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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:17 pm on 2nd October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Conservative 4:17 pm, 2nd October 2019

My Lords, as the Government are in mid-negotiation with the European Commission, with Belfast and Dublin, and no doubt with other political forces in the other place, it is a little difficult to debate this issue this afternoon with full confidence—particularly as we have had about 10 minutes to absorb the outlines which my noble friend the Minister so kindly gave of the Government’s new proposals. The rest remains not only in negotiation but deliberately veiled. I understand that the Government want Brussels to try to keep these matters secret. That is a pretty forlorn hope but anyway, the veil has not yet been fully lifted so it is a little hard to see the full picture. Nevertheless, I intend to concentrate on that and, as the noble Lord, Lord Butler, said, to try to be positive about these matters rather than getting too bogged down in the sort of endless “What if?” speeches we have had, such as that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith.

It is assumed that there will be no withdrawal agreement and that we will arrive at 31 October with the Government saying that they are determined to leave and the Benn Bill saying that they should not. Let me put that aside to look at the positive prospects and what we can deduce from what has been said in the various capitals about the attempt to find an alternative to the backstop. I note that in this House only a fortnight ago, some of us who dared to raise the idea that there was a question to be asked about an alternative to the backstop were told by all the experts—distinguished former Northern Ireland Secretaries and others whose judgment I greatly respect—that it was out of the question. We were told, “It can’t happen. It’s never happened anywhere else. There is no conceivable alternative to the backstop and nothing else will be considered”.

Since then, even Jean-Claude Juncker has said that there is an alternative. Since then, the Times and the Financial Times have pronounced with great authority that there can be no alternative, it is quite wrong to assume that there can be any possible difference from the past, the backstop is here to stay, and it is all out of the question. Now it turns out to be in the question. I do not say that we have an answer. Maybe the critics and the sceptics on both sides—both the remainers who do not want there to be a deal of this kind and want to stay in, and the super no-dealers who do not want there to be any kind of withdrawal agreement because they want to leave without a deal—will go on questioning and hoping for a negative answer, but I am not so sure at all. I noticed in the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, and in many other comments, a hint of possibilities and that the simple, crude backstop, which was so indigestible, does have alternatives. They are complex and technical and involve very special arrangements of a kind that have never happened elsewhere in the world—but Ireland is special.

I just make a few comments on the situation in Ireland. It is worth noting that there has always been a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, not only before we all joined the European Union, but for the last 40 years. It is a border that is heavily policed by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. There have always been massive, complex cross-border tax and regulatory issues that have had to be dealt with by endless experts and consultants. If you ask any senior businessman in Northern Ireland, they will tell you all about the arrangements that arise as a result of there being a border. The most obvious one is VAT: 23% in the Republic—with a whole range of derogations, right down to 4.8%, I think, on greyhounds—and 20% this side of the border, in the United Kingdom, although we have been in the EU so far. That is just one example of the whole list of differences on payroll, labour provisions, the currency, which is of course quite different, transfer pricing and a whole range of other issues. Yet everyone has managed quite well with an invisible border.

Why, when we move into this new situation, it should become so impossibly difficult, I do not understand. I do not understand the voices that are still coming from Dublin saying, “No, we don’t want any of that at all”. I have to ask—I think any reasonable person has to ask—what exactly does Dublin want? We want co-operation and constructiveness with the Republic of Ireland. We have a very close relationship, bad in the distant past but better in the last 50 years, and we want it to be better still. Do those in Dublin want to get rid of the common travel area that has been with us since 1922? If they do, it will be very painful for them. Do they want to build a physical border to mark the edge of the EU? Again, I cannot believe they really do, but that is the consequence of being negative about the proposals and allowing things to drift to no deal.

Under the new proposals, as I understand it, we have two, or maybe even four years—I am not quite sure; I am going by the Daily Telegraph, which may not be all that reliable—to sort out how these new arrangements could really work in practice. Over those several years, a lot will change. A lot will change here, because we will see far greater devolution to all the regions, including Northern Ireland, Scotland—if it does not go independent—and Wales. We will see the status of all devolved Governments vastly increase in this country in the digital age. We might as well recognise that that is what is coming and that a new pattern will develop if we can show patience. If this Parliament can show patience and can agree to a withdrawal agreement, then we can go forward constructively. If this Parliament remains paralysed and cannot ever reach agreement, then I fear the obvious outcome—which many of us predicted all along—is a general election and a new pattern, which may be slightly better than that which, so far, the House of Commons has been able to deliver.