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Brexit: Negotiations - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:05 pm on 3rd October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 4:05 pm, 3rd October 2019

My Lords, I first thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement. I think that most of us listened carefully to what the Prime Minister has said today. The Statement was very different in tone to what we heard last Wednesday, so hopefully her entreaties to the Prime Minister had some impact.

When the Prime Minister took office in July, we were promised a fresh approach to Brexit, and that, despite actions suggesting the opposite, the Government really wanted to strike a deal with the EU. Having patiently awaited the result of the Conservative Party leadership contest, our EU partners were promised certainty by Mr Johnson. The de facto Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Gove, tells us that the new Cabinet Brexit sub-committee has had dozens of meetings over the summer, leading to a new plan for the Irish border being drawn up and dispatched to Brussels.

It is perfectly legitimate for the new Prime Minister to want to put his own plans to Brussels. In doing so, however, he would have been conscious that the Article 50 process was designed to take two years—not just the two weeks before the last European Council summit—for good reason. It was unfortunate that his advisers briefed the media that this would be a take-it-or-leave-it offer. Thankfully the tone has shifted to something much more conciliatory. We welcome that.

We must, however, face facts. Despite being welcomed by the DUP—I am sorry that our DUP colleagues are not here today for the Statement—the plan has been dismissed by all the other major political parties in Northern Ireland, as well by manufacturing and retail bodies. Retail NI’s Glyn Roberts said that the proposal was “worse than no deal”. Trevor Lockhart, the group chief executive of an agri-foods business, said on this morning’s “Today” programme:

“It is ultimately a balance between what works politically and what works economically. The UK backstop, for us, delivered economically but clearly did not work politically, and in the pursuit of getting a political solution the interests of businesses in Northern Ireland to some extent have now been sacrificed”.

Those are harsh words. For a plan centred on the principle of consent, there appears to be little consent for it.

Last night the noble Lord, Lord Empey, powerfully made the point that the Government were reneging on their commitment not to have a border down the Irish Sea. Like him, I struggle to understand the position of the DUP, as that party has opposed a border in the Irish Sea since the very start of the Brexit process.

Those in the know told us to watch out for the reaction from the EU 27. No news would be good news; it would mean talks were going into the tunnel for further discussion, and a deal was possible. Anything more than a basic acknowledgement of receipt would spell trouble. What, then, was the verdict? The Taoiseach warns that the texts tabled,

“do not fully meet the agreed objective of the backstop”.

The President of the Commission, while welcoming a degree of clarity about the UK’s intentions, noted several “problematic points”. The European Parliament’s Brexit steering group was less than enthusiastic, and that institution, which has to ratify any agreement, has already signalled that it will not support a deal without a backstop.

As I noted earlier, now that the party conference season is over, the Prime Minister appears to be approaching matters differently. I hope that talks will continue and progress will be made. However, given the leaked and very unwise memo calling on Conservative MPs to call the EU “crazy” if it rejects such a plan, it is vital that these talks take place in good faith.

So let us look briefly at the issues with the proposals. Despite warm words from the Government on the Good Friday agreement, it is not clear that this arrangement would uphold the UK’s commitments. The plans talk of a limited number of physical inspections taking place away from the border at the premises of producers, or perhaps further down the supply chain. I listened carefully to what the noble Baroness said, but is she able to confirm what arrangements are envisaged for such checks? Would the system operate in the same way as the Sweden/Norway border, with UK customs officials able to inspect premises in the Republic and vice versa—because that is how Norway/Sweden works?

The use of electronic submissions for trusted traders is surely part of the solution, but I am slightly concerned that the clue is in the name—it works only for “trusted” traders. What would the criteria be for a “trusted trader” under the new scheme? How do the Government envisage dealing with irregular traders, or those attempting to smuggle goods across the border, particularly if the UK ends up not participating in EU-wide intelligence and data-sharing schemes? Is the Prime Minister confident that his answer to that will reassure the EU 27 with regard to upholding the integrity of the single market?

Key to the plans is the inclusion of agri-food, a sector that relies heavily on cross-border trade, in a single regulatory area across the island of Ireland. Has the Lord Privy Seal had an opportunity to reflect on the comments of the Food and Drink Federation, which last night said that,

“these proposals don’t work for shoppers and consumers. That’s because they ask food and drink businesses operating in Northern Ireland to pay—through new bureaucracy and costs—for the Government’s inability to agree a comprehensive exit deal”?

Such concerns have been echoed by a variety of retail organisations across Northern Ireland and the Republic.

On these Benches, we are extremely worried by the Government’s insistence that there is,

“no need for … extensive level playing field arrangements”,

in the withdrawal agreement. The Leader of the House and the Minister sitting next to her will have heard the debates over the past couple of years in your Lordships’ House, and they will understand that what has been spoken about is more than mere customs procedures. Such arrangements cover social, employment and environmental standards, which completely underpin the contents of the political declaration. Can the Leader confirm whether the Government wish now to amend the political declaration? If so, have they prepared a new text? Do they believe that it is feasible to secure substantial changes to and ratify—including passing the withdrawal agreement Bill through both Houses—the withdrawal agreement and political declaration in the time available over the next two to four weeks?

Simon Coveney, the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Ireland, has indicated that if this were the final offer, the outcome on 31 October would be a no-deal exit. However, the Prime Minister has toned down his rhetoric since the Conservative Party conference and has talked about this being a “broad landing zone” for a deal, with the Government prepared for further discussions and further concessions. However, the fact remains that time is tight if Boris Johnson and his advisers stick to their “31 October or die-in-a-ditch” mantra. The fact is that the withdrawal Act No. 2 is a lifeline for the Government. It is an irony that the Prime Minister’s best chance of securing deal is an Act that he has opposed and done nothing but attack.

Noble Lords will recall that exactly this scenario was envisaged during our earlier debates on the first withdrawal Bill. We argued that it would be wrong to tie the Government’s hands if they were close to a deal but running out of time because of an inflexible exit date. The Prime Minister says in his Statement that,

“we are some way from a resolution”.

The extension legislated for in the most recent withdrawal Act gives the Prime Minister the flexibility he needs if he genuinely wants to get that deal over the line. Therefore, given that the Prime Minister feels that his proposal is the basis for further talks, does the Leader also accept that that is what he is suggesting? If a version of this proposal is agreed with the EU, are the Government confident that the necessary systems can be put in place during the transition period ending in December 2020? What are the Government doing to ensure, and is the Leader confident, that Stormont will be sitting by then?