Brexit: Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:51 pm on 9th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Minister of State (Department for Exiting the European Union) 3:51 pm, 9th January 2019

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, is paying attention. Today marks the start of three days of debate examining two documents: the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration, which together form the agreed deal with the European Union. These were, of course, the subject of two days of debate before Christmas in this House, as well as three days in the other place.

In both Houses we heard many diverse views on the deal, with much positive commentary—and of course some negative commentary—on what has been agreed after two years of difficult negotiations. While the task of closing the next three days of debate falls to my noble and learned friend Lord Keen, I thought it would be appropriate, with the leave of the House, to take time in my opening remarks to address many of the points made by noble Lords before Christmas, since they did not get to benefit from a closing speech at the time.

Noble Lords examined every aspect of the deal, demonstrating the breadth and depth of their experience and expertise. While the vote on the final agreement is rightly one for the elected House, it is clear that contributions from this House will be of great value to those making their choice in the other place. One subject in particular was raised by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay, the noble Lords, Lord McCrea and Lord Empey, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, among others, and that was of course the Irish border and the backstop. At the time, I was especially struck by the powerful intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Bew. Given the concern about the backstop across both Houses, it was right that the Government took the opportunity to raise these concerns with our negotiating counterparts in the EU.

Following the December European Council, the EU published conclusions which gave the reassurance that the EU,

“stands ready to embark on preparations immediately after signature of the Withdrawal Agreement to ensure that negotiations can start as soon as possible after the UK’s withdrawal”.

As has been made clear in private meetings with the Prime Minister, this confirms that the EU, like this Government, does not want to use the backstop. I recognise that, despite all this, significant concerns remain in this House, which is why the Prime Minister set out that we would be seeking further assurances on top of those provided in the December European Council conclusions.

Over the Christmas period, the PM has been in contact with a number of her European counterparts about the further assurances that Parliament need on the backstop. The PM has been in touch with the Taoiseach, and British and Irish government officials have also been in contact over the past week. Securing those additional reassurances that Parliament needs remains our priority, and leaders remain in contact. Leaving the EU with the deal that has been agreed is in the interests of both sides.

We recognise the concerns raised around the backstop and the unique challenges presented by Northern Ireland in our exit from the EU. That is why we have today published a paper setting out a series of commitments to Northern Ireland, in particular in any backstop scenario. These recognise the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland and the unique nature of the impact of the backstop in Northern Ireland. This seeks to address some of those concerns and reaffirm Northern Ireland’s integral place as part of the United Kingdom.

In that paper, we set out that we will ensure a strong role for the Northern Ireland Assembly ahead of any decision to bring the backstop into effect. We will provide a Stormont lock over any new areas of law being added to the backstop, giving a guarantee in law that no new areas of law can apply to Northern Ireland under the backstop without seeking the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly. We will guarantee the unfettered access of Northern Ireland businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom market. Again, we will set that out in legislation. We will give an unequivocal commitment that that there will be no divergence in rules between the scope of the backstop between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, were it ever to come into effect.

We will set out a legal guarantee that nothing will change areas of north/south co-operation without the explicit agreement of the Executive, in line with the arrangements under strand 2 of the Belfast Agreement. We will provide a clear role for the Northern Ireland Executive in discussions between the UK and the EU under the withdrawal agreement structures that specifically affect Northern Ireland, and we will ensure a strong role for the Northern Ireland Executive and the other devolved Administrations as we move into the next phase of negotiations.

I am aware of the Motion tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, to which I am sure she will speak in more detail shortly. My noble and learned friend Lord Keen will respond to that in closing the debate.

Over the course of this debate, we will examine two documents that represent months of complex negotiations and deliver on the result of the referendum. As noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Tugendhat and the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, noted before Christmas, the deal may not be perfect. It is well known that negotiations require compromise, especially when dealing with 27 other countries. As the Prime Minister has said, we must not risk making the perfect the enemy of the good.