Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Amendment 6

Part of European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill - Report (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 20th January 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Bruce of Bennachie Lord Bruce of Bennachie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 6:15 pm, 20th January 2020

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.