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Amendment 6

European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill - Report (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 20th January 2020.

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Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick:

Moved by Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick

6: Clause 21, page 25, line 30, at end insert—“8D Power in connection with Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol in withdrawal agreement: supplementary provision(1) Regulations under section 8C(1) must enable businesses in Northern Ireland to continue to be able to sell their qualifying goods to Great Britain without tariffs, origin requirements, regulatory import controls, dual authorisations or discrimination in the market, regardless of whether they trade directly with Great Britain or trade via Dublin port.(2) Any regulations made under this Act or any other Act that would introduce new requirements on goods traded from Northern Ireland to Great Britain (including, but not limited to, import customs declarations or origin checks) may not come into force without the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly.(3) Regulations under section 8C(1) may not provide for additional official or administrative costs to be recouped from the private sector.(4) Regulations under section 8C(1) must provide for mitigations to safeguard the place of Northern Ireland businesses and consumers in the UK internal market in accordance with the Government’s obligation, under Article 6.2 of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, to use its best endeavours to facilitate trade between Northern Ireland and other parts of the United Kingdom.”

Photo of Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Non-affiliated

My Lords, Amendment 6 is in my name and in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames.

There is a sense of déjà vu about this debate, because last week in my absence—which I apologise for, but it was due to a family funeral—this debate took place in Committee stage. This amendment is a consolidated amendment, or a consolidated clause, made up of about three of those amendments. The amendment requires regulations made under Section 8C(1) of the European Union withdrawal Act, to facilitate access for Northern Ireland firms to the GB market, as well as requiring consent from the Northern Ireland Assembly for the introduction of any new checks on goods traded from Northern Ireland to GB.

Many of us from Northern Ireland—and not from Northern Ireland but noble Lords none the less—have met the business interests in Northern Ireland, and their main, abiding concern is to ensure that there is unfettered access for businesses from Northern Ireland to GB. Why would that be the case? They do not want tariffs; they do not want import controls; they do not want dual authorisations or discrimination in the market. There is a necessity, therefore, to provide for mitigations.

Why is this necessary? This is necessary to protect Northern Ireland business, which trades in large part with colleagues—for want of a better word—in Great Britain. If any restrictions are placed on that, it will cause untold damage to those businesses at a time when the Northern Ireland Executive and the Government are trying to ensure the reform of the Northern Ireland economy to increase job creation and to ensure that, in the fullness of time, there may be a lowering of corporation tax—all to underpin our local economy, which is vitally important. I find it unbelievable that the Government do not want to bring forward that legislation or these amendments, or do not consider it appropriate, particularly at a time when the Northern Ireland Executive have been restored.

It is interesting that today the Northern Ireland Assembly declined to agree to the legislative consent Motion which deals with certain aspects of the withdrawal Bill relating to Northern Ireland. I saw statements from the various political parties. There is striking new unanimity on this issue of unfettered access, as was displayed last week in this House—across all parties and none—and across all parties in Northern Ireland, and above all in the business community. They wrote to noble Lords on Friday afternoon saying that the amendments before us this evening, in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and the other amendments in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, have the support of all the main political parties and of the broadest representation of the Northern Ireland business community. This level of common purpose and collaboration is unprecedented. The intention is to ensure that Northern Ireland businesses are supported and protected to continue trading unfettered and with no additional costs as full and valued members of the UK internal market.

I was not at the debate last week, but I listened on BBC Parliament. Some might think that was a rather sad thing to do, but this issue is of such vital importance to business and the wider community in Northern Ireland that direct participation is necessary. The noble Lord, Lord Hain, very ably put forward the explanation for those technical amendments, and, as a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, he is well equipped to understand not only the political machinations but also the political difficulties that can ensue if things do not work out.

The document that was agreed by the five parties and the British and Northern Irish Governments says:

“To address the issues raised by the parties, we will legislate to guarantee unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the UK internal market, and ensure that this legislation is in force for 1 January 2021. The government will engage in detail with a restored Executive on measures to protect and strengthen the UK internal market.”

Noble Lords will forgive me if I am a little sceptical about that.

First, I want to know how much and what work has been done with businesses, because I have talked to them. I also want assurance from the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Duncan of Springbank, that immediate discussions and meetings will take place with those businesses, the Northern Ireland Executive, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the leaders of the political parties in Northern Ireland to ensure that this is given effect. If it is not, and if the Government do not see fit to do so at this stage, what is the timeframe for those references to legislation? Also, will this be done through primary legislation, statutory regulation or—that old chestnut we faced for years in Northern Ireland—an Order in Council, which you cannot amend?

We need to know about all these issues because one thing is sure: we have a very delicate political framework in Northern Ireland; we have businesses that are crying out for help—not a hand-out—and that help means that they need unfettered access to the GB market for all their goods and services. In discussions earlier, I mentioned to the Minister the issue of fish caught in the British section of the Irish Sea, by fishermen from the County Down ports, but landed in Whitehaven and then either processed there or taken back to the County Down ports. The fish producer organisations are of the firm belief that they will have to pay tariffs, so there are east-west and west-east considerations there.

At the end of the day, it would have been better if the Government had legislated on unfettered access at this time. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, I feel that, in the main, the reasons for not doing so are largely political—obviously, Downing Street does not allow it, but maybe the noble Lord the Minister would like to do it. I would like to see a change of heart on the Government’s part to support our fledgling, new Northern Ireland Executive and underpin businesses and the local economy in Northern Ireland. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Hain Lord Hain Labour 6:00 pm, 20th January 2020

My Lords, I support the excellent speech of my noble friend Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick. I remind the House that I spoke at some length and in detail in Committee last Tuesday, so I will speak only briefly in support of Amendment 6 and do so with increased urgency.

Since last week’s debate on essential damage limitation amendments to the EU withdrawal Bill—I remind the Chamber that they have the support of the entire business community and, as the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, pointed out last week, not just cross-party but all-party support in Northern Ireland—the Chancellor of the Exchequer has confirmed what many of us had long believed: that the Government are hell-bent on an ideologically hard Brexit that could do untold damage to the small and medium-sized enterprises that make up the overwhelming bulk of businesses in Northern Ireland.

When he told the Financial Times last week that there will be no regulatory alignment with the EU after Brexit and insisted that firms must “adjust” to new regulations, the Chancellor blithely said that businesses have had since 2016 to prepare. However, businesses in Northern Ireland were not presented with the Northern Ireland/Ireland protocol until last November, just a couple of months ago. How on earth are small and medium-sized businesses, which are the cornerstone of Northern Ireland’s private sector economy, supposed to adjust in only 11 months to a unique and complex set of relationships with the internal UK and EU markets —and just when the Northern Ireland economy slowed last year because of a contraction in the private sector?

When the Secretary of State said in terms in the other place that the Assembly and the Executive should take greater responsibility for Northern Ireland’s economic and financial future, I doubt that many here, or indeed in Northern Ireland, would say he was wrong, but the Government cannot have it both ways. They cannot demand that and at the same time inflict serious damage on many private sector businesses through erecting obstacles to trade across the Irish Sea and through their hard Brexit policies.

As was stressed by speaker after speaker from all sides of the Chamber last week, these amendments are essential to protect the very businesses that the Government say they want at the core of Northern Ireland’s economic future. They are intended simply to put into law what the Government profess to support: that there should be no impediments to trade in both directions across the Irish Sea.

The Minister wrote to noble Lords offering what I am sure he hoped would be reassurance on the issues raised here, but we are not remotely reassured. To be frank—I say this as an admirer of the Minister—the letters were full of warm words and elegant waffle. The core message was, “Don’t worry. Trust us and it will all be all right on the night.” But business leaders and politicians in Northern Ireland do not want mere reassurance. They want action and they want it without delay, through either accepting Amendment 6 or the Government coming up with their own mechanism in law that will have precisely the same effect.

I have huge admiration for the Minister. I know that he is in a difficult position because No. 10 is flatly refusing to listen and accept amendments, but that is not acceptable. Businesses in Northern Ireland should not be sacrificed on the altar of government dogma and be forced to incur obstacles and charges when trading both ways across the Irish Sea.

Photo of Lord Eames Lord Eames Crossbench

My Lords, I added my name to that of the noble Baroness, who spoke so eloquently on this subject this afternoon, for one reason: throughout my professional life, I have come to value the core of Northern Ireland life through its business community. In many cases, those businesses were small. They are the heartbeat of the Northern Ireland community. Given the sensitivities of our situation both politically and economically—politically because of the sensitive nature of reaching the recent agreement, which we all welcome—and of our geographical position, having on our shore what is soon to become the border between the United Kingdom and the European Community, there is no better word than “sensitivity” to be adopted regarding the wording of the amendment.

During the lengthy debate in Committee, I coined the phrase “the reality of reassurance”. Behind what has already been said this afternoon, that remains the key reason why we make a strong plea to Her Majesty’s Government to take seriously not just the amendment’s wording and technicalities but the motive behind it: the reality of reassurance. No one can tell how this will develop once Brexit is a reality. The noble Baroness quoted the letter that came to us from right across the business community, which is united in making a plea for this reality of reassurance. At this stage, I simply say this: I realise the difficulties faced by the Minister and I accept the sincerity of his position, but I urge the Government to realise that there is a lot more to this amendment than simply technical phrases.

Photo of Lord Morrow Lord Morrow DUP

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 8 to 11, which stand in my name and that of my noble friends Lord McCrea, Lord Hay and Lord Browne. These amendments and the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, are very similar. Indeed, some might say that they overlap slightly, but I think that is no bad thing because of the situation in which we find ourselves.

I speak as a unionist and a supporter of the leave cause. We are clear that the withdrawal agreement does not get Brexit done, but that is to be proved. It merely creates an opportunity to get it done for Great Britain, but not for the United Kingdom. The final agreement will determine whether it is done for Great Britain and the United Kingdom. I will be happy to be proved wrong on this occasion, but I suspect—I say it myself—I will not be proved wrong.

The withdrawal agreement leaves Northern Ireland behind in the single market and, despite the legal technicalities, inside the EU customs union. The vote to leave was a vote not of Great Britain but of the United Kingdom. It does not respect the referendum result. There was never any discussion about the difficulties of a land border. The European Union dismissed all solutions, and, shamefully, many used the implicit threat of republican violence to make it appear unsolvable. The result was not to solve the trade and customs issue but to move the problems from the UK-Irish border to inside the UK.

The EU can hardly now approve a series of alternative arrangements that it spent three years dismissing as unworkable and undeliverable without admitting it was disingenuous on the land border. The act of putting a regulatory customs and tariff border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain did not solve the trade problems; it multiplied them. Great Britain is Northern Ireland’s largest market, and something like 70% of Northern Ireland’s retail goods come from Great Britain, so these potential checks will be more harmful than if they were at the land border.

The Prime Minister has given many interviews and there were commitments in the Conservative manifesto saying that our concerns are mistaken. I hope we are mistaken, as I said earlier. If we are, there can be no difficulty in putting those words and commitments into law. It would add a further layer of confidence that, in any breach or failure to fully implement the Prime Minister’s words and his Conservative Party’s manifesto commitments, it should not be Northern Ireland businesses and consumers who pay for that failure but the Government.

In the coming year, there is not one negotiation but two: the UK-EU free trade agreement and the Joint Committee working on the Ireland-Northern Ireland protocol, which has often been spoken about here today. This measure in law would reinforce and bolster a strong negotiating position in a joint committee. The Government’s comments to address the concerns of Northern Ireland at the next stage of negotiations are being given practical action with legal weight.

I turn briefly to Amendment 9. The United Kingdom internal market is vital for the well-being of Northern Ireland, as others have said. We trade more with the rest of the UK than with the rest of the world. As a unionist, I do not want to see any barriers to trade placed inside my country, but from a practical, economic point of view it harms Northern Ireland to have any impediment to internal trade with the United Kingdom. This amendment attracted not just cross-party but all-party support in Northern Ireland. That has already been stated, and it cannot be stated often enough. That level of support is rare in itself, but on Brexit it is unprecedented.

The recently published New Decade, New Approach ushered in the restoration of devolution a little more than a week ago. It states:

“To address the issues raised by the parties, we will legislate to guarantee unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the UK internal market, and ensure that this legislation is in force for 1 January 2021. The government will engage in detail with a restored Executive on measures to protect and strengthen the UK internal market.”

This amendment can put that government commitment into action. Furthermore, the Government have stated that there will be no negative impact on Northern Ireland businesses. The only way to demonstrate that is to carry out the assessment called for by this amendment. It will ensure that there is ongoing monitoring, not just a one-off snap-shot.

Amendment 10 again will ensure that the Government put action behind their words. Everyone can welcome the Government’s commitment to the UK internal market, but action is needed to back it up. No one in the Government could oppose putting the Conservative Party’s manifesto into legislative effect. The Government’s assessment has identified the problems that would be caused by the Northern Ireland protocol. This amendment allows a route to be pursued that can negate those problems by ensuring that the protocol does not continue to apply.

One of the greatest benefits of leaving the European Union is the ability for the United Kingdom to move forward with trade deals. The problems of securing EU-wide agreement on such deals are well known. Leaving the European Union gives the UK the ability to leave the cumbersome vehicle of the European Union behind and secure economic advantage through trade deals. As part of the United Kingdom, if we are truly to leave the European Union as one country, Northern Ireland should be able fully to participate in such trade deals. Amendment 11 will assist that. Trade is one of the key planks within the United Kingdom that binds us tighter as a nation.

Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP 6:15 pm, 20th January 2020

My Lords, last week in Committee I supported the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, and others. It is only due to me being late getting to the office that my name is not on this amendment, but I support it nevertheless.

The Minister did his best in his letter. The only thing missing from it was a poetical quote; otherwise, he pretty well exhausted every lever at his disposal to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. I congratulate him on attempting to do it.

I have always felt, and have said to colleagues, that the key to what we are discussing today will evolve as we go through the rest of this year. The necessary parts of the negotiations will ensue, and we will see what happens. The Minister was kind enough to quote my widget example in his letter. It was merely to illustrate the enormous complexity and difficulties, and it does not immediately occur to me how we solve them. We spoke to the business community. Reference has been made to the letter that was sent to the Minister on 17 January. Not only is such a letter unprecedented, but I think it is worth mentioning who has signed it. It states:

“The amendments that have been laid down”— those are the amendments we discussed in Committee—

“have the support of all the main political parties … and the broadest representation of the Northern Ireland business community. This level of common purpose and collaboration is unprecedented.”

It is.

“The intention of these amendments is not to seek subsidy or hand-out but, rather, to ensure that Northern Ireland businesses are supported and protected to continue to be able to trade unfettered, and with no additional costs”— that is an important factor, because that goes directly to competitiveness—

“as full and valued members of the UK’s internal market.”

That was signed by the FSB, the CBI, the Dairy Council, the Freight Transport Association, Hospitality Ulster, the Institute of Directors, Manufacturing NI, the Mineral Products Association Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association, the Northern Ireland Meat Exporters Association, the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, Retail NI and the Ulster Farmers’ Union. To get all those bodies to sign anything with all the political parties is quite an achievement. The Minister must be very proud of what he has achieved in provoking that. But we are not simply politicking here; we are trying to speak on behalf of an entire community.

References have been made to the new Executive and how they should be engaged. We warmly welcome the fact that they are in place and, one hopes, will be able to speak on behalf of the community and get our message across. Many of us have been extremely worried over the past few years, because during these negotiations the people of Northern Ireland have effectively had no one to represent them. That has been a huge tragedy, and a lot of the mistakes that have been made have, in part, been linked to that. Despite repeated requests, there was little or no significant impact from Northern Ireland’s voice, because it was not at the table, where it was needed.

I hope that when the Minister replies he will understand that and understand the competitiveness issues involved. He has to acknowledge that, as we sit here today, there are not on the table the practical solutions that will allow unfettered access. Our anxiety is that those solutions may not be there and that in a year’s time “unfettered” will become “fettered”—that there will be differences, competitiveness issues and costs. I sincerely hope that the Minister is able to square the circle when he concludes this debate. I support the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie.

Photo of Lord Bruce of Bennachie Lord Bruce of Bennachie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

My Lords, I, too, support the amendments. Having spoken in support of the principle last week, I shall be brief.

It is fair to say that this and the previous group of amendments are based fundamentally on a problem of trust with the Government. The Minister has given us detailed assurances as far as he is able, but the words of the Northern Ireland protocol and the assurances given by the Prime Minister do not seem to square with the facts. Understandably, therefore, it is difficult for people in business to feel comfortable that “unfettered access” means what it says. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, has indicated that there is a question over that. For example, being based in Northern Ireland, you may well have access to the Great Britain market but you may still have to fill in a customs declaration. That is a fetter and a tie, and it involves a cost. There is also the issue of at-risk goods, which may or may not cross other borders and will perhaps have to be separated out. That will involve an administrative cost and will be a problem. The Minister is fully aware that businesses in Northern Ireland—many of them small, as has been said—are facing Northern Ireland being half in and half out of both unions: half in and half out of the UK, and half in and half out of the EU. If anything is a recipe for confusion, that is it.

The point that the noble Baroness’s amendment makes is, given that in reality it looks as though there will be rules and regulations that change and that will have implications, what is required is a guarantee that businesses in Northern Ireland will be compensated or covered for that so that they will not be worse off. Many of us see a real intellectual challenge as to whether that is even practically achievable within the proposed framework. The Minister is not allowed to accept amendments to demonstrate good faith. He writes extremely detailed and genuinely constructive letters but they are not law, and that leaves us in this rather uncertain scenario.

To be absolutely blunt—I think that the Chancellor’s interview with the Financial Times last week made this clear—the hardliners are in charge. What is being practised is a hard Brexit and Northern Ireland is almost like a nut in a nutcracker. Many people feel that Northern Ireland is not the Government’s top priority in “getting Brexit done”: there is a worry that it is expendable.

The Minister needs to understand that behind these amendments is a genuine concern—even a fear—that all the assurances being given will be very difficult to square with the realities of the Brexit we will get, in terms of both how we withdraw and the future agreement. There needs to be a real and positive recognition that Northern Ireland cannot be left to be squeezed in between all that. If the United Kingdom means anything and if the commitments mean anything, Northern Ireland deserves those assurances, which is why these amendments have been tabled.

Photo of Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown DUP

My Lords, I support the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, and those of my noble friends, to which I have added my name. The Minister knows that in discussions my colleagues and my party supported Brexit. We did so believing and agreeing that Northern Ireland would leave the EU on equal terms with the rest of the United Kingdom. However, what is proposed certainly does not do that.

Over the years, those running businesses in Northern Ireland have faced many challenges. Indeed, for 30 years they faced the bomb, and they did so with great courage. We ought to salute them in coming through those years of terror and tragedy. However, we had hoped that those challenges had been left behind and that the door would be open for prosperity. There was great hope for the future for the generations to come. However, we now find that businesses face further challenges.

I am reminded of the words in the document that was presented to the parties in Northern Ireland. In fact, I can still see the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Foreign Minister from the Irish Republic standing at Stormont presenting the document and practically saying, “Take it or leave it”. That document contains the clear statement that,

“we will legislate to guarantee unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the UK internal market, and ensure that this legislation is in force for 1 January 2021. The government will engage in detail with a restored Executive on measures to protect and strengthen the UK internal market.”

However, what is proposed does nothing of the sort.

I appreciate that the Minister did his best in the letter that he sent to us but there is no cast-iron guarantee that fulfils what is promised in that document, New Decade, New Approach. I listened very carefully to the debate that exercised many noble Lords a short while ago and noticed that the Northern Ireland protocol and the problems it has caused were emphasised over and over again. However, the reality is that that is because of the sorry state that the Government got themselves into when they negotiated the protocol, and now Northern Ireland is left as a pawn in the game.

Last week, the EU’s chief Commissioner confirmed the checks and controls between Britain and Northern Ireland under the agreement that will govern the UK’s exit from the EU. As the noble Lord, Lord Hain, has already mentioned, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said in his statement that there will not be regulatory alignment with the EU after Brexit and that firms will simply have to adjust. That throwaway statement is not worthy, bearing in mind the question of quite how businesses in Northern Ireland are simply to adjust. The small and medium-sized enterprises are left confused and deeply worried about the future.

Can the Minister categorically guarantee that there will not be a raft of checks and controls placed on the movement of goods to and from Northern Ireland and Great Britain? Does he acknowledge that, if any of these were a reality, there would be a barrier to trade and Northern Ireland businesses would be at a competitive disadvantage in both the internal UK market and the EU? Additional bureaucracy will only add to the financial burden placed upon those small and medium-sized businesses that are least able to afford it. As the noble Lord, Lord Hain, said, they have been the backbone of the Northern Ireland economy.

This Government need to listen to the ordinary business men and women on the ground, no matter how great the majority in the other place. Failure to do so will inflict great damage upon the economic future and prosperity of Northern Ireland. Our amendment asks that

“the Minister or public body must ensure that the cost of implementing, enforcing or complying with these” regulations

“does not fall on Northern Ireland public bodies, businesses or consumers.”

Can he give us that promise: that the cost of implementing any of the regulations within this legislation will not fall upon the businesses in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Lord Murphy of Torfaen Lord Murphy of Torfaen Labour 6:30 pm, 20th January 2020

My Lords, it has been a very good debate, not least because this is the first time in decades that we have heard in this Chamber from both nationalist and unionist representatives in the House of Lords. It is also many years since they have agreed—and that is good. I am delighted to say that we will support the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, because it sums up the position of unanimity in Northern Ireland. It sums up the point referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that every single business organisation, commercial organisation, trade union and politician in Northern Ireland believes that the substance of these amendments is correct.

It is a matter of mere hours since the Northern Ireland Assembly—happily back again this week—this afternoon passed a Motion declining legislative consent to this Bill, largely because of the issues that we are now debating. That is very unfortunate. On the points made by noble Lords regarding the decision of the Prime Minister and the Government not to accept any amendments at all, I suspect that this has caused the Northern Ireland Assembly to do what it has done. I am sure that that is not the Minister’s view, but he has to do what he has to do. The Government have a majority of 80 and the power to do what they want; but whether they have the right to do that is quite another thing, certainly with regard to Northern Ireland.

However, should we find that the amendment is not agreed to, Annexe A to the New Decade, New Approach agreement published last week says that the British Government commits that

“we will legislate to guarantee unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the UK internal market, and ensure that this legislation is in force for 1 January 2021. The government will engage in detail with a restored Executive on measures to protect and strengthen the UK internal market.”

So, we hope that the Government will revisit this. We will look at the strength of feeling in Northern Ireland. We will be able to look again in the course of the next nine months or more; indeed, when the trade deal is being negotiated, we will look very carefully at the implications for Northern Ireland as they have been outlined today.

Before concluding, I will make one final point in relation to the previous debate on devolution. We now have three functioning devolved Administrations in the United Kingdom. I am not convinced that the Government have understood the significance of that change in the political landscape. Yes, of course we have to implement this Bill, because the people have agreed by referendum, and now by election, for it to happen. But, at the same time, the Government should do this in co-operation with the devolved Administrations and Parliaments.

There is no evidence that this is happening. Worse, if the Welsh Senedd, or Assembly, decides soon not to give legislative consent to this Bill, as is likely, then Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast will all have declined to support it. That is not good. It is not good for democracy or for our leaving of the European Union. So I look forward to some interesting comments from the Minister on how he can assuage the concerns that have been raised at this afternoon. This is one of the most important issues affecting Northern Ireland—its economic, commercial and business future. We all look forward to listening to him.

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

My Lords, noble Lords may be looking forward to hearing my response rather more than I am looking forward to giving it, if that helps. I will try to address some of the specific points raised but will also make some of the more generic points that I must make; that is something I need to be clear on.

I will start by saying where I believe we are in agreement. We do not want to see a hard border on the island of Ireland; we are in clear agreement on that. We also recognise that Northern Ireland is, and must remain, an integral part of the UK internal market. It is important to stress that this means that there shall be no impediments to the trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, asked about fishermen, and gave the example of Northern Irish fishermen fishing in British waters, landing on the coast of England and then returning to Northern Ireland. There should be no tariffs at all at any one of those process stages; it is important for me to stress that. If the noble Baroness permits, I would be very happy to sit down with representatives of the fishermen of Northern Ireland to discuss this further. I will reach out to Alan McCulla of the ANIFPO body to try to make that happen. I should say “I or my successor,” depending on the outcome of the reshuffle.

It is important to recognise also that there is a new kid on the block; that is true. There is now an Assembly in Northern Ireland and an Executive. It will be important in the calendar year ahead that the voices there are heard loud and clear in the ongoing negotiations that will take place under the arrangements with the joint committee. That will be absolutely essential.

I am also very aware that the business bodies that have written have come together across almost every aspect of the wider economic sectors of Northern Ireland to write as one. It is important that we do not lose sight of what that means. The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, asked when we would be engaging with these bodies. To a large degree, we have been doing so under a different guise, because there were different elements pre last weekend. But it is now time to say that we need to turbocharge that dialogue. There needs to be a serious dialogue with everybody affected by this reality going forward. It should be not a one-off chat but a dialogue that recognises the evolving situation in the ongoing negotiations as they impact on Northern Ireland.

The important thing to stress in this instance is that our commitment as a Government to Northern Ireland’s place in the union is absolutely unwavering. As I said the last time that I addressed these matters, both the manifesto of my party, which was endorsed by the people, and the personal remarks of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, have given a very strong commitment that we shall ensure unfettered access in the calendar year ahead. It is important also—

Photo of Lord Reid of Cardowan Lord Reid of Cardowan Labour

With the leave of the House—as I was called away just after the speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, and therefore missed part of the debate—I want to put a simple question to the Minister. Does he not yet realise that he is the unfortunate victim of the Prime Minister’s propensity to promise people that they can have their cake and eat it? In short, he promised that there would be unfettered access between the British mainland and Northern Ireland and that there would be unfettered access between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It does not take a genius to work out that that promise means that there will be unfettered access between the United Kingdom and Europe—which is impossible to achieve if we leave Europe. Would it not be better now to admit that, however hard they try, this will not happen? Otherwise, the disappointment in Northern Ireland will grow into disillusion and the disillusion will grow to bitterness, and that is where our problems will start.

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I welcome the noble Lord’s introduction where he said he was making a simple point. In a sense, he has made a very specific point. The commitments that we have made to the internal market of the UK are strong, and the ongoing negotiations that will deliver the reality of both our free-trade arrangement with the EU and, specifically, the protocol for its delivery are yet to be had. What will be important is that the negotiation is conducted in good faith and, I hope, delivered as the expectations have been set out. If it is not so delivered then I think there will be disappointment and disillusionment, but I have faith and confidence that we will deliver them as we have said we will try to, and that is important to stress.

The noble Baroness who moved her amendment asked about the timetable of what will happen and how it will be done. It is important to stress that this will be done not by Orders in Council but by regulation. It is also important to stress that the—I almost used the word “backstop”; let us not use that word—end point in this scenario, which will be the end of this year, sets the point at which we must have on our statute book each of the functioning elements in order to deliver this particular commitment. Again, in this place and the other place there will be full engagement in those elements to deliver that particular legislative commitment and there will be full scrutiny, using all the normal procedures to achieve that.

I am aware, as I look at the reality, that I need to go into more detail about the specifics of the amendments. I need to stress the purpose here. That is difficult, in the light of the speeches made today and last week by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, because it is very easy to get caught up in the technicalities. While my speech is not quite warm words and elegant waffle—although I admire the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Hain, put the word “elegant” into the waffle description; that was very much welcomed—there are some technical parts that we have to emphasise in this regard to ensure that the protocol and the issue that we are discussing actually work in practice. However, to return to the noble and right reverend Lord’s notion of the reality of reassurance, I am also aware that there is a reason why technocrats do not write poetry. When you are trying to talk about technical issues, it is very difficult to in any way soar to the heights of explaining a noble cause or a noble adventure. It is almost impossible for me to do that today, and I am quite sad that I cannot, but the notion of the reality of reassurance will be vital.

I will briefly interject a small aside: the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, mentioned “The Nutcracker”, one of my favourite ballets. The story has been described thus:

“The nutcracker sits under the holiday tree, a guardian of childhood stories. Feed him walnuts and he will crack open a tale.”

I am trying to work out whether I am the nutcracker or the nut. I have a suspicion that I am probably the nut in this analogy.

The challenge that we face is therefore to move forward on the specifics, so I am afraid I will have to divorce myself from any of the poetry available to me in order to look at that. First, Article 1 states that its provisions do not undermine the constitutional status of Northern Ireland within the UK. That goes to the point raised by the noble Lords, Lord McCrea and Lord Morrow. Article 4 is explicit that Northern Ireland remains within the customs territory. It is important to emphasise that Article 6 makes it clear that

“Nothing in the Protocol shall prevent the United Kingdom from ensuring unfettered market access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to the rest of the United Kingdom’s internal market.”

Importantly, New Decade, New Approach, which the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, referred to, sets in place the timescale, timetable and dates by which we must be able to legislate to guarantee the delivery—again, 1 January 2021. The protocol itself also contains the outstanding decisions that the UK/EU joint committee will need to take. I touched on this in the earlier discussion that I had: although we can set out in some regards what we intend to achieve, it is a negotiation and it will be required to move forward on that basis.

As I said previously, it will be vital that the Northern Ireland Executive are invited to be part of the UK delegation in any meetings of the UK/EU specialised or joint committees discussing Northern Ireland-specific matters that are also being attended by the Irish Government as part of the EU’s delegation. That is to ensure not just that the voice of the UK Government is heard there in a loud and booming tone but that the people who are affected by this are part of that open dialogue and discussion. It will be important for businesses in Northern Ireland to have trust not just in the UK Government in that process but in the Northern Ireland Executive.

The problem that we have with Amendment 6 is the rigid definition of access for Northern Ireland goods to Great Britain at this stage without allowing this to be properly informed by the detailed engagement of businesses and the Northern Ireland Executive. We are very much trying to avoid setting out in the Bill specifics that we believe should be better informed by the very individuals who are now gathered together and reconstituted in Northern Ireland.

The other issue with Amendment 6 is that it would hand a veto to the Northern Ireland Assembly on any regulations made by the UK Government, including those in reserved areas. Noble Lords will appreciate that that is something that we could not countenance as it would undermine our ability to deliver, and it would be inconsistent with the devolution settlements.

Amendment 8 might limit our ability to effectively deliver unfettered access by creating real doubt as to what form the lawful exercise of the powers in Clauses 21 and 22 would take. That would have the effect of preventing the proper implementation of the protocol or compliance with other international obligations. Again, we come back to the technical elements of this rather than the higher-level elements.

Amendment 9 would require the duplication, on at least an annual basis, of much of the information in the impact assessment that the Government have already published in support of this Bill. The requirement of this kind of annual report would undermine the Government’s ability to take an approach that fully considered the whole range of impacts at the right time. It is important to stress that we will not be shy of having information about this ongoing dialogue and debate because there is no way that we can deliver this, and the legislation that will underpin it, unless the other place and this place are fully informed about what it actually means in practice. Even more importantly, it is all very well for us to be informed but actually it is the businesses of Northern Ireland that will need to understand how this will work in practice, what it will mean for their balance sheet and what will happen in future.

Amendment 10 would limit the Government’s flexibility in negotiations and could well result in a worse outcome for the UK. It is clearly not for Parliament to set a negotiating objective for the Government; that has to be the Government, and we would do so, as I have on this occasion and previously, in dialogue with those most affected. That will be absolutely critical.

On Amendment 11, I address my remarks specifically to the noble Lord, Lord Morrow. I assure the noble Lord that the Government absolutely share his commitment to the union. Northern Ireland’s constitutional position in the UK is assured through the Belfast or Good Friday agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Nothing in the withdrawal agreement or the protocol will change that. As stated in Article 1 of the protocol, its provisions do not undermine in any way either the constitutional status of Northern Ireland within the UK or the principle of consent. It is clear that the only way that Northern Ireland’s integral place in the union would ever be changed is if the people of Northern Ireland consented to that change. That in no way is undermined by this process.

I recognise that it will be difficult as we go forward and consider these high-level objectives. The simple statement “unfettered access” is so easy to say and yet will be the subject of very detailed negotiations. Those negotiations will ultimately be the test of the Government, and it will be a serious test for us to deliver not just against our manifesto commitments but ultimately against the words stated by the Prime Minister as a measure of our will and our desire to deliver this outcome.

I have heard the message from the businesses that have written as a collective and from the Northern Ireland parties that have come together in wishing to see the outcome of unfettered access delivered; on that, we are in agreement. The test for us all now is to ensure in the calendar year ahead that at each step of the way we have full involvement with the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive and full engagement with businesses as we begin to develop the negotiating elements of this, and that both Houses here are fully informed as the process progresses, as they need to be, in order to move it forward.

I would like to think that I had given the noble Baroness enough to withdraw the amendment but I turn my eyes gently towards the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and wonder if I have just given some more warm words that might not quite satisfy him in this regard. If indeed that proves to be the case—I see a gentle nod of his head—then I am afraid I will have to ask the noble Baroness to test the will of the House at this point because I will not be able to return to this matter on a later occasion.

Photo of Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Non-affiliated 6:45 pm, 20th January 2020

My Lords, there has been striking unanimity on the issue of unfettered access to the GB internal market for businesses in Northern Ireland. The Minister raised certain issues which will require further investigation and monitoring. I add this by way of caution: noble Lords will do this, to ensure that that piece of legislation is in place and meets the requirements of businesses in Northern Ireland to allow them to grow, develop and be nurtured. Due to the time this evening, rather sadly, reluctantly and under protest, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 6 withdrawn.

Clause 22: Powers corresponding to section 21 involving devolved authorities

Amendment 7 not moved.

Amendments 8 to 11 not moved.

Clause 26: Interpretation of retained EU law and relevant separation agreement law