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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 Lord Wallace of Tankerness Lord Wallace of Tankerness Liberal Democrat 4:05 pm, 3rd October 2019

My Lords, I too thank the Leader of the House for repeating a Statement that was written in much more measured tones than the one she was required to read last week. It is thanks to the purported Prorogation having been nullified that Parliament can now hold the Government to account on this important development. It is worth reflecting that if that had not happened, these important proposals would have been brought forward without Parliament being in session to examine them.

It is important that we examine these proposals, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, has asked a number of detailed questions on their application and how it is proposed that the arrangements will work. It appears that, from having no borders as a full member of the European Union, the Prime Minister’s proposals would give Northern Ireland two borders. Does the Minister believe that these proposals are better for the economy and, above all, for the security of Northern Ireland than what Northern Ireland has at present? It is important, too, that we closely examine the proposal of a “potential”— the word is there in all the documents—regulatory border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and customs checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Simply to state that position must surely suggest that Northern Ireland’s economy would be in a worse position.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, quoted a number of businesses that have expressed considerable scepticism about the proposals. The Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry said:

“Businesses are telling us that the potential increased costs will seriously damage … supply lines and indeed business survival.”

There are other quotes that could be repeated from spokespersons who have cast doubt on the workability and cost of these proposals. It would be interesting to see whether the Minister, when she comes to reply, can quote any business or business organisation which, in the last 24 hours, has given support to these proposals. The proposals depend on electronic and, in some cases, physical checks—possibly on business premises. What estimate have the Government made of these added costs to businesses as a consequence of such additional surveillance?

Last night, in response to a point that has been raised on a number of occasions, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, said that the proposals did not breach Section 10(2)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018,

“because they avoid checks, controls and physical infrastructure at the border”.—[Official Report, 2/10/19; col. 1765.]

I note his words, “at the border”, but if one looks at Section 10(2)(b) of the 2018 Act, it refers to creating or facilitating,

“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 believe there is a difference between “at the border” and border arrangements; customs arrangements are by their very nature border arrangements. Can the Minister confirm that the proposals put forward by the Prime Minister conform with the provision, given the clear indication in his Statement that checks could take place at designated locations anywhere in Ireland and Northern Ireland?

The Statement referred to the,

“potential creation of an all-island regulatory zone on the island of Ireland, covering all goods.”

It goes on to say that it would eliminate,

“all regulatory checks for trade in goods between Ireland and Northern Ireland”.

So, of course, there would be checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Will the Minister indicate whether this would be a two-way process? The Prime Minister, I understand, seemed to indicate in a reply that it would be only one way: for goods coming from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. Surely, however, if Great Britain has higher regulatory standards than the European Union, there would be checks for goods coming from Northern Ireland into Great Britain. Can she confirm whether that would indeed be the case, or is the Government’s working assumption that there will never be situations where the regulatory regime in Great Britain would be more stringent than that in the European Union? Have the Government had any discussions with the Scottish Government as to the implications of this proposal for any infrastructure required for such checks at Cairnryan?

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, referred to the powerful speech yesterday evening by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, who wondered how the DUP could possibly sign up to it. He gave various quotes at col. 1744, quoting DUP spokespersons opposed to any form of regulatory divergence. Why would they? Maybe the secret is that the answer is in the word “potential”, if it is read in conjunction with the consent arrangements, which in the explanatory note provided, refer to consent,

“within the framework set by the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement”.

There are people in your Lordships’ House who are far more expert in the intricacies of the Good Friday agreement and the procedures in the Northern Ireland Assembly than I am—I am conscious that my noble friend Lord Alderdice is behind me—but I understand there is a procedure called a petition of concern. Is it possible that a petition of concern could be used to ensure that these arrangements never take place, and could be vetoed by the DUP and others before they ever had a chance to take off? Does the Minister think that that enhances the chances of this arrangement being agreed to, not only by the Government of Ireland but by the European Union?

The Written Statement laid by the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, yesterday and reflected in the Prime Minister’s Statement, refers to a revised political declaration. The Statement says:

“In parallel, we will be negotiating a revised Political Declaration which reflect this Government’s ultimate goal of a future relationship with the EU that has a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement at its heart”.

While there is a lot of detail on the arrangements with Ireland, there is very little detail on what arrangements or provisions are sought for the political declaration. It would be helpful if the Minister, when she comes to reply, would indicate what provisions are proposed. Does it mean that the reassurances we had in times past about maintaining workers’ rights and environmental protections may no longer be the case?

The Statement from the Prime Minister also says:

“If our European neighbours choose not to show a corresponding willingness to reach a deal, then we shall have to leave on 31st October without an agreement and we are ready to do so”.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, has already indicated how the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act might come to the assistance of the Government, but assuming this agreement does not pass, and that the House of Commons does not agree to no deal, can the Minister indicate in detail how the Prime Minister can state that in these circumstances, we shall have to leave on 31 October without an agreement consistent with the provisions of that Act?

Obviously, an orderly departure from the European Union is preferable to a disorderly one. However, we on these Benches do not believe there is any agreement that can be reached which gives us a better deal, in terms of our security, our prosperity, our trade, our jobs, or the future opportunities for our young people than the deal we have at present, as full members of the European Union. That applies to the United Kingdom as a whole and to Northern Ireland in particular.