Amendment 22

Part of Trade Bill - Report (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 3:37 pm on 13th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Hain Lord Hain Labour 3:37 pm, 13th March 2019

My Lords, the amendment stands also in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Kerr and Lord Bruce, and the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann. This amendment, which has cross-party support, is consistent with the previous amendment carried by your Lordship’s House, and which the Government accepted when the European Union (Withdrawal) Act was adopted last summer. However, it is vital that those provisions in Section 10 of the withdrawal Act are reflected in this Bill, which concerns not our divorce deal, as that Act did, but our long-term trading relationships.

In principle, the UK has joined Ireland and the EU in a shared objective of avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland in order to help protect the hard-won peace process delivered by the Good Friday agreement—a peace process that is still just that: a process that, in my view, has dangerously reversed these past couple of years. The border is often described as the Irish border, a description which seems to absolve the UK of any ownership of it, but it is a UK land border with Ireland. If we leave, it will be a border between the UK and the EU, so it is our responsibility as much as it is Ireland’s and the EU’s responsibility under any circumstances.

Only last week, the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, David Sterling, warned of potentially grave and profound consequences of a no-deal Brexit—including a sharp rise in unemployment, the collapse or flight of businesses and potential unrest—for Northern Ireland, which, lest we forget, voted by 56% to 44% to remain in the European Union in 2016. Senior civil servants do not usually speak so candidly and compellingly. Advocates of a kamikaze Brexit might take notice and might also take notice of the strong words of the 50 or more Northern Ireland businesses which wrote to MPs in similar terms over the weekend.

The extent of trade and traffic over the Irish border is huge: 110 million person crossings take place every year; Northern Ireland, with its population of 1.8 million people, exports £3.4 billion over the border, by far its biggest export destination outside the UK and the first export destination for new and growing enterprises; at least 5,000 Northern Ireland companies trade with their neighbours over the border with Ireland; tens of thousands of people live on one side and work on the other; supply chains operate across the border without impediment; more than 400,000 lambs and 750 million litres of milk are exported across the border to Ireland for processing; and 177,000 heavy goods vehicles and 208,000 light vans cross the border every single month, which is 4.6 million crossings a year, and there are 22 million car crossings, and they take place all along a 300-mile border with nearly 300 crossing points.

By way of comparison, the Norway-Sweden land border is 1,000 miles long with only 57 crossing points. That is a hard border accompanied by infrastructure at the frontier, yet it is the very one most cited by those Brexiteers who seek to brush aside our border with the Republic as something which can be solved with a few cameras and some online programmes.

There are unique arrangements under the Good Friday/Belfast agreement for north-south co-operation. The Department for Exiting the European Union lists no less than 157 different areas of cross-border work and co-operation. Many of them have been facilitated by the common legal and policy framework provided by Ireland’s and the UK’s common membership of the EU since 1973. These areas are the things of everyday life—the precious signs of normality in the post-conflict border region—and there must never be new barriers or controls erected to block or discourage them. They include: food safety; tourism; specialist schools; fighting crime; tackling environmental pollution; water quality and supply; waste management; bus services; train services; cancer care; blood transfusions; and gas and electricity supply. We must never disrupt these arrangements, either through a divorce deal or—the amendment is directed at this—any new trade agreements.

WTO rules, which primarily remove barriers to trade and prevent unfair discrimination, will not allow these areas of north-south co-operation and everyday cross-border movement to be maintained. WTO rules and the obligations of an EU member state would strictly limit the kind of bilateral co-operation between the Republic and the UK as an EU member state which has made the border invisible in everyday life.

Some find all these essential facts to be tiresome obstacles to their Brexit dream. They argue that the border in Ireland will never need any new barriers, that the UK will never erect any on its side and that somehow Ireland, which by law has to obey EU and WTO customs and regulatory rules, will not do so either. The same people go on to use the word “technology” as a magic solution, repeatedly citing reports by one or two alleged experts on how, maybe, such solutions might work and might be ready someday, somehow.

One such study still bandied about is known as Smart Border 2.0, sometimes wrongly described as an EU report. It was presented to the European Parliament’s Committee on Constitutional Affairs in November 2017, together with opposing views from other experts. However, the report, based on the arrangements at the Norway-Sweden border that I mentioned, does not carry the imprimatur of any of the EU institutions. Furthermore, proposals in Smart Border 2.0 rely on both physical infrastructure and staffed border posts, which would be incompatible with the common travel area that the EU and the UK have agreed should continue. The technology proposed is untested and does not address concerns surrounding the management of animal and plant health—sanitary, phytosanitary and other regulatory issues that would require checks. Given the all-island nature of the agri-food industry and the constant livestock crossings, any need for such checks at the border would be an utter disaster.

In short, ideas like this are already in breach of the law under the EU withdrawal Act, which this House and the other place passed, in that it rules out measures that,

“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”— the same wording as in Amendment 22.

Your Lordships’ own EU Select Committee concluded rightly that technological solutions were a long-term aspiration and could only mitigate, not eliminate, the need for border controls or infrastructure in the event of Brexit. This very important point underlines the vital need for this amendment. No amount of technology can be a substitute for the regulatory alignment or equivalence that today makes customs checks and security controls across the Irish border unnecessary. The border is completely open and invisible today because there are common rules for trading, services and people movement on both sides. Various wheezes by Brexiteers to monitor barcodes on lorries and so on will work only if there is a common compliance regime on both sides of the border, yet the Brexiteers’ very mission is to end those common rules and that common compliance; that is what Brexit is all about.

The same applies to checks 20 miles from the border, as some Brexiteers have suggested. For example, the reason that Jaguar cars—or their components—can be sent for sale without checks or inspections through the Channel Tunnel or across the Irish border is because Jaguar has signed up to thousands of common EU standards and other regulations. If Jaguar were to be found in breach by a competitor or by the European Commission, it could be taken to the European Court of Justice; yet it is this very compliance regime that the Brexiteers reject. No amount of fancy technology or max-fac wheezes can overcome this reality.

By the way, if the UK fell out of the EU with no deal, as many Brexiteers want, to set us gloriously free, the World Trade Organization rules that they crave would also impose on the UK a hard-border requirement, outlawing special treatment of an EU member state—Ireland—by the UK, which, as a third country, would be outside the highly developed free trade agreement which is the European Union.

Even the highly politicised and heavily spun Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report of 9 March, just a few days ago, confirms that there are currently no technology border solutions anywhere in the world that can deliver a frictionless Irish border—therefore slaying a few hard-Brexit unicorns. The committee took evidence and reported that technology proposals for a frictionless border,

“have been tested somewhere in the world just not in one single border”,

and, as, such the border in Northern Ireland would be,

“the first and a leading example in the world of this kind”.

The committee concluded:

“This is not a simple, quick-fix solution and implementing it in Northern Ireland would represent a world-first”.

My Lords, please! That is like saying, “We can do brain surgery; we can do transplant surgery; it is just that we haven’t done brain transplant surgery yet, but we’ll have a go anyway”.

That all shows clearly why this amendment is absolutely vital and why the Government accepted it in terms in the Commons as part of the withdrawal Act. Now, we are asking Parliament to do the same in our future trading arrangements covered by this Bill, and I hope that the Government will accept it.

I ask noble Lords to note that this amendment does not prescribe any particular new border arrangements. That is a very important point: it does not place the Government in a straitjacket. All it requires is the very outcome that we all—leave or remain, government or opposition, London or Dublin—are supposed to be signed up to: namely, the invisible open border on the island of Ireland that we currently have. Without that, we all know what will happen, because we are already starting to see it happen: the reverse of the painstakingly constructed hard-won process of peace, stability and trust on the island of Ireland. We know where that ends: putting back up barriers of all kinds, which will spark division and potential conflict for generations to come. I hope that your Lordships’ House will accept this amendment. I beg to move.