Union. We have heard from the Opposition spokesman that we should give more time for negotiations, but after 18 months of fruitless negotiations, the UK Government are right to act to remedy the worst of the practical problems caused by the protocol. We simply cannot carry on as we are, with the EU refusing to consider changes to its negotiating mandate to allow constructive talks that might resolve this issue.
The Bill will deliver pragmatic changes. It does not rip up the protocol or violate international law. It is in line with the protocol’s provisions that acknowledge its potential replacement by alternative arrangements. The protocol itself also recognises the primacy of the Good Friday agreement.
The system envisaged by the Bill will continue to safeguard the integrity of the EU single market without requiring new infrastructure or checks on the north-south border. The creation of a “super green” channel should take a significant proportion of businesses and trade out of the protocol rules and compliance requirements. The Bill involves awkward compromises—I can accept that there will be some complexity with dual regulation, for example—but, let us face it, the same can be said of many laws, statutes and agreements that have been crucial in moving Northern Ireland forward and in safeguarding political stability in the 24 years since the Good Friday agreement. Of course, the door remains open to the European Union for a negotiated solution.
I close by commending the Foreign Secretary for introducing the Bill. I appreciate that it must have been immensely hard to get it through the machinery of government. No doubt the opposition in the other place will be ferocious, but I urge Ministers to stick with the Bill and to reject all the amendments before us today and those that will be tabled in their hundreds in their lordships’ House.
The stakes are high. It is not just the integrity and stability of our UK internal market that is at stake; it is the integrity and stability of our Union of four nations, the most successful political union in history. We jeopardise it at our peril and we must strive to ensure that Northern Ireland can continue to enjoy all the benefits that our Union offers.
Brexit undoubtably casts a heavy shadow over this debate. The point raised by the right hon. Members for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) and for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on the democratic deficit is fairly made, although almost all the laws under which Northern Ireland is currently operating apply in the United Kingdom because of retained EU law. We must not get this entirely out of perspective because the Government chose, at the moment of withdrawal, to take EU law, move it across and stick it into UK legislation.
Although the right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point about EU law being retained for the rest of the United Kingdom, the vital difference is that the 82 pages of EU law contained in the protocol can be changed. Those changes apply to Northern Ireland, which is where the democratic deficit comes in.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and I understand it entirely. I am talking about the situation as it is today. We should, therefore, be calm and reasonable in describing it.
Let us not forget that Northern Ireland is in a unique and favourable position compared with my constituents, precisely because it has access to both the market of the United Kingdom and the market of the European Union, which is why the polling indicates that businesses in Northern Ireland are very much in favour of having this privileged access, which other parts of the United Kingdom would greatly like.
The right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet correctly made a point about the grace period. I do not understand why the Government did not just continue negotiating within the grace period. [Interruption.] The Minister for the Cabinet Office raises his eyebrows, but we have now been in the grace period for 18 months. I believe there is a problem with the checks that needs to be sorted out, as I have said on the record many times. In my conversations with European colleagues, I have asked them to give me one example of how the integrity, safety and security of the single market has been compromised during the grace period. I have yet to receive an answer that a problem has actually arisen. The longer that goes on—perhaps that would have been the better approach for the Government—the more difficult it becomes for the EU to argue, “There is a fundamental difficulty here, which is why we need the whole panoply”. In the end, we are going to have to identify where the real risks are, and it is a relatively limited number of products. For the rest, particularly those goods that come to supermarkets and businesses in Northern Ireland that are not going anywhere else, a completely different solution could be required, although the Government are going to have a job on their hands to differentiate between the two.
I wish to speak in support of my amendment 12, which I hope might be voted on later, my amendment 13 and other amendments. I said last week that the Bill as a whole was egregious, but clause 18(1), to which amendment 12 refers, is particularly so, because it states:
“A Minister of the Crown may engage in conduct in relation to any matter dealt with in the Northern Ireland Protocol…if the Minister of the Crown considers it appropriate”.
Basically, that is asking the House to legislate to give Ministers a power to do whatever they feel like, provided, in their opinion, that they think it is appropriate. We should listen to what Sir Jonathan Jones, the former Treasury Solicitor has had to say. As my hon. Friend Stephen Doughty, who is on our Front Bench, mentioned, Sir Jonathan described this power as “extraordinary” and said it is a “do whatever you like” power, and no wonder. He also said in the article he wrote that the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, which led to his resignation, was bad enough, but this Bill is of a “wholly different order”. The Hansard Society has criticised the clause as not being subject to any parliamentary scrutiny whatsoever, a criticism also made by the House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which said:
“There is no definition of ‘conduct’ in the Bill itself. And there is nothing on the face of clause 18 that would prevent it from creating legally binding rules of general application.”
The Committee has previously criticised what it calls “disguised legislation,” by which it means
“instruments that are legislative in effect but often not subject to parliamentary oversight. Examples include guidance, determinations, arrangements, codes of practice and public notices. Clause 18 appears to allow all these things to be done, without any parliamentary procedure and in a way that is binding on the general public.”
So the question the Committee reasonably ask of the Minister is: what is this power and what do Ministers want it for? If I heard the Minister correctly, he said that the clause was there merely to ensure that Ministers acted lawfully. What is this “conduct”? I ask because “engage in conduct” is, as the very helpful House of Commons Library note says,
“an unusual form of words for a statutory power.”
If we turn to the Bill’s explanatory notes for some enlightenment, we see that they state that clause 18(1) authorises “sub-legislative activity”. I have been in the House for a few years and I have never come across the concept of “sub-legislative activity”, whatever that is. The only example given in the explanatory notes is guidance. If the Government’s aim is to have a power to issue guidance on matters that they have not thought of in the rest of the Bill or might think of at some point in the future, why does the clause not say, “The Minister will have the power to issue guidance”? It does not say that.
The other example the Minister gave left me even more perplexed. He said that this was to enable Ministers to issue instructions to civil servants. I was a Minister for nine years and I am not aware that I had to refer to a bit of legislation to give instructions to civil servants. I find the explanation wholly incredible, so it begs the question, and ought to beg the question for the Committee, whether one supports the principle of the Bill or not: what are the Government actually seeking to do? The Hansard Society, in its excellent note, makes it clear that that is not a narrow, obscure point. It is about ensuring that relevant legal provisions are drafted and treated consistently with other legislation. That is why the Hansard Society says:
“It also ensures that law-making does not circumvent the publication requirements that accompany, and the parliamentary scrutiny that is afforded to, primary and delegated legislation.”
In this case, the Government have given no explanation of why they believe that the powers are needed—apart from in relation to guidance and instructing civil servants, as we have just heard from the Minister—or why they believe that the powers are administrative rather than legislative. We need to hear from the Minister in his further contribution precisely what conduct is covered by cause 18(1). If he has a list of things in mind, will he please amend the Bill and put them in one by one so that we can see what they are? Secondly, will he give a categorical assurance that this provision will not permit legally binding obligations to be made as a result of that conduct? I raise that issue because the Government have not included clause 18(1) in the Bill’s delegated powers memorandum, which is quite a significant point.
The clause is also indicative of the Government’s wider ambitions for, and the problems they are having with, the Bill. What they really want to do—the Minister has been absolutely open about this, to his great credit—is give themselves the power to do whatever they want in relation to the protocol. They want to be able to turn things on, turn them off and even turn them back on again whenever they feel like it. The fundamental problem, which has become evident over the last two days in Committee, is that, in fairness, Ministers are not entirely clear how some of their proposals—for example, a red customs lane and a green customs lane, or the dual regulatory regime, which we discussed at some length yesterday—will work in practice.
To take the example of the dual regulatory regime, when pressed on whether firms would be required to choose whether to follow EU or UK rules, the Minister said yesterday:
“clause 7 makes it clear that businesses will have a choice which regulatory route to follow when supplying goods to the market in Northern Ireland.”
However, later he said that clause 11 would
“allow a Minister to prescribe a single regulatory route for specific sectors, including a UK-only route with no application of EU law”—[Official Report,
In other words, businesses will be absolutely free to choose which system they want to use, unless and until the Government tell them which one they must use.
There is a confusion and a contradiction here. Why would Ministers want to take such a power if they are confident that they have already worked out how a dual regulatory system will work? I do not think they are confident, because they do not know the answer. That is why so many of these Henry VIII powers are dotted throughout the Bill to give the Government the cover they require. For me that goes to the heart of why clause 18(1) is so objectionable and why it has been more widely criticised—apart from the Bill itself—than any other clause: the Government are trying to give themselves a sweeping power and a sweeping-up power. That is why this provision should be removed.
Let me turn briefly to my amendment 13. To be frank, I tabled it as a probing amendment because I was trying to understand the Government’s intention in allowing courts or tribunals in the UK to refer matters to the European Court. There is a bit of a contradiction between clause 20(2), which would prevent any UK court from referring a matter to the European Court, and clause 20(4), which would allow the Government to lay down in regulations a procedure under which courts could refer matters of interpretation of EU law to the European Court. To put it simply, if the Government are planning regulations to allow referrals—if they are not planning that, why does subsection (4) exist—why take a blanket power two subsections earlier to prevent any referrals whatever. The thinking does not seem clear.
Finally, given what I have said about the inappropriate use of the word “appropriate” in the Bill, I support the Opposition amendments, including new clauses 11 and 12, which would change the word “appropriate” to “necessary”. It seems to me that that would provide a better and a higher test for the exercise of ministerial discretion rather than the wide latitude allowed for in the Bill, which has rightly led to so much criticism from so many quarters.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, as we discuss the Bill this afternoon.
I wish to say at the outset that I am speaking very much in support of the Government’s position on the Bill. It seems to me that we are dealing with a very complex, sensitive and fluid situation. I recognise that we have heard from everybody, from the former Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, right through to business organisations on the ground, all of whom recognise that there is no clear right or wrong to this situation at the moment, that we need to take forward this debate in a constructive way, and that we need to reach solutions that continue to support stability and the economic development of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.
My attention was particularly drawn i to amendment 51, because of the points that it illustrates about referring disputed matters to the UK-EU Joint Committee, which is envisaged as part of the withdrawal agreement. That highlights that there remains a number of avenues still to explore, and it is with a sense of optimism that I look at those avenues. It is clear that the political situation that we face today, with the departure of one Prime Minister and a new Prime Minister to be elected, creates an opportunity for a reset in the relationships and the negotiations that are taking place with the European Union on this issue. It was clear from the Dispatch Box when we first debated the Bill that it remained the Government’s preferred outcome that negotiations would result in changes that would address fully the issues of concern to all communities across Northern Ireland and, indeed, to those in my own constituency, whose businesses are involved in trade with the UK single market and the European single market. They are watching closely at what the outcomes of this will be because of the implications for other parts of our international trade in future.
The success that we have seen in Northern Ireland—in particular its ability to attract inward investment to drive that economic growth, to be the other region of the United Kingdom, outside of London, that is really bouncing back strongly—demonstrates the strength that there is in that economy and that community, and that it deserves the support and attention of this House to a greater degree perhaps than it has enjoyed in the past. The reality is that the protocol that we are discussing today is clearly our Prime Minister’s protocol, and we now have an opportunity to revisit those negotiations and find a new way forward.
I wish to address the point that was made strongly by Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson in his eloquent contribution around the issue of a democratic deficit. There was one thing that piqued my attention. I have served as a member of the Committee of the Regions, alongside cross-party members from Northern Ireland, such as Jonathan Bell, Arnold Hatch, Stewart Dickson—all of whom were part of a process that was set up, as an EU member state, whereby the elected politicians from different parts of the European Union undertook a supervisory and oversight role on the operations of the European Union and the single market.
I spent a good part of my life in the Centre Borschette in Brussels—the conference centre in which the European Union undertook its negotiations and discussions about the development of the single market. I was there to talk about education. I was sharing that building with people who were there to deal with anything from veterinary products, to agriculture and to any other conceivable economic area of interest. It is clear that, now that we have left the European Union, we need to make sure that we are putting in place an equivalent degree of oversight so that everybody involved in the community has the opportunity to play an appropriate part in the development of these markets. It is clear from the eloquent contributions that we have heard from a number of Members on the Benches opposite that there remains a very live concern in Northern Ireland about whether the arrangements currently in place allow for that to happen.
Even with the results of the recent election, where I recognise that the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted for parties that were in favour of the protocol, it is clear that the essence of the peace and stability that supports that economic development is that everybody has the opportunity to be part of that discussion. We know that that has not always been done as fully as it should have been in the past, and as we debate the Bill in this Committee we have the opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to ensuring that that does happen in future.
It is also important to recognise, when we look at the important progress that Northern Ireland is making in its economic development and in bouncing back from the covid pandemic, that the European Union is making a reasonable point about the need to ensure that we carry out the relevant checks on goods and products that are traded in and out of that single market—a point that we have an equivalence for in our own United Kingdom single market. There is a lot of history to that. The United Kingdom has historically been notorious, as a member of the single market, for not carrying out the checks on goods and services that we were committed to carrying out as part of that single market.
Indeed, the United Kingdom was significantly fined for having failed to carry out those checks. I know that there are businesses in my constituency trading in goods and services that have seen their ability to do so undercut when the integrity of that single market has been damaged by our failure to carry out those checks. That failure means that we have, for example, counterfeit car parts being brought into the United Kingdom and traded—not only putting people’s lives and wellbeing at risk, but damaging the economic prospects of those businesses.
As we take those negotiations forward in a constructive spirit, while we are rightly determined to protect the integrity of the UK, it is absolutely right that we also recognise that the United Kingdom has not always been as good at this as we should have been. The constructive partnership with the European Union means that we must recognise that and show our commitment to ensuring that those checks and standards will be carried out in future in a way that we have not always done in the past. It may well be that the joint committee referred to in amendment 51 will play some role in ensuring that, as negotiations progress and those matters are taken to a lower level, there will be an opportunity to drive forward to reach agreements.
I will finish where I started. The opportunity of a change of leadership is that it creates some scope for a reset in the relationship that has been clearly described at the Dispatch Box as the Government’s preferred route for achieving a better outcome. I entirely support the Government in that objective. We have already heard intimations from some of our partners across the European Union that, regardless of what they think about the merits of any individual, that reset is the chance for a fresh start.
I hope the outcome will be that we reach that negotiation without any of the powers that have been referred to at the Dispatch Box and that are causing concern ever having to come into play, exactly as we saw with the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020. The priority for this Committee, for Members and for my constituents whose trading interests are strongly affected by this Bill is that we ensure that we respect the complexity of the politics of Northern Ireland, to which we have often paid far too little attention in this House. We must support all our colleagues in achieving a deal that they can live with, one that will continue to support the stability and economic development of both the Republic of Ireland, our ally, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.
This afternoon’s amendments focus on the disapplication of the protocol and the extravagant powers that the Government hope to grant themselves. Our amendments, consistent with our amendments tabled on other days—I think we are on day 712 of this Bill—seek to balance and, where necessary, curtail those powers, to ensure that Ministers have due regard for the views and the needs of all the people in Northern Ireland and their elected representatives.
Through amendment 49, we also propose to formalise the safeguarding of the Good Friday agreement. It is referenced just once in this Bill, where I believe it is being used as an amulet to defend against repudiation of an international treaty. We are told repeatedly, although it does not reflect the understanding of the agreement that many of us have, that this Bill is about protection of the Good Friday agreement, so it is difficult to see why codifying that is being so forcefully rejected. As a lifelong and committed follower of John Hume, I am always very pleased when his ideas get a new airing and a new audience. However, it is frustrating when the concepts and ideas he spent his life developing and persuading Northern Ireland to adopt—many people took a lot longer than others to finally adopt those views, while we all seemed to happily operate in this framework—are misrepresented and distorted, as they have been at some stages of this debate. John Hume argued and finally persuaded, through the Good Friday agreement, which has enormous consent in Northern Ireland and is sovereign in Northern Ireland, that consent should rest on the will of the majority of people in Northern Ireland. Crucially, he framed that within the architecture and the institutions of the three-stranded approach in the agreement, which explicitly saw Ireland’s and the UK’s joint membership of the EU as underpinning that, and underpinning the relationships east-west and north-south, regardless of Northern Ireland’s constitutional settlement.
There is, though, a clear distinction between the principle of consent, which relates to the ultimate question of Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom, or constitutional change affecting our place in the United Kingdom, and the principle of consensus, which applies to the operation of the political institutions. My point throughout this debate has not focused primarily on the principle of consent, although that is important, but relates to power-sharing on the principle of consensus. Without Unionist support, there is not a consensus, and that is simply the reality.
I am glad the hon. Member brought up that point, because I am sure that all the Members in the Chamber have read the Good Friday agreement and will know that in the original 1998 document, the only—only—aspect that required parallel consent, other than the potential petitioning of motions, was the joint nomination of the First Ministers. Would Members like to hazard a guess as to which party disapplied that one use of parallel consent in the Good Friday agreement? It was the DUP, at St Andrews, that ruled it out. The principle of consent, as codified very clearly in the Good Friday agreement and in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, is about the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and about the consent of the majority of the people. Those are the facts, and, as people are disappearing up their own contradictions to try to justify support for this damaging Bill, those remain the facts.
I am afraid that I must disagree with the hon. Lady. Parallel consent does not apply on only one issue. In strand 1 of the agreement, the requirement for cross-community consensus applies to matters that are controversial, so the idea that consensus applies only on the constitutional issue is simply not true. The power-sharing institutions operate on the basis of consensus. If cross-community consensus was not required for power-sharing, then why on earth have we no power-sharing Executive fully functioning today in the absence of Unionist support? The facts speak for themselves: Unionists absent, no consensus, no power-sharing. For the hon. Lady to try to suggest that consensus is not required for power-sharing frankly leaves me bemused, because it is at the heart of the Belfast agreement.
This is the problem we had in the stop-start 25 years of devolution: an obsession with and an addiction to veto by the DUP, and others. Some of these points would have more coherence and would be less hypocritical if that party had not correctly—correctly—bemoaned Sinn Féin holding the institutions to ransom, which was undemocratic when it did it between 2017 and 2020. The Member was not slow in pointing that out, rightly, and his words now would have a little bit more credibility if that had not been the case. There is a difference between consent and consensus. Again, it would be a little bit more credible if he was not repeatedly ignoring the fact that a democratic majority of people in Northern Ireland oppose Brexit, particularly the hard form of Brexit that is being applied without any form of consent. I say respectfully that his words do not have credibility on this. In fact, Hume developed the notions of complementary consent, north and south, for any agreement produced by negotiations for future constitutional change in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday agreement was mandated on that basis, and while I appreciate—I was a teenager at the time, so I do not recall the press conference—that the right hon. Member said on that day that he accepted the result of the referendum, it is a matter of record that his party spent many years doing everything they could to thwart its implementation.
This debate is not about history, but at the time I was actually a member of the Ulster Unionist party, not the Democratic Unionist party—a small fact. As a member of the Ulster Unionist party at the time, even though I voted against the agreement, I said I accepted the democratic outcome. Subsequently, when I joined the Democratic Unionist party, I worked with my party to bring about the change required democratically to ensure that the flaws in the agreement were addressed. I am simply saying to the hon. Lady that that is what we are engaged in now in respect of the protocol. Let us get the change that works for everyone in Northern Ireland, rebuilds the consensus on a cross-community basis and gets us back to doing what we need to do for Northern Ireland.
I desperately hope with every fibre of my being that the position the right hon. Gentleman sets out in his final words is the one we reach at the end of this process. The people of Northern Ireland want more than anything in this world to not hear this situation being played out aggressively in a toxic fashion day after day, as it has for the last six years, but they do not believe it will happen unilaterally through this Bill. Anybody who legitimately and thoroughly supports the Good Friday agreement and the teachings of John Hume will know that this Bill is a world of logic, decency and reality away from what he outlined about consensus and power sharing.
We have tabled amendment 49 to give an opportunity to protect fully and truly the Good Friday agreement with negotiated solutions. That is where we want to get to. Members should be fair and current about the context in Northern Ireland, because people at home do not recognise the Mad Max scenario being portrayed of people unable to access goods and services in Northern Ireland—it is just not reflective of the reality. Once again I say, as I have probably done every time I have spoken on this issue, that I fully understand the hurt of many Unionists. I have also spoken about the constitutional identity of many of us. I am Irish and I am Northern Irish, and I do not pay my taxes to the same state that my passport comes from—I understand that those are compromises, and it is frustrating when the impression is given that such compromises are for non-Unionists, but Unionists should never have to compromise on their lines of governance.
In terms of the actual material effect on people’s identity, I quoted yesterday words from Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson that I agree with. He said clearly that customs checks do not alter the constitutional status of the UK, and I think he is correct, but it is also appropriate that people reflect on the reality of what is and is not happening with goods moving through, where there is not the full panoply of EU checks. The situation is evolving. We were not given the benefit of an implementation period—such was the rush from other parties to get Brexit done, they did not allow businesses a period in which to adapt—but as was always envisioned, the protocol is evolving and the EU has set out legally dropped checks that are available permanently for easement, so Members should be rational about that.
Members should also be rational about the impact of the European Court of Justice. If I understand it correctly, it applies to the sovereign parts of Cyprus in the absence of Brexit. Perhaps Ministers in their summing up could advise whether the constitutional status of those UK sovereign areas of Cyprus has changed due to the jurisdiction of the ECJ.
Consistent with those points, amendments 48 and 49 would try to apply the consensus and the trust of the Northern Ireland Assembly to some of the powers that will be exercised apparently for its benefit. That consent from the Assembly will better reflect the range of views across Northern Ireland’s diverse communities, as well as businesses, whose representative groups—Members and in particular Ministers should be honest about this—have all rejected this Bill and set out their grave reservations about it. It is important that those views be reflected, if only because Members have, shamefully, maligned some of those business representatives in the Chamber, and I do not believe that their accusations have been withdrawn.
When Ministers sum up, will they say whether they will table a report that gives qualitative and quantitative information on the feedback that the Government have received from businesses on the Bill? It is frustrating for many that little pieces of feedback are being appropriated by some, while the vast majority of feedback—the representative feedback—is being distorted. I ask the Government to commit to publishing a report on the feedback—anonymised, where appropriate—that they have received, so that we can ensure that the voices of the economic actors in Northern Ireland are heard without distortion or impediment.
It is wrong to imply, as some did in debate yesterday, that Northern Ireland exporters will have a choice on regulations and standards. In fact, customers will have that choice; that is how these things work. The UK proposes a dual-regulation system on an open border. That will require customers—mostly other businesses—to make judgments and assumptions about the validity and standards of Northern Ireland produce. The Bill creates that serious reputational risk to businesses. I must repeat that the Bill’s powers, to the extent that they can be quantified—there are a lot of unanswered questions—are unwanted by a majority of Members of the Legislative Assembly, and by all the business organisations. Our amendment will help to ensure that those powers are appropriately moderated by the Northern Ireland Assembly. I do not want to hear the all-purpose excuse, “The Assembly isn’t sitting.” We are told, as part of the two-step that is going on between the Government and the Democratic Unionist party, that once the Bill passes, the Government will give democratic governance to the people of Northern Ireland, so that should not be an impediment. I ask the Government to accept that.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. I want to make a few points about the European Court of Justice and my amendment 46. It is important to recognise that the ECJ has not been a big issue in Northern Ireland to date. No business has ever expressed any concern to me about its jurisdiction. Indeed, it was a very minor issue in political debate in Northern Ireland until Lord Frost took it upon himself to escalate the issue in a speech that he made last October in Lisbon, I think. It was on the eve of the European Commission tabling proposals for breaking the deadlock on this issue; that shows how well the Government have handled some of the so-called negotiations. The European Court of Justice seems to be an obsession for hard-line Brexiteers in this Chamber and elsewhere, and for those who advocate what could be described as a purist and old-fashioned approach to sovereignty that denies entirely the realities of the modern, interdependent world.
It is important to focus on the distinction between dispute resolution mechanisms in a free trade agreement, and the situation regarding the protocol. Many people suggest that we should simply have an arbitration mechanism for the protocol, and deliberately conflate the two types of agreement. It is entirely appropriate to have an arbitration mechanism for the trade and co-operation agreement, which is a free trade agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union. It is about two equals coming to the table and working out exactly how things will be taken forward. The position on Northern Ireland and the protocol is qualitatively different; we are talking about a region that continues to have direct access to the single market for goods, and is required to remain aligned with a body of European law, as is set out in annex 2 of the protocol. We will in a minute discuss the pros and cons of that, and the justification for it, but that is the situation that pertains, and why there is a different arbitration mechanism for a free trade agreement.
If the ultimate jurisdiction of the European Court is removed, that will jeopardise or destroy Northern Ireland’s ability to access the single market for goods. It is important that Members are fully aware of the implications of going down this particular road, because the two go hand in hand. Northern Ireland needs to remain in line with that law, and the European Court is part and parcel of how the situation works. Of course, if that were to happen, there would be massive implications for all businesses that operate on a north-south basis or that trade directly into the European Union. It is important that we do all we can to preserve that jurisdiction, while at the same time trying to fix the issues that pertain across the Irish sea. Through the Bill, a unilateral approach will be imposed on the European Union that probably will not address the issues across the Irish sea and at the same time will undermine Northern Ireland’s current dual-access opportunities.
I will go further and say this: we do not simply have to tolerate and put up with the situation. I maintain that being within the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice is actively in Northern Ireland’s interests, because there may well be situations that come to light over the years where—due to the complications around the protocol, and the distinctions between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom—some businesses and places in the European Union do not accept goods from Northern Ireland, because they are confused about the overarching situation. In such situations, it is crucial that we have the European Court of Justice to enforce the rules and protect the rights of Northern Ireland businesses. If we are to change the jurisdiction, there is a real danger and risk that we throw away the opportunity and advantage that we have.
Last night, I had a conversation with a major export business in my constituency, whose representatives said that they were recently at a trade fair in Italy and people said to them, “Thank God you’re still part of the single market via the protocol, because we cannot do business readily with your counterparts in Great Britain, but because you’re part of the protocol we have that export opportunity.” Many hundreds of people are employed by that company. It is important to recognise that issue.
The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting and important speech. In clause 20(4), the Government propose to allow cases to be referred to the European Court; they say they want the European Court to have nothing to do with any of this but are then taking a power to allow referrals. Does he, like me, think that that is because businesses in Northern Ireland that choose to operate under the dual regulatory system under EU rules may themselves, in the circumstances he has just described, want to go to the Court to demonstrate that they are abiding by the rules, and therefore ensure that the Republic or any other EU country cannot say, “We are not taking your goods”? That is in the interests of business in Northern Ireland, is it not?
Absolutely. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for reinforcing that point; there is a kernel of rationale as to why the provision is in the self-interest of Northern Ireland businesses. If the Government even slightly recognise that—without, perhaps, wanting overly to acknowledge it—that is indeed welcome. I hope that the Minister will expand on that whenever he speaks.
I want to make some closing comments on the democratic deficit. Of course, the largest democratic deficit we currently face in Northern Ireland is the fact that we do not have an Assembly, which means that we cannot do any self-government, pass any laws or strike a devolved budget, and there is money building up through Barnett consequentials to address the cost of living that cannot be allocated to help struggling households. That is the big democratic deficit that the people of Northern Ireland are talking about at present, not the intricacies of European law.
That said, I recognise that there is an issue in relation to the evolution of EU law in annex 2, over which Northern Ireland currently has no direct say. I do not want to go back through history too much, but when we were part of the EU we had, through the good offices of the UK Government, a front-row seat at discussions around the evolution of EU law. Whether it was an update of EU law or the conclusion of a new law, the UK was very much part and parcel of that.
Now, however, outside the EU, we have a degree of democratic deficit. That has been recognised. The EU has set out four strands for future negotiations—medicines, sanitary and phytosanitary issues, the customs issue and governance—so there is an open door to discuss those issues. It will not be easy to find a solution, because Northern Ireland is not a member state of the EU and will not be treated as such in terms of any future outworkings; but we have to think as creatively as we can, to give Northern Ireland political voices and as direct seats as possible at the table.
The EU proposals do not currently go far enough in that regard. They are essentially around what we would term some form of super-consultation or targeted consultation with Northern Ireland businesses, which is fine as far as it goes; but we need some means by which the directly elected political representatives in Northern Ireland can sit down with their EU counterparts and discuss the evolution of EU law. I stress that those conversations are perhaps most important in the initiation phase of the law, rather than further down the line. It is about simply saying, “That type of proposal will have a differential impact on Northern Ireland,” and it is important that we flag that early.
I recently had a discussion with representatives of the Norwegian Government. They are, of course, part of the European economic area and do not have a direct seat at the table in terms of initiation. They take a very strategic approach to trying to engage in terms of the way in which EU law is developed, and they pick the most important issues. For Northern Ireland we will have a broad range of interests for our interaction with the EU. It will be a challenge, but it is one that we must overcome.
The final point that I want to make is about the debate that has emerged around cross-community consent. It is probably a better discussion for the next stage of the Bill, but unfortunately a lot of our discussions overlap. Absolutely it is important that we have a cross-community consensus in Northern Ireland on these issues. However, we are currently seeing that a minority in Northern Ireland has pulled down the institutions and we do not have power sharing at all. To me, power sharing is about power sharing happening; it is not about blocking it from happening.
In turn, however, the Government constructed the entirety of their narrative around the Bill by saying, “Unionists have withdrawn from the institutions; therefore we must proceed with this legislation.” In that regard they are addressing only a minority. We have moved from a situation of asking whether the Government are doing something to appease the majority in Northern Ireland, or to appease a cross-community situation, to one where the Government are directly, openly and deliberately only addressing the concerns of a minority—and that includes a minority of political representatives and of business representatives.
It is worth stressing time and again that a majority of the MLAs and of the voters in Northern Ireland are at least pragmatic around the protocol, and that applies to the vast majority of businesses. Of course people recognise that there must be some degree of modification to the protocol to address the genuine concerns, but I have deep reservations if the Government twist that type of situation to say that there is justification for the Bill. We see opinion polls saying that 68% or 70% of people want to see the protocol modified or read that virtually all political parties recognise that there are changes, but that is a million miles away from any notion of majority support in Northern Ireland for this legislation. I fear that Parliament is proceeding on a false pretence to pass very dangerous and destructive legislation.
I am very pleased to be called to speak, Mr Evans. The Minister referred to the democratic deficit and clause 13, and that is what I want to focus on. I want to focus on the effect it has on my constituents in Strangford. I thank Theresa Villiers for her significant contribution, too.
I have informed Stephen Farry that I intend to refer to some remarks that were made yesterday. Yesterday, I listened to him as he told hon. Members in the Chamber what conversations took place—he seemed to know better than I did—between me and Lakeland Dairies. To go on the record, let me be quite clear: I have been assured not that Lakeland Dairies is for or against the protocol; rather that it looks at the issue of the protocol and simply wants to know how we intend to deal with it in this place, so it has the information to move forward.
I refuse to allow others in this place to misrepresent me and my relationship with one of the largest employers in my constituency of Strangford. It is also noteworthy that meetings took place on a regular basis between myself and Lakeland Dairies staff, because they understand that I am up to the case and up to the job of helping them. I have had meetings with Lakeland Dairies directors, the Minister here and Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. They were quite clear where they are on those issues. So that is where we are, on the record.
I want to see a way that works for Lakeland Dairies, but also for the seed farmers in my constituency, for the small business person, for the dog owner and for the pharmacist. Lakeland Dairies is not against that either. It has stated an opinion on how its business is currently operating and wants to know how to continue to grow its incredible global enterprise. That should not be twisted by any Member, whether it be the hon. Member for North Down or any other Member.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. It is perhaps useful to distinguish between what are two separate conversations. One is a business saying that, on how the protocol is addressed, it is pragmatic, open-minded or indeed that it does not take a position in that respect. Yesterday, we were having a very good separate discussion on dual regulation. I was articulating the views expressed quite openly by the Dairy Council. It is worth making clear that the authoritative information I have is that Lakeland Dairies is entirely in agreement with the stated public position of the Dairy Council.
For the record again, I repeat, and do so with authority: Lakeland Dairies has told me that whatever legislation is in place, if it assists the Bill to go through it will work with that, north and south, to make it happen—and that is the important point.
It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to read off a bit of paper and say this group supports this and that groups supports that, but let me tell him something. He reads it off a bit of paper. The difference between him and me is that I live this every day. When it comes to knowing the difference between a field of barley and a field of wheat, do you know something? I know it because I live it. When it comes to knowing the difference between a cauliflower and a cabbage, I know it—I don’t read it on a bit of paper. When it comes to knowing the difference between a Friesian cow and a Dexter cow, I know the difference. You know why? Because I live it. The hon. Member just reads it on a bit of paper.
If you want to know the difference, Mr Evans, between a John Deere tractor and a Ford tractor, I know it because I live it every day. I do not read it off a bit of paper. With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, he can read it off a bit of paper and know nothing about it, but you can live it and know everything about it. That is the difference—
Well, have you brought your wellies? He wants to go and buy himself a pair of wellies. Before he goes on to the farmer’s field, he’d better ask for the farmer for his permission.
I am quite concerned about how we are, so let me be rightly understood in the Committee today. The protocol can undoubtedly work for some—I have never said that it does not—but the fact of the matter is that the majority of individuals who have approached me in my constituency have told me that it does not work for them and their businesses.
If Claire Hanna was here, I could ream off to her, if she had the time and the patience to listen to me, perhaps 100 businesses in my constituency that are impacted by it. They have told me that it does not work for them or their businesses. I believe that to be replicated in other constituencies. In my intervention on the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet, I referred to businesses in South Down and West Belfast. I mentioned another one yesterday. Again, the hon. Member for North Down ignored it as if it did not matter, but it matters to me because a constituent of mine is involved.
Sam McChesney, who was on “Countryfile” on Sunday night, said that the protocol as it is at this moment impacts greatly on him, and on his cattle and his sheep. He cannot take his cattle across to the markets in Carlisle and the rest of north England or in Scotland without a financial equation being involved. Just for the record, he happens to be a member of the Ulster Farmers Union, as am I—I declare that as an interest. The hon. Member for North Down can read things off a bit of paper and hold up some names, but he does not know it because he has not lived it, unlike we who understand the agricultural business and who speak to the farmers.
I spoke to farmers on the 12th day; they happened to be in my lodge, Kircubbin LOL 1900—true blues they are, just for the record. They were telling me their thoughts on the Northern Ireland protocol and why they want it changed. When we live with them, understand them, socialise with them, and are members of a lodge with them, then when they tell us what their problems are on the farm, we know it because we live it—we don’t read it off a bit of paper. That is the issue for me; I just want to put it on the record.
I also have concerns about the 300 hours spent by the EU not to find a solution—if only that were the case—but just to be obstinate and awkward, and never at any stage to have it in mind to deal with this.
I want to ask the Minister some questions because yesterday I met people involved in the pharmaceutical business; I will be happy if he can come back to me at a later stage with answers. Should the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill pass, can the Government confirm that the regulation of all medicines, health technologies and vaccines in Northern Ireland will fully and exclusively fall under the remit of the UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency as the primary assessor and regulator, and no longer under the European Medicines Agency, as is currently the case? I want to make sure that what I am looking for and what they asked me to ask about is in place. They also seek confirmation that in such an eventuality all pharmacovigilance reporting for drugs, medicines and vaccines will thus transfer fully and exclusively to the UK MHRA.
Similarly, can the Government confirm that should the Bill become law the testing and batch release of relevant health technologies and vaccines will fully and exclusively fall under the UK National Institute for Biological Standards and Control, and that the European official medicine control laboratories network will no longer have any responsibility for Northern Ireland? Can it subsequently be confirmed that the requirements under the falsified medicines directive, which includes products having to be serialised and barcoded for decommissioning, will also no longer be required for Northern Ireland, as is already the case for the rest of the UK?
Importantly, pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies are asking for the same thing that the agricultural representative bodies that I referred to earlier are looking for: an explanation of the transitional arrangements and preparations that have been made and an account of what guidance will be issued to urgently bring clarity. Most businesses understand the nature of this Bill, but they need to know that they will have useful information from day one and not be left uncertain, as they have been in recent days.
Certainty is the order of the day: certainty that Northern Ireland can trade with her biggest market; certainty that Northern Ireland citizens can access the same medicines as the rest of the United Kingdom; certainty that farmers can get seed potatoes from, or sell their beef to, their biggest market, the UK mainland; certainty that people can take their dog on a staycation trip to Scotland without a costly pet passport; certainty that they can see their Amazon order delivered without a message telling them the seller will not post outside the United Kingdom because they think Northern Ireland is not part of the United Kingdom; certainty that they can order dog biscuits, frames or plastic flowers from their supplier without needing to fill out paperwork for each colour of each flower, which shows how absurd the EU is and why this Northern Ireland Protocol Bill needs to be law, giving us in Northern Ireland the same opportunities as the rest of the United Kingdom; certainty that our Chancellor and Government in this House can progress state aids which are currently being withheld from the people in Northern Ireland struggling with the price of daily living; certainty that the Unionist voice in Northern Ireland in terms of the upholding of the Belfast agreement is on equal footing with the nationalist voice, facilitated in this House by the SDLP and Alliance party pan-nationalist front, which is aided, disappointingly, by some on the Labour Benches—there are some that do not, but there are some that do; and certainty that, unless the people of the Province determine otherwise by a democratic specific vote, we still have the right to call ourselves as British as Finchley, as Margaret Thatcher once famously said.
This Bill is not perfect, but it starts a journey back to certainty that every single person in Northern Ireland deserves. I ask that we do the right thing.
I will refer briefly to clause 18 and the amendments tabled by SDLP and Alliance party Members, including amendments 46, 48 and 49. Despite the fact that all those Members have sat in the Northern Ireland Assembly and that they are intelligent and thoughtful individuals, there seems to be a grave misunderstanding about the role of this House in legislating through the Bill. It is not for the Northern Ireland Assembly to circumnavigate the decisions of the Minister as they pertain to individual protocol issues. Those Members should well understand the role of this House in rectifying the complete override of this House that was caused by accepting the role of a foreign power in Northern Ireland—namely, the EU: that insatiable giant that soaks everything up and takes all the goodness away. Its power was abused to punish the temerity of the British people for seeking to withdraw from Europe. We wanted to withdraw from Europe, and the Bill would give us the same authority and make me as British as Members on the Government Benches.
This United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland voted to leave. The EU abused that. Hon. Members have been unsuccessful thus far with their copious wrecking amendments. I trust that today’s latest attempt to remove authority from this place and devolve the power to the Northern Ireland Assembly, as another attempt to bypass Brexit, will suffer the same fate. We will oppose all the amendments tabled by the hon. Members for North Down, for Belfast South and for Foyle (Colum Eastwood).
I am anxious to get the right thing done in this place and to allow our capable MLAs to get back to their seats and do their day-to-day job by legislating and providing the accountability that is missing. These matters are solely the responsibility of this House. Customs, goods regulation, VAT, state aid, rules on agrifood and our very legal standing as UK citizens are being circumnavigated by the ECJ. All those are part of the package deal of being a member of the UK and ensure that Northern Ireland gets more than its fair share as a member of the UK. That power must lie here—not in Brussels, but with all 650 Members of this House and with the people of Northern Ireland through their MPs. That is who should be able to make these changes. It should not be down to some faceless bureaucrat in the EU who sits in a warm office, never sees the sunlight, looks across at us here and makes a decision about what we are going to do. My goodness, let us put that to bed—put it in the bin—tonight.
The amendments are not a serious attempt to add a layer of security. They are wrecking amendments to remove power from this place, and that should not be accepted. Members are content to receive the Barnett consequentials of Treasury funds—I am talking about Members from all the parties: if they are given the money, they will grab it. We will take it because it is ours, but we in this place should have responsibility for legislating and the rule of law.
In conclusion, I oppose the amendments. I oppose the rationale behind them by the pan-nationalist front of the SDLP, the Alliance party and some Labour party Members here. The Bill must be passed. The time for Northern Ireland to pay the price has come to an end. Members should do what they constantly ask us to do: accept the will of the people and work in this place get the best for their individual constituencies and our wee nation in this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
On a point of order, Mr Evans. Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on the use of the term “pan-nationalist front”? I appreciate that this is a heated debate, but I understand that there have been multiple pieces of guidance on the use of temperate language. The use of the term “pan-nationalist front” has led to people being put under threat of their lives. It is a dangerous concept that implies that both my party and the SDLP are somehow in league with other nefarious forces who are trying to do certain things to people. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not like me to refer to the “pan-Unionist or loyalist front” for exactly the same reason.
Clearly, Mr Speaker asked people today to use temperate language, with reference to “Erskine May”, and that stands not just for Prime Minister’s Question Time but for all debates. I know that this is an emotional, sensitive Bill, but people must be very careful with the language that they use at all times.
This has been a very wide-ranging and thoughtful debate, albeit with passion at various points. The question of a democratic deficit is one of the key issues that we have discussed. I recognise the concerns of Unionist colleagues in the Chamber, but I find it odd that the Government are pursuing a Bill with parts that remove powers from this place and the Northern Ireland Assembly and give them to Ministers here. It strikes me that that is the real democratic deficit that we are dealing with.
I hope that the other place will look at these matters in great detail in the weeks to come. I indicate our support for amendments 12 and 49, if those are put to a separate decision, but I will withdraw amendment 38.
I thank hon. Members, who have all spoken passionately. I will try very briefly to address some of their points.
Stephen Farry asked about the impact of CJEU provision on Northern Ireland access to the EU single market. When he raised the point, I reiterated the importance of cross-community consent; I should also reassure him and the Committee that we want and intend to retain elements of the protocol that are working and preserve north-south trade and co-operation. As the Prime Minister has said, we want to fix it, not nix it. The Bill just makes targeted changes to address key concerns and restore balance.
Jim Shannon raised some technical questions about pharmaceuticals; I will write to him about them.
Hilary Benn referred to clause 18, which I assure him is genuinely less exciting than some might think. Normally, as he knows, the lawfulness of Ministers’ non-legislative actions can be taken for granted or implied. The Bill is slightly unusual in that it clarifies how new domestic obligations replace prior domestic obligations that stem from international obligations. Those international obligations are currently implemented automatically by section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. That conduit pipe currently constrains—and could cause confusion in future as to —how Ministers can act in support of the Bill. Clause 18 will remove that potential confusion.
Claire Hanna juxtaposed Northern Ireland with Cyprus. I do not need to say to anyone on the Committee, particularly anyone from anywhere on the island of Ireland, that the history and geography of Northern Ireland is vastly different from that of Cyprus, so it is clear that different issues might arise from the remit of the CJEU. On that note, I recommend that the clauses stand part of the Bill.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clauses 13 and 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
This amendment would remove the Minister‘s power to engage in any conduct in relation to any matter dealt with in the Northern Ireland Protocol, not otherwise authorised by this Act, if the Minister considers it appropriate to do so.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The Committee divided: Ayes 197, Noes 277.
Question accordingly negatived.
Amendment proposed: 49, in clause 18, page 10, line 15, at end insert—
‘(3) Each Minister of the Crown must have due regard for the principle that the Belfast Agreement, including its subsequent implementation agreements and arrangements, should be protected in all its parts.”—(Colum Eastwood.)
This amendment is based on the fourth point in the Preamble to Northern Ireland Protocol.
Question put, That the amendment be made.