Northern Ireland

– in the House of Commons at 12:18 pm on 1 February 2024.

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Hon. Members::

Object.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 12:24, 1 February 2024

I beg to move,

That the draft Windsor Framework (Constitutional Status of Northern Ireland) Regulations 2024, which were laid before this House on 31 January, be approved.

Getting devolution back up and running has been the principal focus of Government policy in Northern Ireland since February 2022, when the then First Minister resigned. The agreement that I set out to the House yesterday is designed to secure the widest possible support among the community in Northern Ireland for participating in the political process. These regulations should be seen and considered in the context of forming part of a package. This package will safeguard and durably strengthen Northern Ireland’s integral place in the Union and the UK’s internal market, and it will do so by placing commitments in that package into law.

The Windsor Framework (Constitutional Status of Northern Ireland) Regulations 2024 affirm, strengthen and future-proof Northern Ireland’s place within the Union, underpinned by the Acts of Union and the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

If the Chancellor of the Exchequer wishes to lower the VAT rate or to take something out of VAT altogether, will that be a good law for Northern Ireland as well as for the rest of the UK, and can we now set taxes for the whole country?

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

On the example my right hon. Friend has given of VAT, that has just been done for a number of different things. I believe the latest one was solar panels, but I will check with those in the Box. There are various other products, and I will get an answer for my right hon. Friend. But, yes, is the answer for VAT, and also for tax.

The regulations address the concerns that have been expressed in parts of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland that its status has been diminished. Let me say from the outset of our discussions that what the Government wanted and the Democratic Unionist party wanted, and which we had, was our shared determination to strengthen our Union.

Photo of Conor McGinn Conor McGinn Independent, St Helens North

May I sincerely recognise the efforts of the right hon. Gentleman, his team and his colleagues in achieving what they have achieved over the last week? One of the most encouraging things in the last week is that leaders within nationalism and Unionism have all emphatically said they want to make Northern Ireland work. We all have different views on the constitutional future, and that discussion and debate is ongoing, but if Unionists want to make Northern Ireland work and nationalists want to make Northern Ireland work regardless of that, everyone benefits.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. It has been a pleasure to work with all the party leaders over the time I have been Secretary of State. I am absolutely convinced—indeed, I have seen this on a number of occasions—that they can work together behind the scenes. It was striking last February, when Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell, a police officer, was shot by dissident republicans, how all the political leaders of Northern Ireland came together in such a strong repudiation of that attack. I have seen them work together behind the scenes on a whole host of things, and I know that, when Stormont is up and running, they will be able to deliver strong government, make the right decisions for Northern Ireland and make Northern Ireland a much more prosperous place. I thank him for his intervention, and he is absolutely right.

Again, let me say from the outset that what united the Government and the DUP was our shared determination to strengthen our Union.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle

There was a memorial service on Tuesday for somebody who I think never gets enough credit for his role in the peace process. Peter Brooke once said that Britain had “no selfish strategic interest” in Northern Ireland, and that was later repeated in the Downing Street declaration. Reading the Command Paper, it seems to me that the Government have moved from that position, which I think undermines the Good Friday agreement. They seem to have moved away from the principle of rigorous impartiality. Does the Secretary of State agree with Peter Brooke’s assertion and the Downing Street declaration, or is he moving to a different place?

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I disagree with what the hon. Gentleman said at the end of his intervention and completely agree with what Sir Peter Brooke said at the time and our commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all of its different facets.

I want to stress our determination to strengthen the Union, and Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson has powerfully argued that strong and effective devolution delivering a thriving Northern Ireland within our United Kingdom is the surest way to ensure that this United Kingdom remains united in the time ahead. In taking the steps he has taken, he is delivering far more for the future of Northern Ireland in the Union than any of his detractors.

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

Can the Secretary of State give a list or summary of what those who are against Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson feel they have actually achieved in their months of campaigning?

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I would love to be able to outline anything. I have a piece of paper with that on it; oh, it is blank—nothing, absolutely zero.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am afraid that the back of a postage stamp is too big to write what they have achieved. Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson has achieved so much in this deal in safe- guarding the Union and his detractors have not come up with anything.

The changes the right hon. Gentleman has secured in these regulations and the other instrument before this House, which we will consider shortly, will further enhance those protections. The regulations end any presumption that there is any form of automatic and unchecked dynamic alignment with European goods rules. Section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, the so-called pipeline of EU law, is now expressly subject to the operation of vital democratic safeguards that the Northern Ireland Assembly, when sitting, will be able to exercise, including the Stormont brake. Indeed when— I emphasise when—Stormont begins to sit again and first assembles, I will be able to sign that Stormont brake legislation into law and it will be available to be used by the Assembly as we move forward. When Parliament passed the 2018 Act, it was exercising its sovereignty so that the UK-EU withdrawal agreement could be implemented in domestic law.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

The Secretary of State indicates that there are now “vital democratic safeguards”—he used the plural term—to guard against EU law, including the Stormont brake. Can he tell us what the other safeguards are?

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Yes: we have the withdrawal Act itself, and the right hon. Gentleman is sitting in the place that safeguards our laws themselves.

It is right that we are updating domestic law to reflect the fact that democratically elected representatives in Northern Ireland will now be able to reject new and amended EU law and that the withdrawal agreement’s implementation is subject to robust scrutiny.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

The ability of Ministers to govern is already severely constrained by things like the Human Rights Act 1998. What worries me about this is not the deal as such; I am a Brexiteer and want a dynamic and deregulated economy, so what happens when we try to diverge from EU laws? Will some civil servant have to sign this off—will it be a question of “No, Minister” before we even get to the House of Commons? Can the Secretary of State therefore assure me that we will be able to enjoy our Brexit freedoms under this deal?

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, which has been put before. It was put yesterday and it is a genuinely fair question. I can honestly say that this package of measures will not change the freedoms and powers we have secured through leaving the European Union or through the Windsor framework. It will not reduce our ability to diverge or our commitment to do so should it be in the interests of the United Kingdom, and if the legislation does carry significant adverse effects, of course the House would expect the Minister to set out any steps to be taken in response to that assessment.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

As my right hon. Friend may expect, I shall now refer to section 38 and ask him a question about it. On the amendments made under the statutory instrument—which is not by Act of Parliament, of course—the arrangements under section 38 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2020 state that the Parliament of the United Kingdom is sovereign and that its sovereignty subsists notwithstanding section 7A of the 2018 Act, including the Windsor framework. My right hon. Friend will know what I am saying: in practice and in law constitutionally there is the capacity for overriding not only the withdrawal agreement and the protocol but the Windsor framework as a result of what is contained in those words.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I note my hon. Friend’s point. As I said yesterday, I hope he recognises what we are doing in this statutory instrument—making Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom a strong addition to the section. As I said to him yesterday, his original clause has been a big part of the solution to this conundrum. I am grateful to him for it and completely understand the point he has just made and thank him for it.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle

From listening to the Secretary of State and reading the Command Paper, we would perhaps think there is only the Democratic Unionist party in Northern Ireland and no people with any other constitutional preferences, but of course there are many people in the north of Ireland who want to see a new Ireland as soon as possible. Despite what might be in the Command Paper and what the Secretary of State and others have said, does he agree that the Good Friday agreement is sacrosanct and that it is absolutely clear that if people vote for constitutional change, that is what will happen—that it is not up to the British Government or anybody else; it is up to the people of Ireland, north and south?

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Yes, nothing that we are doing here changes that fundamental principle. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to make that point and I hope I have clarified it for him properly.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson DUP Chief Whip, Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business in the House of Commons)

Further to the point made by Colum Eastwood, the difficulty was that in the eyes of Unionists the Northern Ireland protocol undermined the principle of consent, which is at the heart of the Good Friday agreement. Does the Secretary of State agree that these new measures and the legislation reset the balance so that the principle of consent and the will of the people of Northern Ireland alone will determine the future of our country as part of the United Kingdom?

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Yes, and I think the right hon. Gentleman and Colum Eastwood are making exactly the same point, and rightly so. They represent two communities that have governed by consent in the past and what we are doing here today is trying to get government by consent back up and running in Stormont in the future.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Father of the House of Commons

As one who in living memory served as a Minister responsible for the environment and for agriculture in Northern Ireland because the Northern Ireland political process was not working, may I say that, as well as the exercise in syntax and the like in the writing of these instruments, the key point is that the Assembly should be effective and Ministers should come from Northern Ireland doing the jobs we do not want to have to do from Westminster?

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Anyone who ever becomes Father of the House is obviously wise and well experienced and that was a particularly wise comment from a particularly well experienced hon. Member. My hon. Friend is completely right in everything he said.

Crucially, this legislation will also change the law so that new regulatory borders between Great Britain and Northern Ireland cannot emerge from future agreements with the European Union. That is an important new safeguard to future-proof Northern Ireland’s constitutional status. No Government in the future can agree to another protocol; neither can the UK internal market be salami-sliced by any future agreement with the European Union.

This legislation will also introduce safeguards so that Government Bills that affect trade between Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK are properly assessed. Ministers in charge of such Bills will need to provide— my right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh raised this point—a written ministerial statement to Parliament as to whether a Bill would have a significant adverse effect on trade between Northern Ireland and another part of the United Kingdom. If the legislation does carry that significant adverse effect, the House would expect the Minister to set out any steps to be taken in response to that assessment. Indeed, we have Select Committee Chairmen present, and they would expect to do high levels of scrutiny in that space. This is a very good transparency measure that we should all welcome.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet

The Secretary of State has repeatedly said that the deal we are looking at today will not prevent Britain from diverging from EU laws, which is obviously welcome. On page 17 of the Command Paper, it states:

“We will also…set out plans to introduce legislation in the spring that would avoid new regulatory divergence between GB and NI on veterinary medicines.”

Is the Command Paper saying that in that area there will be no future divergence?

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

If my right hon. Friend goes through paragraphs 136 to 141 of the Command Paper, she will see us stating that we know that the current situation is not right. We have a grace period that will run out soon, and we want to find a solution similar to the one we found for human medicines. It has been suggested that we set up a working group of experts and people who truly know and care about this subject to look at this matter quickly and come to Ministers and Parliament with a solution that we will take to our European partners and negotiate hard to get, and we want to do that. The situation is not quite as she states; there is a process to get to a point where we have a settled view from this House, and indeed from experts from Northern Ireland in this space, so that we can move forward on this matter. I know it is important to all Members from Northern Ireland.

As I was saying before that intervention, the SI will increase transparency by ensuring that Parliament is presented with evidence of the GB-NI trade impacts of relevant legislation before proceeding with it. The concrete steps we are taking and enshrining in law will deliver clarity to business that Northern Ireland’s unfettered access to the UK internal market will not be threatened by a new regulatory border.

Finally, with this legislation the Government will provide for additional duties and further requirements in statute regarding the operation of an independent review of the Windsor framework, reflecting our steadfast commitment to ensuring that the framework operates on the basis of the broadest cross-community support. As Secretary of State, I will be put under a duty to commission a review within one month of the Assembly having passed a consent vote, but without cross-community consent, and I will be obliged to respond to the report from that review within six months. That constitutes a new and important commitment by this Government. All those steps we are taking are designed to ensure that tangible action is taken off the back of a review and solutions are found. Government Ministers are being placed under a legal duty to raise the contents of the review at the UK-EU Joint Committee on the withdrawal agreement.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down

Can the Secretary of State provide a little further clarity about the independent review of the Windsor framework? He will appreciate the spectrum of views on the Windsor framework, and it is worth stating that most people in Northern Ireland, most elected representatives and most businesses are pragmatic about it, although there are those who are opposed to it. Can he assure us that it will be a genuinely independent review that takes on board the full spectrum of opinion, not least in the context of the Assembly potentially having confirmed at that stage ongoing support for the Windsor framework?

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I can give the hon. Gentleman that confirmation. It will be for Ministers to make sure that the panel is completely independent.

Photo of Paul Girvan Paul Girvan Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Education), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

On the regulatory issues in Northern Ireland, several laws have been passed in Europe—we hear that up to 300 have gone through since we agreed to leave—and some of those are already in place in Northern Ireland. As part of the review, is it possible to look at those that have been implemented to make sure that we get rid of those that we can? That mechanism should be in place.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The review will be based on the entirety of law, but essentially it has to look forward. The hon. Gentleman is right that there is always a pipeline of European Union law. I was a Member of the European Parliament for 10 years, and I saw at first hand the quantity of law that came from the European Union. The point I would make to him is that had we been able to get to this place earlier, we would have had the Stormont brake in operation earlier, and Northern Ireland Assembly Members might well have been able to trigger the Stormont brake and see it in action. I very much hope that we will see it in action in the future to demonstrate its worth in this space.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

It is worth making the point that while the Secretary of State is right in his response on the review, which was the subject of the rightful concern raised by my hon. Friend Paul Girvan, he is also right to focus on the democratic scrutiny and accountability mechanism. That is not before us today, but it has been legislated for and it was a change to the Northern Ireland protocol.

The Secretary of State will also know that in this statutory instrument, there is a proper amendment, being made here in the UK Parliament, to section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which relates in particular to that pipeline. To give a sense of how regulations have been changed through this process, on Tuesday evening when the European Union and the UK Government reached agreement on what was contained in the red lane for rest-of-the-world products, 60 pages or more of legislative text and change were published that show the benefits. Not only has this legislation dealt with regulatory barriers that could be created in the future; as part of the overall package, some of those barriers have already been removed.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I could not have put it better myself. The hon. Gentleman is knowledgeable about the subject and has been well involved in the negotiations behind the document and the statutory instruments we are talking about. He is 100% right.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Does my right hon. Friend, who himself was on the European Scrutiny Committee, recognise that we are constantly monitoring these things? Indeed, Gavin Robinson is on that Committee.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I had the pleasure of serving for five years on the European Scrutiny Committee under the wise chairmanship of my hon. Friend, and he is absolutely right. That scrutiny is what this House does best. The Select Committee system is there to scrutinise all aspects of legislation, what the Government do and what comes our way. I know his expertise, having experienced it.

When we were members of the European Union, wading through the hundreds of different explanatory memorandums that came the Committee’s way was quite a job and quite a responsibility. One of the commitments we have made is that we will make sure that information is freely available to Assembly Members in Northern Ireland—when they take their seats—to ensure that they can undertake democratic scrutiny of proposals that might well affect Northern Ireland, so that they have the information they need to use the Stormont brake, should they so choose. Scrutiny is a vital part of all this.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

The Secretary of State and everyone on these Benches will know that over the past two years, I have done lots of consultation and had lots of discussion with party groups, community groups, the Orange Order, those in the NHS and many other people as well, seeking their opinions. From all that comes where we are today. I suspect that this legislation is not the fulfilment of everything we would wish to see, and with that in mind I ask one question.

The constitutional legislation and the legislation to secure our place in the internal market are here, but I and my constituents retain some level of concern, so I press the Government for more assurance. It was highlighted yesterday that European laws might be overruled by the Government, but that wording suggests they may also be accepted, allowing Northern Ireland to diverge. I want the answer, Secretary of State. Does the last word lie in this place, or does it lie with the EU when it comes to making those decisions?

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Actually, for an element of law that would be triggered by the Stormont brake, I think the biggest say would be with Assembly Members, though this place—Parliament—is sovereign, and the hon. Gentleman will know that this place has already chosen for Great Britain to diverge from Northern Ireland. That has happened on the matter of animal welfare and livestock exports, and for good reason: Northern Ireland has a land border and a vociferous and lively trade in live animal exports with the Republic of Ireland, and were we to extend the ban in Great Britain to Northern Ireland, that would affect the export of about 3,500 cattle, 1,700 pigs, 337,000 sheep, and so on. Those are the figures for livestock moved to Ireland from Northern Ireland in 2022. This place already makes such decisions and it will continue to do so.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

The Secretary of State is at odds in making that argument. That is one argument that the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries made in saying why Northern Ireland should be excluded, but the reason given was that, because Northern Ireland is part of the EU single market, there could not be discrimination between cattle being transported to the Republic of Ireland and cattle being transported thousands of miles away to the south of Italy. That is the real reason why this House once again found itself subservient to EU rules in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. I know that he has written to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries—I have his reply, which I was copied into—expounding that some sort of carve-out should be made. But this is on the basis of a range of international agreements and their core principles, and that includes the World Trade Organisation. As good a Eurosceptic as I am, I am careful not to blame the wrong organisation for the wrong things. We have signed up to World Trade Organisation rules, and we benefit from those rules. One element of this issue is World Trade Organisation rules, and he is picking the wrong thing to point his finger at. Those rules prevent discrimination against different countries in all sorts of ways, and they are important, vital rules. I am afraid that on this particular point, he is completely wrong.

I have long been clear to right hon. and hon. Members that I serve in the Government proudly as a Unionist. I am pleased that the regulations, which I commend to the House, will address the concerns expressed by part of the community in Northern Ireland in past years that our Union of nations has been somehow diminished as a whole. The regulations demonstrate that the Government have listened so that trust can be rebuilt, so that people and businesses can be reassured that they are in the UK’s long-term future, and so that we can see Northern Ireland’s political institutions restored.

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

We are obviously debating the regulations, but may I point right hon. and hon. Members to annex A of the Government’s “Safeguarding the Union” Command Paper, which provides an excellent summary of the historical context of the Acts of Union, including article 6? Many keyboard warriors across Northern Ireland—I am not sure what they have achieved in the last eight months other than to create a whole kerfuffle—would be well advised to read it. They would see that none of the Acts of Union is under threat in any way.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I thank my right hon. Friend for making that point. He is right that a lot of noise and heat have been generated in many ways by people who have done absolutely nothing in this space. They are trying to cloud the reality that he expressed and which we have set out in annex A for everybody to see. I very much hope that right hon. and hon. Members will welcome the progress we have made in delivering the agreement by supporting the passage of these regulations and that, in coming days, they will join me in welcoming the return of Stormont, so that the Assembly and the Executive may serve the people of Northern Ireland once more.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Secretary of State for being generous in giving way. As he knows, I always try to be constructive. It is for all the people out there, including my constituents, who have concerns and probably do not have trust in the Government, for genuine reasons—forgive me, but we have been let down on a number of occasions—that I ask the Secretary of State to reiterate this once again; my apologies for asking him to do so. With his hand on the Dispatch Box—we all know what that means and are aware of the duty of his position—will he answer in simple terms for my constituents: does this deal constitute the renewal of our place in the constitutional and economic United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as fully and as completely as any other area in this great UK?

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Someone wanting to send goods from GB to NI would naturally expect to use the new internal market lane—the green lane. Who decides whether they would not be allowed to do so? Would it be the EU, the UK Government or the Stormont Executive?

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Further to that point, in respect of paragraph 96 of the Command Paper, will the Secretary of State outline whether he expects further SIs in the pipeline to give full effect, impact and clarity to the issues raised in this wide-ranging document?

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

We will give legal direction to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs on these matters. We will use other legal instruments for the deal, but it is for us to give legal direction to DAERA on that point.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle

We all accept that the DUP had a particular issue about all this, but does the Secretary of State accept that it is not good practice in Northern Ireland to have a one Government, one party process? Will he commit in the future to having a much more inclusive process for dealing with these types of issues?

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point; he makes it fairly. To be honest with him, there was one party that was staying out of government, and that party represents a community. I did try to keep him as updated as I could throughout the process, as we have done with the other political parties, but I needed to talk more to the party we needed to persuade to go back into government.

In future, I will always try to treat everybody equitably, but I hope the hon. Gentleman understands that I had to ensure there was an agreement that the Democratic Unionist party could stand behind so that I could start to rebuild the trust—Jim Shannon used the word “trust”—that had been lost between the Democratic Unionist party and the United Kingdom Government. That is something we had to do between the two of us.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way again. I think it has to be understood that there are more people in Northern Ireland than just the DUP and Unionism. I think nationalism feels that north-south has been undermined by the massive emphasis put on east-west. I ask him to think carefully about that. For me, the Command Paper undermines the Good Friday agreement, undermines north-south, and goes far too far in the direction of the DUP’s thinking.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The hon. Gentleman is a friend of mine, so I hope that he does not mind my disagreeing with him on this. The Command Paper will, I hope, deliver the restoration of Stormont: the most important strand 1 institution of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. It will also allow for Ministers to be appointed to the North South Ministerial Council: an important institution in a different strand of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which could then function properly. What the Command Paper does is allow for all strands of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement to start humming again as they should. He will have to forgive me, but I must disagree with him on that point.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for being so generous. Does it not all boil down to this? As is outlined in annex A, it is important to distinguish between Northern Ireland’s “integral place” constitutionally within the United Kingdom and its internal market, and the access it has to the single market as a result of its unique position. Those two words—the difference between access and its constitutional place—are what we really need to focus on when trying to square this circle.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend, the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. He makes an important point eloquently, as ever.

Mr Speaker—sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker, it is very nice to see you in your place, and I am sorry I did not see you come in—the regulations undoubtedly will strengthen Union. It is for that reason, and more, that I wholeheartedly and unequivocally commend them to the House.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 1:00, 1 February 2024

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his explanation of the first set of regulations that we are considering, and I join him in wanting to see the institutions up and running again as soon as possible. I welcome the measures, and the Opposition will support them.

Ever since our leaving the EU created the problems that have caused Northern Ireland to be without a Government for two years, we have been trying as a nation to find a common-sense way through. The SIs are a continuation of that process to balance two objectives: first, to enable the free flow of trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain; and secondly, to make sure that goods that enter the Republic across the open border meet the single market rules.

We should note the further commitments, to which reference has been made, contained in the Command Paper published yesterday. We look forward to regulations and guidance to implement them where required, perhaps with a little bit more time to read them, although I understand completely and support the timetable we are dealing with today.

I commend Julian Smith for drawing the House’s attention to the annex of the Command Paper on the history. I certainly learned some things from reading it. I have heard the argument that there was always free and unfettered trade and now that has changed, only to discover that the Government of Ireland Act 1920 required that the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland be treated as exports and imports, and that customs officers were instructed to conduct physical inspections of ships and daily sailings twice weekly, at a check rate of 28%. It is a jolly good idea to understand one’s history when trying to deal with the problems of the future.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson DUP Chief Whip, Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business in the House of Commons)

Some suggest that the Acts of Union should be as they were in 1801, but my hon. Friend Ian Paisley would be perplexed to discover that a bottle of Bushmills whiskey distilled in his constituency would have a £3 tariff added to it to be sold in Great Britain—the rest of the United Kingdom. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we certainly do not want to go back to that?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am a teetotaller, so perhaps I do not feel the suffering in that example in the same way as other Members. However, the right hon. Gentleman is an observant student of Northern Ireland history, and he makes his point extremely forcefully.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

Does the right hon. Member recognise the difference between a tariff being put on by this Parliament or the Assembly or a Parliament in Northern Ireland, where the people of the country elect representatives who take a decision on tariffs that act as an impediment to trade, and a tariff imposed by an outside body such as the EU, which is the case in Northern Ireland? That is how the Act of Union is being disrupted, because an outside body can interfere with it.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

We have seen quite a lot of disruption to arrangements in recent years, have we not? The point I tried to make a moment ago was that our departure from the European Union caused a problem. Everybody knew that there would be a problem between Northern Ireland and the Republic, because of the open border that everyone continued to support. I think I said last week that it was about the only thing in Brexit where there was agreement. If there is a problem, we have to find a way through it. What we are grappling with here, and have done previously and may do in the future, is how to solve that problem, which is the result of a democratic decision taken by the British people.

Turning to these particular regulations, part of them updates previous legislation to include references to the Windsor framework, which came after those pieces of legislation, or reaffirms for clarity the existing legal position. I welcome the prohibition made by regulation 2(3) of any agreement with the EU that would

“create a…regulatory border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”

However, if we were to form the next Government, Labour would seek to negotiate a sanitary and phytosanitary agreement with the EU with the intention of removing checks on animals, food and plants, not only between GB and NI, but between the whole of the UK and the EU. That would benefit farmers, food businesses, the horticultural industry in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Regulation 3 amends section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act to include a reference to the Stormont brake procedure and the democratic consent vote. I note that the Secretary of State said that the Windsor Framework (Democratic Scrutiny) Regulations 2023 passed by Parliament last March, which I think he said he had signed, will take effect once the Assembly is back up and running.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I see that the Secretary of State is nodding. It is also important to remind ourselves of the significance of those regulations and the democratic checks that they will create. The Stormont brake will be available to the Assembly when the EU seeks to amend or replace existing EU goods legislation in annex 2 of the framework. The Windsor framework gives a new role to the Assembly to approve or reject any proposed new EU legislation being added to the framework. I note that page 47 of the Command Paper states that the full operational details for the Stormont brake will be set out “in writing” for the Assembly. Can the Secretary of State confirm when that will happen and what form it will take, so that we in the House can see it?

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is a distinction between new and amended legislation in this context? They are not by any means the same thing, particularly as amended legislation can be very extensive.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I take that point, but we are talking about two separate categories: one is a long list relating to the legislation that formed part of the original protocol in the annex; and the other relates to new stuff coming from the European Union.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down

Does the shadow Secretary of State recognise that there is a different school of thought from some people and businesses in Northern Ireland around the Stormont brake? If there is a degree of delay or uncertainty in the application of an updated EU regulation, that could inadvertently undermine Northern Ireland’s dual market access, by creating uncertainty for businesses seeking to invest or remain in Northern Ireland. By far the better way is for Northern Ireland institutions to talk to the European Union at the start, to make sure that our concerns are reflected as fresh EU law is undertaken or updated.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The hon. Member makes an extremely powerful and useful point. The businesses that I have spoken to in Northern Ireland support Northern Ireland’s access to the EU market. In choosing to pull or not pull the Stormont brake there are many considerations, which I am sure elected politicians in Northern Ireland will take into consideration. Let us be honest: it depends on what we are talking about. What impact will it have? Will it have a really bad effect, in which case people might reach for the brake? Other times it may be a perfectly sensible change and nobody needs to worry about it. But there is a mechanism that gives Northern Ireland politicians and the Assembly the chance to decide between the two.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Further to that point, which is a very good one, would the EU not decide to use its powers if Stormont tried to use the brake too often and change the amount of EU law that applied?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The Stormont brake was the result of a negotiation between the Government and the European Union. It was a really big step forward—it is why we are having this discussion now, and I support it. Anything is possible in the future with regard to what one or another party that is engaged in continuing discussions and negotiations may seek to do, but we have a deal with the European Union and it expects us to honour the Windsor framework—a point I have made in the House many times before—and we would expect the EU to do entirely the same. Nobody can guard with absolute certainty against what may happen in the future; we have to deal with the world as it is today.

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

What people have missed over the past few weeks is the cross-party support for both the Windsor framework and this deal. The reality is that anybody campaigning, or continuing to campaign, against the decisions democratically taken by the Democratic Unionist party is campaigning against something that this House has supported in voting numbers I could have only dreamed of when I was the Government Chief Whip during Brexit. This House supports the Windsor framework and the deal secured by the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The right hon. Gentleman makes an extremely powerful point. I hope everyone will notice the near—if not complete—unanimity that we will see reflected in the House today. Those who wish to rail against reality and the fact that we have to make choices and deal with issues as they arise, as Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson has so eloquently pointed out, achieve nothing and contribute nothing. What the House is trying to do is to take this forward and, crucially, to restore the institutions.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

I am not trying to rail against reality; I am just seeking the truth. Would it be a fair summing-up of the Labour party’s position that it is supremely relaxed about all these future trading arrangements because, if there is to be a Labour Government, they will have absolutely no intention of diverging further away from the EU from a deregulatory point of view? If the right hon. Gentleman becomes Secretary of State, there is no danger that any civil servant will say, “Minister, be careful about this.” Labour is very relaxed about this matter. It is going to get closer and closer to the EU, isn’t it?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

It is very kind of the right hon. Gentleman to say that we are intensely relaxed about the prospect that we might form the next Government, and who am I to disagree with him in that observation?

The point about divergence is that it is a choice. It is striking to note the number of instances since we left the European Union when the current Government decided that they were going to diverge, and then suddenly had second thoughts about it because it did not really make a lot of sense. I make no apology for having given the example of the veterinary SPS agreement that we would like to reach, because it would help our businesses in the UK, businesses in Northern Ireland and businesses in the European Union. That is my definition of common-sense negotiation—the decision has been made, but that does not mean Britain cannot seek to improve the relationship we have with the European Union in our interests and the interests of our European neighbours.

I also welcome regulation 3(3), which would require a Minister before the Second Reading of a Bill containing provisions that would affect trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom either to make a statement that it would not have such an effect, or to set out the reasons why the Government want to proceed none the less. It may be difficult at this stage, but I wonder whether the Secretary of State in winding up could give us an example of the circumstances in which Ministers might want to make use of the provisions in proposed new section 13C(2)(b) to the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, found at the top of page 4 of the regulations. In other words, in what circumstances would the Government want to proceed with legislation even though it would have an adverse effect?

I welcome the clarifications made in regulation 4 regarding any independent review that may follow the democratic consent vote. That vote by Assembly Members must take place, as I understand it, by the end of this year. Has the Secretary of State had any discussions with Northern Ireland political parties as to when, exactly, that vote might take place, or does he intend to do so, or is it entirely a matter for those parties?

I will return in the subsequent debate to the matters I wish to raise on the UK internal market regulations, Madam Deputy Speaker. I now bring my remarks to a close.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

There is obviously a big time pressure on this debate. I want to bring the Secretary of State back in at 1.49 pm, so I urge colleagues to be brief if they possibly can. I call the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee 1:15, 1 February 2024

I will certainly bear that exhortation in mind, Madam Deputy Speaker.

This debate has properly focused on the statutory instrument that will amend primary legislation through the powers of the 2018 Act, which my right hon. Friend Julian Smith and I both spent a lot of time dealing with in its enactment. However, it is right to look again at what is outlined in the helpful annex A to the Command Paper, in terms of the history and the legal background to what the parties have been dealing with and why it is that many of the arguments from the naysayers do not pass close scrutiny at all.

I am delighted to see on page 53 of the Command Paper a clear exposition of the position with regard to the Acts of Union—I say the Acts of Union because, of course, there was more than the one in 1801. Since that time the Acts have been amended, and not just by the seismic events of 1921; they were amended right through the 19th century, and indeed beyond, to take into account the evolving position of Northern Ireland. Just as every other part of our United Kingdom has evolved, so has Northern Ireland.

It is right to pause and say that the arguments that were asserted, in particular in the Supreme Court, about what we can now call the old protocol being inconsistent with the Acts of Union are just wrong. That point was never at issue before that Court. The Court specifically said that it did not have to rule on it.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

A lot of this is quite surreal, because it falls into the grounds of piffle. I remember sitting in the Select Committee on Northern Ireland, and the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith, telling me, in October 2019, “This will all be light touch—you won’t even notice it.” We have spent the last four years now trying to unravel the heavy hand of Europe and still need to prise those fingers off what is happening in Northern Ireland. We have also been told that yes, there was a problem, and we all now know what the problem was: this House failed to stand up to Europe and allowed Northern Ireland to be a buffer zone to protect its single market and threw our single market down the toilet in the process.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

I feel the emotion and hear the proper points that the hon. Gentleman makes. The process became the legislative and constitutional equivalent of brain surgery, and the patient was Northern Ireland. Everybody was feeling it. This is not just an archaic debate: this is a debate about the business and economy of Northern Ireland. This is real and important for the businesses that right hon. and hon. Members represent—absolutely right —which is why the hon. Gentleman’s party should claim proper credit for the painstaking approach that he and his colleagues, including Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson, have shown in this process. They have not taken no for an answer. They have actually sought to try to reach a solution and be part of that brain surgery process—that neurological change.

But I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that there is a distinction between the integral part that Northern Ireland plays in our United Kingdom constitution and our internal market—our single market—and the inevitable access that Northern Ireland will have to the EU single market. Why? Because of the nature of the border that exists in Northern Ireland, the unique nature of its status and all the history and, indeed, the reality that goes with that. That is why there is not going to be an elegant or perfect solution to all this. It was always going to involve compromise.

Compromise is a difficult word—it implies weakness and fudging; it implies a lack of clarity—but right hon. and hon. Members opposite have recognised that that is the world in which they operate, which is why we are able to be here today to debate important changes that will underpin not just declaratory words about Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market, but concrete actions that are set out in the Command Paper. I am thinking in particular of the operation of the Stormont brake. Yes, we need to see more guidance about its operation—we need to understand the evidential thresholds that will be required for MLAs to bring the brake to the attention of the UK Government to lodge their objections; that work has to be done—but today will allow it to happen.

In its judgment, the Supreme Court looked in particular at the question of the sovereignty of Parliament, and affirmed that—as article 6 of the Acts of Union itself recognised—it is the most fundamental rule of UK constitutional law. There is nothing novel, unexpected or controversial about that, which is why some of the language that emerged from that case was not just unhelpful but wrong. I know that the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley, the leader of the Democratic Unionist party, shares my view. It was time for leadership, and leadership means being straightforward and getting it right. That is why I commend the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues for the work that they have done: they got it right, and as a result of their approach we are able today, I hope, to pass this much-needed change. I welcome it warmly, I commend my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and I commend this measure to the House.

Photo of Richard Thomson Richard Thomson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business) 1:21, 1 February 2024

My party and I have never made any secret of our disagreement with Brexit and the manner in which it was delivered. That has certainly caused issues for us in Scotland. However, we broadly welcome the point that matters have reached today. It has been a long road. Having clarity about Northern Ireland’s constitutional status is, I believe, helpful, as indeed is the reaffirmation of the principle of consent, which is the basis on which many of us in Scotland, not just in Northern Ireland, understand the Union of which we are, willingly or otherwise, a part.

The manner in which Brexit has come about has, as I say, caused issues in Scotland. It has placed our own constitutional question back at the forefront and under renewed scrutiny, but despite the tensions that that has released, or brought about, politically, I hope that my party and I have been able to understand and empathise with some of the concerns of people in Northern Ireland, and not just over the way in which Brexit, as originally constituted, threatened to undermine the basis on which peace and progress had been secured over the previous quarter century.

I hope that my party and I have also been able to understand and reflect on the fact that aspects of the protocol have left Unionists in Northern Ireland in particular feeling that they have been in some way separated, or set on a course of being separated, from the UK. In that regard, as I have said on a number of occasions, we never considered it unreasonable in and of itself, in the light of experience, that the UK Government should seek to renegotiate, or to rework, aspects of the deal that had been put in place.

Although there were certainly opportunities to recast a deal which, I would argue, could have worked better in the interests of all parts of the UK—I would highlight sanitary and phytosanitary alignments as being essential to that—and while I regret that those options have not been pursued today, I do not begrudge Northern Ireland a single aspect of what has been agreed in recent days or what appears in the statutory instruments.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

The hon. Gentleman says that he does not begrudge us the achievement of some of the objectives that we set out to achieve. Does he agree that one of the advantages that we have and Scotland does not have is a 300-mile unclosable land border that makes virtual accommodation with access to the Irish Republic and onwards into the wider EU market almost impossible to prevent?

Photo of Richard Thomson Richard Thomson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business)

The border is certainly a complex one to try to police, and that has been at the forefront of many of the discussions. By contrast, we have what would be a very straightforward border between Scotland and England were it ever to take on international significance.

There appears to be something of a contradiction, in that Northern Ireland cannot conform to the requirements of the single market to maintain access there, and also the UK internal market, in the event of a future divergence. That brings to mind paragraph 146 of the Command Paper, which provides that

“the Government will legislate to require that a Minister in charge…must assess whether or not” something

“has an impact on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland” and make statements.

That contrasts with new section 38A (1) of the SI, which states:

His Majesty’s Government must not ratify a Northern Ireland-related agreement with the European Union that would create a new regulatory border”.

A Minister might lay a statement before Parliament to that effect, but that does not mean that the Minister’s opinion will necessarily be shared, or make the statement any less subjective. Ministers might be capable of thinking six impossible things before breakfast, and indeed at times during the Brexit debate it seemed that that was a necessary qualification for office. Nevertheless, I would be grateful if the Secretary of State, in summing up the debate, could clarify how any such dispute might ultimately be determined and resolved.

With these publications, we appear to have reached something of a conclusion. It has been a thoroughly exhausting process, which has occupied talents and energies—not just in the Government and Parliament here, but across swathes of public life in Northern Ireland and beyond—that could, I believe, have been directed more productively. Much work has built up in the absence of an Assembly, but hopefully these provisions will allow for all the political mechanisms to bring the Assembly back. It is important for that to happen because a peaceful, prosperous Northern Ireland, at ease with itself, in control of its future and able to be respectful of all shades of opinion, is manifestly in the interests of all people in all these islands. To the extent that the statutory instruments pave a way towards restoring that state of affairs, we support them.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Let me once again emphasise the need for brevity so that we can get the majority of people in.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee 1:26, 1 February 2024

Section 38 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 prescribes that parliamentary sovereignty will prevail, notwithstanding section 7A of the 2018 Act. The wording is a bit difficult to read because one has to go through all the enactments to ensure that one has got it right, but it does say “including the Windsor Framework”, so for practical purposes our parliamentary sovereignty subsists. However, I find it incongruous, and rather Lewis Carroll, that we should end up continuing to maintain EU law in relation to Northern Ireland. I could make a long speech about this, but I will not do so.

The fact is that no man can serve two masters. In respect of the wording of the statutes, let me paraphrase the words of Humpty Dumpty: words mean what we choose them to mean, and the question is who is to be master—that is all. This is the problem, this is the dilemma, this is the basis on which most of the controversies occur, and I regret to have to say that it may ultimately be decided, on some day in the future, by the prospect of a referendum. That, of course, is what Sinn Féin have been asking for. I personally believe that we should protect Northern Ireland, and I have always done everything in my power to do just that.

Having said that, I should also mention that my family have been involved in the Irish question since the 1840s in this House—for instance, John Bright and Frederick Lucas, the Member of Parliament for County Meath. I make that point to emphasise that I take this very seriously, and, indeed, I pay respect to the members of the DUP for the way in which they have fought for their interests. There are some measures in the statutory instruments that I can understand as having benefits, but ultimately the question will turn on the issue of whether, given the constitutional framework within which this is being presented, with all the assurances that we are hearing and all the hopeful aspects—which I expect to be delivered—we find that it will be decided by the test of time. We will see whether it works.

There will be continuing arguments and continuing debates, but unfortunately I have to say that, just as with section 2 of the European Communities Act 1972, there is no way in which section 8C of the 2018 Act had anything other than the same fundamental limitation as regulations under that section, in that they cannot contradict or restrict the scope of EU law. It has to be said, because it is the honest truth. However, that does not alter the fact that efforts can be made; the Stormont brake may come in and may be able to make changes—I say everything with reservation. I voted against the Windsor framework, because I foresaw that issues of this kind would arise. I pay tribute to all the people involved in trying to mitigate the ultimate impact of the Windsor framework, but the scope of EU law that still remains leaves me with serious concern. As Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, I end by saying that we will be monitoring this and we are concerned— I am concerned. The devolved Assembly is a democratic plus: we cannot issue orders from Westminster to Northern Ireland if the people do not want it. The bottom line is that those in the DUP have a real issue on their hands with Sinn Féin. Be that as it may, I believe they will do everything in their power to maintain their democratic rights.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

The Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, who is my friend, has outlined his concern about the constitutional future of Northern Ireland. He will know that, legislatively, in 1998 it was settled that the future of Northern Ireland’s place in the UK is based solely on the decision made by the people of Northern Ireland. He will remember that in 2000 Gerry Adams said that there would be a united Ireland by 2016. He will also know that today, in 2024, the Government who will have to decide whether there should be a border poll have declared in the Command Paper, “Safeguarding the Union”, on page 68, paragraph 3:

“On the basis of all recent polling, the Government sees no realistic prospect of a border poll leading to a united Ireland.”

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

I am extremely glad to hear the hon. Gentleman make that point.

To conclude, I simply say that you can read the crystal ball, but the question is: can you always read the book?

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson DUP Chief Whip, Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business in the House of Commons) 1:32, 1 February 2024

It is an honour to follow Sir William Cash; we truly value his continuing interest in Northern Ireland. The problem for DUP Members is that the origin of our difficulty was the withdrawal agreement itself and the decision to go with the Northern Ireland protocol. Sadly, it placed Northern Ireland in a situation where we were separated from the rest of the UK in key elements of the benefits that ought to have flowed from Brexit. My task and that of my colleagues ever since has been to repair the damage that decision did, and it is work in progress; I do not pretend that we have completed the task. I recognise there are ongoing concerns about how the new arrangements will work in practice, and it will be our task to hold the Government to account on their commitments and ensure that they are honoured in full and delivered. That is why my party executive mandated me, as party leader, to proceed on the basis that we needed the Government to progress key elements of the arrangements before we would recall the Assembly and restore the Executive.

I welcome the publication of, and the opportunity to debate, the statutory instruments. They amend key constitutional laws of the UK in a way that, in my humble opinion, strengthens Northern Ireland’s place within our United Kingdom and reaffirms our place in the UK, underpinned by the Acts of Union, and by the principle of consent that is at the heart of the Belfast agreement and the 1998 legislation. That is to say, as my hon. Friend Gavin Robinson has stated, that the will of the people of Northern Ireland will ultimately determine our future. Nevertheless, it is welcome that this Parliament, which is sovereign in our United Kingdom, reasserts its sovereignty in regard to Northern Ireland and reaffirms our place within the UK.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank my right hon. Friend and colleague for bringing that forward. He is absolutely right to state the fact—I say this, with respect, to the Secretary of State and the Government—of the distrust that many Unionists have for this process. The opinion of this House on sovereignty should be clear, and my party leader has sought not simply to secure but to future-proof the legislation and the change. The difficulty is that many people I represent have stated their lack of trust in the Government, who told us that they would give us their best and did not do so. How can the Government and the Secretary of State reassure the Unionist people whom we represent that our sovereignty is protected ?

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson DUP Chief Whip, Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business in the House of Commons)

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He restates a point he made earlier to the Secretary of State and he will have heard the response given. It is the task of all DUP Members to ensure that the Government deliver, and we bank the gains we have made in this process and move forward on that basis, recognising not only that there is more to do, but that there are new opportunities to seek and secure change. The Secretary of State referred earlier to my detractors, who have been very vocal, even challenging me to a debate on these issues. My challenge back to them is clear and simple. As I said last week in this House, when they are in a position to set out clearly for the people of Northern Ireland what they have achieved, the changes they have secured to the protocol and to the Windsor framework, and the changes they have secured to safeguard our place in the Union, I will consider discussion with them. But what I will not do is accept their criticism of what we have achieved on safeguarding the Union—real achievements and real changes, which my party has long sought.

We were disappointed when the Government abandoned the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, because all DUP Members recognised that those proposals provided a way forward for Northern Ireland. We have sought to incorporate into these new arrangements many aspects of that Bill, but we have gone further and achieved more. We will come to this more fully on the second SI before us this afternoon, but that Bill, which was endorsed fully by my parliamentary party, proposed a green lane and a red lane as the means by which goods would move between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. What we have achieved is to remove the need for the green lane, because we have restored Northern Ireland’s place within the UK’s internal market. Under these new arrangements, goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and staying within the UK will flow through the UK internal market system. There is no need for a so-called “green lane”. There is a need for only one lane, which deals with goods that flow through our Northern Ireland ports and onwards to the EU or that are deemed at risk of entering the EU.

The red lane was endorsed and supported by my party, and every one of my MPs voted for that proposal. That was my mandate and it is what I have secured. It removes the Irish sea border within our internal market of the United Kingdom, and it means the only checks we need to carry out are those on goods moving into, or at risk of going into, the European Union. That is what we stated in our response to the Windsor framework, endorsed unanimously by all our party officers. We made clear what we wanted, and I have gone further even than that response in removing the green lane from the new arrangements.

This is progress. Does it give us everything we want? It does not. My hon. Friend Ian Paisley has been assiduous in his pursuit of a solution on veterinary medicines. He has worked with the Government and campaigned alongside representatives of the Northern Ireland agrifood sector. As a result of that work, in the Command Paper we now have clarity on the position of the UK Government. In the absence of an agreement with the European Union that maintains Northern Ireland’s full access to UK veterinary medicines, the UK Government will legislate to protect our access to veterinary medicines in the United Kingdom. That is a commitment given by the Government and I commend my hon. Friend for his work. That is the business we are in—it is unfinished business. We will continue to work to ensure the Government deliver on their commitments in the Command Paper on veterinary medicines.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I thank the leader of the party for his comments. This is crucial: it affects every single person in Northern Ireland because it is about food security across the whole of the United Kingdom. The Northern Ireland food industry feeds about 17 million people, not only in Northern Ireland, but across the United Kingdom and the world. It is vital to our food security. Damaging it, as was happening under the previous agreement, is wholly destructive to food health and farming. I also welcome paragraph 22, which addresses the movement of cattle and livestock. That is significant for our farming industry. I agree that more needs to be done and I will hold the Secretary of State to account to get that legislation on the statute book if Europe does not move.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson DUP Chief Whip, Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business in the House of Commons)

I need add nothing to the point made by my hon. Friend. We welcome the explicit reference in the Command Paper to Northern Ireland’s part in the economy of the United Kingdom, including the fact that we are within the customs territory of the United Kingdom. We are part of the UK internal market and it is important that that is maintained.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle

May I put it on record that I think the right hon. Gentleman has done a lot of good work over the past couple of weeks and he has been very brave? It is not easy for a Member to face down people in their own constituency, and it is important that he did. May I also put it on record that the Social Democratic and Labour party do not support the Command Paper? We think it has moved far beyond the principles set out in the Good Friday agreement. It undermines north-south co-operation and has far too much focus on east-west co-operation. Moving on from that point, we need to ensure that any future negotiation is done with all parties and both Governments, so that everybody can feel comfortable in the result.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson DUP Chief Whip, Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business in the House of Commons)

The hon. Member has made his point with fortitude and determination, but he will understand that I make no apology as a Unionist for having a focus on protecting, preserving, strengthening and binding together our United Kingdom, of which Northern Ireland is a proud part.

Today is an important moment for us as Unionists. The strengthening of our constitutional position within the United Kingdom is important because our primary focus has been on the protection of the Union. In that context, I welcome and draw attention to annex A, paragraph 47 of the Command Paper published yesterday:

“Northern Ireland’s place in the economic union remains the single most important factor in ensuring its prosperity”.

That is the economic union of the United Kingdom: we sell more goods to Great Britain than anywhere else in the world, and we want to maintain our ability to trade freely within our own country. These new arrangements guarantee our unfettered access to the internal market of the United Kingdom, not just now but in all scenarios in the future. The safeguards built into these arrangements will protect our place in the economic union of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Robin Millar Robin Millar Conservative, Aberconwy

I echo the right hon. Gentleman’s sentiments about paragraph 47 in annex A. I want to comment on the good will and character through these last months that have been essential to achieving this progress and these gains. Does he agree with me that the polling referenced by Gavin Robinson is not as important as the stamp of approval from this House that comes through good debate and scrutiny?

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson DUP Chief Whip, Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business in the House of Commons)

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention, his continuing interest in Northern Ireland and his work in this place to strengthen and protect our Union. He makes a strong point, which I welcome.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

I acknowledge the point made by my right hon. Friend, but does he also accept that, in proposed new section 13C of the Windsor Framework (Constitutional Status of Northern Ireland) Regulations 2024, the Government still reserve a right in the statute book to introduce laws that will interfere with trade in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson DUP Chief Whip, Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business in the House of Commons)

I urge my right hon. Friend to read all the proposals. If he does, he will see that a new statutory duty will be introduced that will ensure that in circumstances where there is the risk of divergence, the Minister in charge of the new policy or law will come to this House and make a statement, not only informing the House of any potential impact on Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom internal market, but setting out the measures that the Government must take to ameliorate that situation. That is set out clearly in the Command Paper. It is a commitment by the Government, on which we intend to hold them to account.

Going forward, it is important that we have a means of scrutiny and cutting the EU pipeline, as we have through the amendment to section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. People told us, by the way, Madam Deputy Speaker, that we would not achieve legal change, and yet that amendment to section 7A cuts the EU pipeline and ends the automatic alignment of Northern Ireland with EU law. That is something this party can take great credit for, because we have achieved what none of our detractors has been capable of achieving. That offers us the opportunity to influence clearly, as we stated in our seven tests, how we might proceed.

In conclusion, on behalf of my party, I welcome this legislation. It is important constitutional legislation that safeguards our place in the United Kingdom. We will hear later about further changes to the law that will protect our place in the UK internal market. Taken together with all the proposals in the Command Paper, I believe we have a basis for moving forward.

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith Conservative, Skipton and Ripon 1:48, 1 February 2024

I pay tribute to the nationalist and other parties who have been patient during the process, and to the Labour party for its support of the Government, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister.

These are very important constitutional safeguards, as we have heard, but this SI is about much more than the constitution. It unlocks something much bigger: getting back into Stormont, making Northern Ireland a success and making it work. This SI is about people, public sector pay, health, charities that are desperate to get moving again, schools, agriculture and the economic growth of Northern Ireland. I commend this SI and believe that it will get the full support of the House.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 1:49, 1 February 2024

With the leave of the house, I will answer a few of the points that have been raised. We have heard a wide and varied range of contributions on all aspects of the regulations from Members across the House. In my closing remarks, I wish to take the opportunity to address those points.

First, I thank Hilary Benn for the way that he has approached everything we have done. He asked a few questions, which I shall try to answer. He talked about these measures and how we will be protecting the European single market with this package. What these measures also do, which is unbelievably important, is protect our internal market at the same time. [Interruption.] I know that the right hon. Gentleman knows that, but I just wanted to emphasise the point, because it is important. He asked for an example—I think that it is in proposed new section 13C introduced through the regulations—of where there would be a significant adverse effect. I can refer him best to the example I gave of the Animal Welfare (Livestock Exports) Bill, where there is an obvious advantage to Northern Ireland to be different, which we took on board. He very kindly showed some ankle on Labour’s position on our future relationship with the EU. Can I beg him to continue to do that? While we all enjoy a good political debate—I will not go too far into this point, because we are in a consensual place—we would very much like to explore exactly what Labour’s position is on European Union free movement and a whole host of other things.

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP, Upper Bann

The right hon. Member makes reference to the fact that, within the legislation, there is now a safeguard around significant disadvantage towards Northern Ireland and significant adverse effect. Does he not agree, though, that the significant adverse effect is very subjective? It has no concrete definition and section 13B allows the Minister to go ahead anyway, even if it does cause a significant adverse effect.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Before I answer it, may I say that I owe her an apology, because I completely misheard her question yesterday? I was having trouble hearing her—I think it might be my age, but hopefully it was the microphone—so I wanted to apologise for not answering her question properly. I disagree with her and I think a written ministerial statement allows this place to scrutinise what the Minister is doing and to allow more transparency.

I also wish to make a point—I hope that I will not punch a bruise here—about the intervention of Ian Paisley on the right hon. Member for Leeds Central. The hon. Member for North Antrim said that tariffs between GB and Northern Ireland would be acceptable if they were the will of the Parliament. I disagree. I think a £3 tariff on Bushmills would not be that great. None the less, all of the arrangements in the framework are given full effect by the will of this Parliament, and so, by his definition, it must be completely acceptable. I thank him for his support.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That the draft Windsor Framework (Constitutional Status of Northern Ireland) Regulations 2024, which were laid before this House on 31 January, be approved.