Trade Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:33 pm on 11th September 2018.

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Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour 5:33 pm, 11th September 2018

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, has just spoken powerfully about the benefits of expert sectoral attachés at our embassies, and I am sure that the Minister will be taking her suggestions seriously.

I make no apology for returning to the critical issue of Northern Ireland, following on from my speech on the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill last week. Ireland is the Achilles heel of Brexit, because it cannot be squared with the prosperity and flourishing of Ireland, because of the impediments it will impose on trade within Ireland and between Ireland and Great Britain. The crucial thing to understand about this, as I now appreciate only too well from successive visits to Belfast and Dublin in recent months, is that as an island off an island, Ireland’s trade is overwhelmingly centred on, or routed through, Great Britain. Some 14% of Ireland’s trade is directly with Great Britain, while 85% of Ireland’s EU freight trade is routed through British ports.

The issue we and Ireland face, therefore, has two critical dimensions. The first is the extent of the trade between us and the damage we will inflict on Ireland if we unilaterally erect barriers to that trade. The second is the impact on the fragile peace and stability of Northern Ireland, which, even 20 years after the Good Friday agreement, is in a state of crisis, with no Assembly or Executive for 600 days and the constant threat of re-entering a spiral of civil disturbance or worse. These two issues are interrelated, since nothing contributes to peace more than prosperity, and nothing undermines prosperity more than civil unrest, uncertainty and an absence of democratic institutions able to deliver for the people.

Since I spoke last week the position has worsened, because of the incredibly inflammatory remarks by Boris Johnson, Mrs May’s Foreign Secretary until two months ago, about her Brexit policy being a “suicide vest”. Leaving aside the nauseating attention-seeking tone of that metaphor, it is important to understand that Mr Johnson was referring to the backstop provision for Northern Ireland. As an irresponsible hard Brexiter, Mr Johnson has long been opposed to the backstop by which EU law and the EU’s trade regime will continue in Northern Ireland if there is any question of a hard Brexit requiring border infrastructure after the implementation period in 2020.

Mr Johnson’s reason is simple: the backstop imperils Brexit itself. This is in fact true. The problem is that anything else imperils the Good Friday agreement and threatens to provoke paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland—which is precisely why the Prime Minister agreed to the backstop last December, as a key element of any withdrawal agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union this autumn.

I know that the Minister will totally dissociate herself from the “suicide vest” remark—but will she say what the Government’s current position on the backstop is, given that the Prime Minister herself said in Belfast, shortly after Mr Johnson’s destabilising resignation, that she no longer favoured a backstop that had force in European law or was not time-limited?

I have two other vital questions for the Minister about the Government’s post-Brexit trade and customs policy on Ireland. First, can she say how Section 10 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act relates to the Irish backstop? My specific point is that if there is no deal, there is no backstop—so, by definition, on 29 March 2019 there will be a hard border and customs tariff arrangements between Ireland and Northern Ireland. I do not see how this, or any weakening of the backstop, is compatible with Section 10 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, which noble Lords will recall—because we inserted it into the Act—provides that a Minister of the Crown must act,

“in a way that is compatible with the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998”.

The same provision—Section 10 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act—also specifically prohibits the Government from agreeing to,

“create or facilitate border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after exit day which feature physical infrastructure, including border posts, or checks and controls, that did not exist before exit day and are not in accordance with an agreement between the United Kingdom and the EU”.

I ask the Minister, therefore, whether Section 10 prohibits no deal, or a weakening of the previously agreed backstop in relation to Northern Ireland?

As a further consequence of the crisis in the Conservative Party this summer, following the Chequers declaration on Brexit policy in July, the Government have gone significantly further than Section 10 is respect of provisions relating to Ireland. We now also have Section 55 of the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Act that we enacted only last week, which was inserted as an amendment in the House of Commons by Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg. Section 55 of the latest Act states:

“It shall be unlawful for Her Majesty’s Government to enter into arrangements under which Northern Ireland forms part of a separate customs territory to Great Britain”.

This gives rise to an obvious and huge question that I will now also put to the Minister. If under Section 10 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act a no-deal Brexit or any Brexit without a backstop is illegal in respect of Northern Ireland, and given that Section 55 of the Taxation (Cross-border) Trade Act states that it is not legally permissible to have different customs arrangements between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, does it not logically and necessarily follow that a no-deal Brexit, or any hard Brexit that is inconsistent with the Northern Ireland backstop and the Good Friday agreement, is illegal not only in Northern Ireland but across the whole of the United Kingdom?

I would be grateful if the Minister would respond to these two questions, either verbally at the end of the debate or in writing as soon as possible. Given the gravity of the issues at stake, it may be that she will want to give me a full response in writing. I should also say that I am taking other eminent legal advice on these vital questions. In conclusion, it looks to me as if the Irish Achilles heel of Brexit might be about to go gangrenous—and the force of the Brexit laws already enacted by Parliament might well be the cause.