My Lords, I will be speaking in particular to Amendment 215 in this group, which is in my name. I am grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Suttie and Lady Wheatcroft, and the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, who have added their names to it.
I am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Hain for the way in which he introduced this group. He and the other speakers so far have set the scene in factual terms regarding the importance of the Good Friday agreement for the nature of the integration of the island of Ireland and the codependence that is significant for its economy, not just at the border but throughout the island, and the level of disturbance that they are anticipating as a result of Brexit and the level of commitment that the Government have to dealing with these issues, in anticipation and in reality, should Brexit occur. I support and adopt all the arguments that are before your Lordships. Noble Lords will be pleased to learn that I do not intend to repeat any of them, although towards the end of my remarks I intend to draw on the experiences of some young people in Northern Ireland that have been reported to me and others here, and which I think teach us a valuable lesson about the importance of the issues that are before the House.
I want to make a small personal contribution about my experience of Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs trying to do a relatively simple thing in a digital environment in relation to customs—in particular, VAT. Some noble Lords may have experience of this process. It is known as the transfer of residence. For the past three years, I have been living and working in the USA. When my wife and I returned to the UK, we had acquired some things that needed to be shipped back to the UK. This process requires what is known as a transfer of residence form, simply for VAT purposes. For many years—up until last year, in fact—this was done by a simple piece of paper that was completed by the person returning to set out what was coming back, when it was purchased and what value it had. If the form satisfied Her Majesty’s Customs that no VAT was chargeable, permission was given to the carrier to bring this particular sealed box into the country without charging any customs on it, and it therefore avoided being held up at the port.
In 2016, the Government decided to digitalise this process. It was a disaster. The process had to be put off time and again, simply because Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs could not translate the simple two-page form into a digitalised form on the web that reflected the actual experience that people had in the process. The reason why it impacted on me was that it was just at the point at which we were returning to the UK, after I had committed our modest goods to a carrier to transfer them across the Atlantic Ocean, that the system kicked in. I was faced with the situation that HMRC was so overwhelmed by its inability to cope with this simple online system of a form that had to be completed, printed out and then sent to it by email that I was facing the prospect of these goods, which were not very valuable at all, being put into storage at my expense at such a rate that the storage would have been more expensive than the actual goods themselves. I was in the unfortunate position that I could not even ask the carrier to destroy them because, in order to do so, I had to bring them into the country, and to bring them into the country you needed to be able to calculate whether VAT was chargeable on them.
I admit—I probably should not—that I asked the carrier for the addresses of all the HMRC officers that had been dealt with on any of these issues by him or by the association that he was a member of. I sent one email to all these people saying, “When is a decision going to be made about my application?”. Twenty-four hours later, I sent another one saying, “When am I going to get an answer to my email, or even an acknowledgment of it? If I do not get an answer, the next email is going to the Minister who has responsibility for HMRC and will also be copied to all of you”. Needless to say, within a matter of an hour I got the information that I needed and the authority to bring my goods into the country.
We are told that the system is now working, but it does not work on a digitalised basis; it works simply on the basis of a form which is filled in, printed and sent to them. In any event, my own experience confirms that it is highly improbable that, between now and a date in March next year, we will see anything approximating to an electronic border between us and the European Union—on any part of our border with the European Union, never mind the complexity of what is happening in Ireland.
Amendment 215 would give legal effect to paragraphs 49 and 50 of the December 2017 UK-EU joint report on regulatory alignment and the responsibility of the UK to propose,
“solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland”.
“In December we agreed the key elements of our departure from the EU, and we are turning that agreement into draft legal text ... no one should doubt our commitment to the entirety of the joint report”.—[Official Report, Commons, 5/3/18; col. 25.]
That was just last week.
In respect of paragraphs 49 and 50, the Government are presently doing exactly what my noble friend Lord Rooker, in the debate on Amendment 144 earlier today, suggested should have been done some time ago, which was to translate the joint report—or at least the United Kingdom’s commitments—into legal text, and not have left that for the EU to do. That process is going on, and maybe the Minister will indicate exactly where we are with the process of drafting a legal text. If, by any chance, we could get to the point where it could be adopted into the Bill on Report, he and I could probably have an interesting conversation. In seeking to give effect to these paragraphs, in a sense your Lordships’ House would be taking the Prime Minister at her word. We would not be doubting her commitment to the,
“entirety of the joint report”,
and seeking to translate the UK’s commitment into a legal text.
I commend the whole part of the report under the heading “Ireland and Northern Ireland”, which begins at paragraph 42. In the earlier paragraphs before 49 and 50, which I shall come to in detail in a moment, the agreement sets out that both the EU and UK agree that the Good Friday agreement,
“must be protected in all its parts”,
“the practical application of the 1998 Agreement on the island”.
Our amendment seeks to test the commitment to paragraphs 49 and 50, which, with the leave of the House, I shall read. I do so for two reasons: the terms meet the case much better than I could on why we should legislate for this commitment; and because I sense a reluctance on the Government’s part to read these paragraphs in full. People are cherry-picking these paragraphs at this stage, but they need to be read in full to get the full extent of the commitment made by the Government.
Paragraph 49 states:
“The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. The United Kingdom’s intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible, the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement”.
Paragraph 50 reads:
“In the absence of agreed solutions, as set out in the previous paragraph, the United Kingdom will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, unless, consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland. In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market”.
The Prime Minister was right to use the word “commitment” when referring to this document, particularly so with reference to these two paragraphs.
Paragraph 46 states—and this is important:
“The commitments and principles outlined in this joint report ... are made and must be upheld in all circumstances, irrespective of the nature of any future agreement between the European Union and United Kingdom”.
The text says, “irrespective”, so it meets the test that the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, repeatedly tells us the Bill meets; they are agnostic about negotiation. The test is that, irrespective of what happens between the European Union and the United Kingdom, the Government have committed themselves to these paragraphs in the report. They are solemn commitments to the people of Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland. Certainly for the majority of people who live on that island—not just those who live in the border area, which will be most affected—these solemn commitments are being treated as commitments which the Government will maintain and live up to.
These young people want us to know their key messages, and I shall repeat some of them. Key message 3 states:
“We have come too far from the violence and divisions of the past. We don’t want to see regression to a hard border and conflict”.
A hard border means conflict in their minds. Key message 4 states:
“Protect all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement throughout the Brexit process and protect the right of young people in Northern Ireland to consider ourselves British, Irish or both”.
The second part of key message 6 states:
“Protect our freedom of movement across the border”.
Key message 7 states:
“We are very concerned that Brexit could limit our opportunities in the future for work, travel and study. Protect these opportunities and support us to avail of potential new opportunities”.
Key message 9 states:
“Allow children, young people and their families to continue to access services and facilities on either side of border, for example in relation to health, education, sports and cultural activities. The UK government should also commit to continuing membership of the EEA to ensure retention of the EHIC card”.
These are all reflections of their actual experiences. They tell us that 2,000 of them travel one way or another across the border just for their school education, every day. For these young people, we cannot live up to the objective of this Bill to ensure that the same laws will apply to persons in the UK the day after exit as before, unless there is a settlement covering the whole of the United Kingdom that commits us either to continued membership of the customs union or to something similar to a customs union and to regulatory alignment. There is one way of doing that, and that is to accept as a statutory obligation the obligations set out in these two paragraphs.