Northern Ireland Protocol - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 3:16 pm on 17th May 2022.

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Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 3:16 pm, 17th May 2022

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement delivered in the other place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the Northern Ireland protocol, and to lay out the next steps. Our first priority is to uphold the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions. That agreement put in place a new arrangement for the governance of Northern Ireland and these islands composed of three interlocking strands: a power-sharing Government at Stormont on the basis of consent and parity of esteem for all communities; intensified north-south co-operation on the island of Ireland; and enhanced arrangements for east-west co-operation.

So much of the progress we have seen in Northern Ireland rests on this agreement, and for the agreement to continue to operate successfully, all three strands must function successfully. These arrangements are the foundation on which the modern, thriving Northern Ireland is built; it commands the support of parties across this House, and we will continue to work with all communities in Northern Ireland to protect it.

As a Government, we want to see a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister in place, and to work with them to make further progress. The basis for successful power-sharing remains strong, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister laid out yesterday. However, the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is under strain, and, regrettably, the Northern Ireland Executive have not been fully functioning since early February. This is because the Northern Ireland protocol does not have the support necessary in one part of the community in Northern Ireland. I would also note that all Northern Ireland’s political parties agree on the need for changes to the protocol.

The practical problems are clear to see. As the House will know, the protocol has not yet been implemented in full due to the operation of grace periods and easements. However, EU customs procedures for moving goods within the UK have already meant that companies are facing significant costs and paperwork. Some businesses have stopped this trade altogether. These challenges have been sharpened by the post-Covid economic recovery.

Rules on taxation mean that citizens in Northern Ireland are unable to benefit fully from the same advantages as the rest of the United Kingdom, such as reductions in VAT on solar panels. SPS rules mean that producers face onerous restrictions, including veterinary certification, in order to sell foodstuffs in shops in Northern Ireland. These practical problems have contributed to the sense that the east-west relationship has been undermined.

Without resolving these and other issues, we will not be able to re-establish the Executive and preserve the hard-won progress sustained by the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We need to restore the balance in that agreement. Our preference is to reach a negotiated outcome with the EU. We have worked tirelessly to that end and will continue to do so. I have had six months of negotiations with Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič. This follows a year of discussions by my predecessor.

The UK has proposed what we believe to be a comprehensive and reasonable solution to deliver on the objectives of the protocol. This includes a trusted trader scheme to provide the EU with real-time commercial data, giving it confidence that goods intended for Northern Ireland are not entering the EU single market. We are already sharing over 1 million rows of goods movement data with the EU every week.

Our proposed solution would meet both our and the EU’s original objectives for the protocol. It would address the frictions in east-west trade, while protecting the EU single market and the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. The challenge is that this solution requires a change to the protocol itself, as its current drafting prevents it from being implemented, but the EU’s mandate does not allow the protocol to be changed. That is why its current proposals are not able to address the fundamental concerns. In fact, it is our assessment that it would take us backward from the situation we have today with the standstill.

As the Prime Minister said, ‘our shared objective’ must be to find a solution that can command the ‘broadest possible cross-community support’ for years to come, and

‘protect the Belfast Good Friday Agreement in all its dimensions.’

That is why I am announcing our intention to introduce legislation in the coming weeks to make changes to the protocol.

Our preference remains a negotiated solution with the EU. In parallel with the legislation being introduced, we remain open to further talks if we can achieve the same outcome through a negotiated settlement. I have invited Vice-President Šefčovič to a meeting of the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee in London to discuss this as soon as possible. However, to respond to the very serious and grave situation in Northern Ireland, we are clear that there is a necessity to act to ensure that the institutions can be restored as soon as possible.

The Government believe that proceeding with the Bill is consistent with our obligations in international law—and in support of our prior obligations to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. Before any changes are made, we will continue to consult businesses and people in Northern Ireland as our proposals are put forward.

I want to be clear that this is not about scrapping the protocol. Our aim is to deliver on all the protocol’s objectives. We will cement those provisions which are working, including the common travel area, the single electricity market and north-south co-operation, while fixing those elements which are not—on the movement of goods, goods regulation, VAT, subsidy control, and governance.

The Bill will put in place the necessary measures to lessen the burden on east-west trade and ensure that the people of Northern Ireland are able to access the same benefits as the people of Great Britain. The Bill will ensure that goods moving and staying within the UK are freed of unnecessary bureaucracy through our new ‘green channel’. This respects Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s customs territory and protects the UK internal market. At the same time, it ensures that goods destined for the EU undergo the full checks and controls applied under EU law. This will be under- pinned by the data-sharing arrangements I have already set out.

The Bill will allow both east-west trade and the EU single market to be protected, while removing customs paperwork for goods remaining within the United Kingdom. The Bill will remove regulatory barriers to goods made to UK standards being sold in Northern Ireland. Businesses will be able to choose between meeting UK or EU standards in a new dual regulatory regime. The Bill will provide the Government with the ability to decide on tax and spend policies across the whole of the UK. It will address issues related to governance, bringing the protocol in line with international norms. At the same time, it will also take new measures to protect the EU single market by implementing robust penalties for those who seek to abuse the new system. It will continue to ensure that there is no hard border on the island of Ireland.

I will publish more detail on these solutions in the coming weeks. Let me be crystal clear that, even as we do so, we will continue to engage with the EU. The Bill will contain an explicit power to give effect to a new, revised protocol if we can reach an accommodation that meets our goal of protecting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We remain open to a negotiated solution, but the urgency of the situation means that we cannot afford to delay any longer.

The UK has clear responsibilities as the sovereign Government of Northern Ireland to ensure parity of esteem and the protection of economic rights. We are clear that the EU will not be negatively impacted in any way, just as we have ensured the protection of the EU single market since the existence of the protocol. We must restore the primacy of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions as the basis for the restoration of the Executive. We will do so through technical measures designed to achieve the stated objectives of the protocol, tailored to the reality of Northern Ireland. We will do it in a way that fundamentally respects both unions—the United Kingdom and the EU—and we will live up to our commitments to all communities of Northern Ireland. As co-signatory and co-guarantor of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, we will take the necessary decisions to preserve peace and stability. I commend this Statement to the House.”

Photo of Baroness Chapman of Darlington Baroness Chapman of Darlington Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and International Trade) , Shadow Spokesperson (Justice) 3:26 pm, 17th May 2022

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating this important Statement. That the Government have been preparing legislation relating to the Northern Ireland protocol is no secret. Senior members of the Cabinet have taken every opportunity to issue threats to this effect in recent weeks, but we should be thankful that the tone of the ministerial intervention today has shifted somewhat. We have gone from what felt like the inevitability of unilateral action to this proposed Bill being a mere insurance policy. However, as I will return to, and as many commentators have said in recent times, the Government’s approach to this challenge posed by the protocol has been erratic and at times reckless.

The backdrop of the dispute over the protocol now is, in part, the crucial question of the formation of a new Northern Ireland Executive. The Prime Minister was clear in his Belfast Telegraph article that he believes that Sinn Féin, as the largest party following the Assembly elections, has secured the position of nominating the First Minister. He called for the DUP to nominate a Speaker and First Minister as a matter of urgency, to get the Assembly up and running, and for once we are in full agreement with the Prime Minister. The people of Northern Ireland want their leaders, of all parties, to get on with the job. The cost of living crisis continues to bite, and the Assembly and the Executive will have an important role to play in the coming months. Politicians must, first and foremost, fulfil those duties while negotiations on the protocol—which the majority of newly elected MLAs wish to see fixed, not scrapped—continue.

We on these Benches understand the concerns regarding the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol. We have long called on both sides to show the flexibility needed to ensure that the protocol works in a way that enjoys the highest possible public support. The operation of the protocol has revealed tensions which need to be addressed; however, it has also been used by some to stoke tensions, and such behaviour is highly irresponsible. To uphold the principles of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and sustain the peace that it brought us, we need willing from both the EU and the UK Government. Checks must be reduced to the absolute minimum necessary.

There must be an element of common sense as to exactly what trade is subject to which checks. It cannot be right that goods from Great Britain which have no realistic prospect of moving into the EU single market are subject to excessive, costly and burdensome checks that only hamper business, inhibit trade and undermine confidence and consent. We have long called on both sides to show the flexibility needed to resolve this. We need calm heads, responsible leadership and serious diplomacy from both sides, statecraft, diligence and graft. While the process is under way, the people of Northern Ireland need and deserve a functioning Government who reflect the outcome of elections, as well as restoring the institutions created by the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

The Government negotiated this deal. They signed it and ran an election campaign all about it. The Prime Minister refused to be upfront about the implications of his agreement, and that is his failure. Yesterday, in an interview with the BBC’s new political editor, the Prime Minister acknowledged that the Northern Ireland protocol was his creation. It is important that he has finally taken responsibility for negotiating an agreement that required, by its very design, some checks in the Irish Sea.

Aspects of what the Government are proposing on the protocol are helpful. However, these must be subject to urgent, detailed and technical negotiations, rather than endless media briefings. Labour has long argued that a veterinary agreement with the EU would eliminate the vast majority of checks on produce going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Although this would not solve every problem—I accept that—it would be a sensible way forward. Crucially, it would act as the starting point for all sides to work with communities and businesses in Northern Ireland to find other creative solutions to minimise these checks.

One thing which is certain in this process is that the breaking of an international treaty will do nothing to improve the current situation. The proposed Bill may have been called an insurance policy but, if it is taken forward, it would amount to a major breach of our international commitments. There is no long-term unilateral solution to the issues with the protocol, and to pretend otherwise is disingenuous and will make achieving a negotiated settlement even harder. The EU has already said that it will respond to any breaches of the protocol with all measures at its disposal. We think that that is code for trade friction, which affects the cost of living and which people across this country do not want and cannot possibly afford, given current pressures.

Simon Hoare, chair of the Northern Ireland Select Committee, has said:

“Respect for the rule of law runs deep in our Tory veins, and I find it extraordinary that a Tory Government needs to be reminded of that.”

I suspect that the Minister will have some sympathy for what his colleague has said today. I hope that he will impress on the Foreign Secretary the need to de-escalate this situation and to take the right and responsible approach that is in the long-term interests of the people of Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole.

Photo of Baroness Ludford Baroness Ludford Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union)

My Lords, while political knockabout is tempting in the surreal circumstance to which the Government have brought us in respect of the Northern Ireland protocol, the situation is too serious and dangerous for that. The Foreign Secretary’s claim that the Government’s

“first priority is to uphold the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions” does not stand up to scrutiny. The protocol exists solely because of the nature of Brexit and the hardest of hard versions that the Johnson Government and their DUP allies chose, despite the voters of Northern Ireland not supporting a Brexit of any kind. Brexit was the original sin. The Government’s choice meant that the UK and Ireland were not aligned within the customs union or the single market. The result was the need to manage the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland through special arrangements. It was impossible to have the hard Brexit cake and to eat the no-checks-across-the-Irish-Sea cherry. However, the Prime Minister and his supporters seem never to have accepted the consequences of their choices and the treaties they signed.

The protocol can be changed only by an agreement between the UK and the EU. At the time it was signed, there was still hope that the trade agreement would supersede the protocol and make it unnecessary. Hence, the Government’s impact assessment in October 2019 said:

“The Government intends to conclude a future relationship with the EU that is centred on a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU and the outcome of this will affect the operation of the protocol.”

However, that comprehensive FTA never materialised, so the protocol—imperfect as it undoubtedly is—is still the essential best of a bad job. The Government’s announced action will put the UK in potential breach of international law. Like the noble Baroness, I will quote the Conservative chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Simon Hoare, who quoted Margaret Thatcher as saying:

“The first duty of Government is to uphold the law. If it tries to bob and weave and duck around that duty when it’s inconvenient … then nothing is safe—not home, not liberty, not life itself.”

The Assembly election results show that a clear majority of voters and elected Assembly members not only want to see the political institutions operating immediately but generally support the protocol. This also applies to the vast majority of the business community, who also want a pragmatic, not confrontational, approach.

The dual-market access that Northern Ireland enjoys is an economic asset, but the Government are not listening to these messages. In the strong words of my friend in the other place, Stephen Farry of the Lib Dems’ sister party, Alliance, which did so well in the Assembly elections:

“This proposed action is unwanted and unwarranted. Indeed, it may prove to be counterproductive and destructive. Much of the rationale cited by the Government is disingenuous … Any action or even threat of action that takes Northern Ireland out of the single market, including disapplying the jurisdiction of the ECJ, will undermine our region”—

I repeat, “will undermine our region”—

“as an investment location. It would also lead to even greater political instability.”

These are serious words for a very serious situation.

The disingenuous nature of the Foreign Secretary’s Statement is illustrated in her assertion that

“all Northern Ireland’s political parties agree on the need for changes to the protocol.”

Of course those parties, including Alliance, which accept the protocol still want to see improvements in its operation, because it is certainly necessary to address a range of issues. However, the way forward lies in partnership and mutual agreement between the UK and EU around legal and sustainable solutions to reduce the nature and level of checks through various mitigations and flexibilities in the operation of the protocol, or via building on the trade and co-operation agreement.

I note that the Foreign Secretary says that our preference is to reach a negotiated settlement with the EU—so please just do it. One extra that the Government should pursue is a veterinary or SPS agreement; there is a clear alternative here to just whingeing about SPS checks. Can the Minister explain properly why this is not being pursued? Yes, the EU should display even more flexibility than it has already—over medicines, for instance—but it also says that the flexibilities it has proposed have not been fully explored by the UK Government, and it cannot be expected to do more when the Government display belligerence instead of co-operation and undermine trust, especially as some of the solutions involve the EU subcontracting functions to UK authorities.

To risk a trade war with the EU at a time when there is a military war in Europe and when the UK economy is weak and vulnerable is deeply irresponsible. No wonder the Cabinet is split. I hope that the necessary negotiations will be taken forward.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I first thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Chapman and Lady Ludford, for their contributions and broad support—certainly from the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman—for the importance of moving forward in a collaborative and collective way and ensuring that the importance of upholding the principles, nature, context and content of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is at the heart of this. I know that this point was also shared by the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, and it has really been the basis of why the Government have chosen the particular pathway that I articulated in repeating the Statement.

The formation of a new Executive and a functioning Assembly—which the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, alluded to—are, of course, the primary objectives of the United Kingdom Government. I state again that this is not about scrapping the protocol, as the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, acknowledged; it is about fixing those elements of it which frankly are not working. They are not working for the political parties, for communities and, importantly, for businesses operating and seeking to strengthen their work across both Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, talked about Brexit and referred to Northern Ireland voting in a particular way, not for Brexit. The whole essence of the vote on Brexit was exactly what we are standing up for today: the unity of the United Kingdom. This was a UK-wide vote. It was a democratic vote—one person, one vote—the result stands and we really need now to move forward.

I also challenge the premise that, because of Brexit, our relationship with the European Union has suffered across a range of priorities. The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, referred to Ukraine. As someone who has been involved at the heart of our response, collaboration and collective working on Mr Putin’s aggression and war on Ukraine, I assure her that our work with the European Union and our partners in Europe is in a very strong place, particularly in an area that I oversee and work on with my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary: that of sanctions. I assure the noble Baroness that our relationship is very strong both bilaterally with countries across Europe and in the European Union context. I was pleased, as were many noble Lords, I am sure, when I heard the votes of the Eurovision Song Contest and heard Paris award the United Kingdom douze points. That reflects the strength across all cultural ties as well as what we are doing across important areas of our collaborative work.

On the issue of working with the European Union, Mr Šefčovič and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary have been engaged in regular meetings, both calls and direct. Indeed, in the Statement today, my right honourable friend again outlined the importance of meetings. As I articulated in repeating the Statement, in introducing the Bill, we are working in tandem to ensure that ultimately our objective is to find a strengthened partnership with the European Union based on negotiated amendments to the protocol—it is very clear that it is not working.

I look forward to working with the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, along with my noble friend Lord Caine and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, among others, on how we move forward with the legislation. I assure all noble Lords that, in taking forward this Bill, I am someone who has at the heart of his responsibilities the importance of the international rule of law—it is something I have personally defended—and this is very much consistent with our obligations to international law. We will put forward a Statement on the Government’s legal position in due course.

On all the technical points within the protocol—the areas which are not working— we will continue to engage not just with the political parties and the EU but, importantly, with businesses to ensure that we can find the most practical and pragmatic solutions. Ultimately, the Government are making this Statement today and the proposals they have to ensure a functioning Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland. As we have articulated —it is a point emphasised by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister—we need to act and move forward but do so always with the hand of co-operation and collaboration with the EU, and the door remains very much open for future discussions.

Photo of Lord Howard of Lympne Lord Howard of Lympne Conservative 3:42 pm, 17th May 2022

My Lords, will the Statement which my noble friend has promised on the Government’s legal position make it clear why they have come to the conclusion that these proposals are consistent with our international legal obligations, in contrast with the clauses in the internal market Bill?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I hear what my noble friend said and, as I said already, we will put forward a Statement which will outline the Government’s position in this regard.

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

My Lords, trust, dialogue and confidence are urgently required in Northern Ireland. Not setting up an Executive and an Assembly post an election is deeply unacceptable and undemocratic. In that vein, will the Minister outline what technical meetings have taken place between the UK Government and the EU Commission in the past six months on issues to do with the protocol? I am talking about not ministerial meetings but technical working meetings. Further, what meetings will take place and when with business leaders, taking on board that the European Commission through Maroš Šefčovič has already had such meetings for more than a year?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I welcome the noble Baroness’s contribution; she speaks on issues in Northern Ireland with great insight. I assure her that yesterday my right honourable friend met the chairman of Marks & Spencer, and we meet business leaders regularly. Indeed, part of our approach has been underpinned by what businesses themselves are saying. The Road Haulage Association has said that the protocol has caused an increase in the cost of moving goods to Northern Ireland of between 34% and 35%. The Federation of Small Businesses has said that the current arrangements have

“created new bureaucracy, increased costs and impacted supply chains.”

I assure the noble Baroness that, as I indicated through my right honourable friend’s meeting yesterday, we meet businesses regularly—as does the EU, as the noble Baroness acknowledged. Specific official-level meetings have been regular and consistent. For every meeting that takes place at the ministerial level, there are official meetings both in the preamble and as post-outcome meetings. Looking at my list here, there have been 10 meetings since December led directly by the Foreign Secretary. As I said, the pre and post meetings certainly indicate our commitment to finding a practical resolution.

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

My Lords, although I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s Statement, there is no doubt that resolute action to deal with this deeply offensive protocol must be taken. Firm and welcome words alone will not satisfy the community that certainly I come from. My colleagues and I await the proposed legislation and will honourably judge the same in accordance with the mandate we received in the recent election. However, does the Minister accept that devolution in Northern Ireland will not be restored until the protocol issue is resolved? A fudge will not satisfy.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord’s contribution. Again, I assure noble Lords that I and my noble friends on the Front Bench will continue to engage with your Lordships’ House on the practical proposals as they come forward, to ensure that we work through the details of the proposed Bill. I agree with him on the importance of having a functioning Executive and Assembly. It is very much part and parcel of the solution in ensuring that we do not just find practical resolutions to the protocol issue and its continuing challenges but avail ourselves of the opportunities for all people across Northern Ireland.

Photo of The Earl of Kinnoull The Earl of Kinnoull Chair, European Union Committee, Chair, European Union Committee, Deputy Chairman of Committees, Chair, European Affairs Committee, Chair, European Affairs Committee

My Lords, what assessment have the Government made of the collateral effects of other EU-UK matters that are under discussion and dispatch? This was strongly evidenced by the letter I received from Commissioner Gabriel on 29 April in response to my letter about the UK’s lack of accession to Horizon Europe. Commissioner Gabriel cited the present serious difficulties in the implementation of the withdrawal agreement. Is not the Northern Ireland protocol spilling over a lot into the wider relationship and causing other problems?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, in negotiating any new agreement such as the withdrawal agreement, and in our new working with our colleagues across the European Union, there will of course still be issues that we need to focus on and resolve. However, I spoke earlier about my own practical experience of and insight on my dealings with colleagues across the EU, such as the Foreign Ministers whom I and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary meet regularly. There is certainly a raft of areas on which we see not only strong collaboration but strong partnership. That is perhaps best brought together in the current response we have seen to the war in Ukraine.

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Conservative

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister accept that the problems with the Northern Ireland protocol affect not simply trade but the human rights issue, which has been identified as the democratic deficit? Northern Ireland is the only part of Europe in which people are subject to laws that are changed in a foreign parliament and adjudicated by a foreign court, and where tax rates must be approved by a foreign power. Unless the solution the Government come up with removes those jurisdictions, it will not be a sustainable one.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, my noble friend articulates the current challenges. That is exactly why the Government are acting: as the sovereign power responsible for Northern Ireland and its people, we have a responsibility to ensure that the primacy of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its structures is kept at the forefront of our thinking and discussions on how Northern Ireland moves forward. My noble friend mentioned human rights. We must ensure that people in Northern Ireland have the same benefits, laws and courts as everyone else across the United Kingdom.

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated

My Lords, can the Minister make it clear that the blame for the present tensions and problems is not to be found in the unionist community, as implied by too many commentators and even by some here today? I do not always agree with the DUP, but on this I do—solidarity. Also, can I urge the Minister to commit to making it clear that the protocol is not just a practical or technical problem in terms of the movement of goods, VAT and so on? The Statement was overtechnical. Would it in fact be better for the Government to stress that what is at stake here is the principle of sovereignty? It is that principle that has to be fought for and defended; and the protocol cannot do that.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I am glad that a Statement such as this has brought the kind of unity the noble Baroness has referred to. Equally, I agree with her that it is important that at the forefront of this is the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. Many Members of your Lordships’ House were involved with the hard, technical negotiations which brought that forward, and it is also important that we not only sustain it but continue to strengthen it. Ultimately, yes, it is about sovereignty and unity and ensuring that the people of Northern Ireland, who are an integral part of the United Kingdom, enjoy the same benefits.

Photo of Viscount Hailsham Viscount Hailsham Conservative

My Lords, in the autumn of 2019, Mr Johnson on many occasions asserted that the Northern Ireland protocol would not create a trade barrier between Northern Ireland and the remainder of the United Kingdom. That is not the case. That was never the case. Why did he say that? Was it because he did not understand what he had agreed, or was it because he did not want the true facts to be known to the electorate? We need an explanation, and we need one before this House is asked to consider further legislation.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister articulated the importance of the principles of the protocol. We wanted to ensure that there were no differences between the opportunities afforded to businesses and people in Northern Ireland and those in the rest of Great Britain. That has not been the case. We have continued to negotiate on finding solutions with our colleagues across the EU in practical and collaborative ways. As I have said already, and I articulate again to my noble friend, that door is very much open for discussions. It is important that we look to address those very issues, which are not just being highlighted by the UK Government; these issues are being highlighted in practice by the communities of Northern Ireland. As the Statement said, every political party in Northern Ireland believes that the protocol needs to be amended. Also, importantly, businesses are making the case very strongly. It is important, as a responsible Government, that we act accordingly.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Labour

My Lords, does the Minister not recall that we discussed this issue over and again when we were talking about the impact that Brexit would have on the Northern Ireland agreement? We did so in this House; I recall very clearly my noble friend Lord Hain making exactly this point. The problem we have now was inevitable. The problem with the protocol that we are now discussing undermines, fundamentally, the painfully reached Good Friday agreement, where we were helped by Senator Mitchell of the United States, and what we now have is an almost irreconcilable problem by having thought we could have our cake and eat it.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, one thing I have learned in diplomacy is that you can reconcile everything. It is about having the vision and also the commitment to find an agreement. That is certainly the intention of the United Kingdom Government. We will continue to work with our colleagues and friends across the European Union to find solutions to the issues of the protocol. We do not have a functioning Executive; people are taxed differently from everyone else in the UK; you cannot access the same financial benefits; and laws and courts in Northern Ireland are different from elsewhere in the UK. These are practical problems. They must be addressed. We will continue to work with the EU in good faith. But from a personal perspective: where there is a will, you can find a way, and one hopes we can do exactly that.

Photo of Lord Lilley Lord Lilley Conservative

My Lords, as the former Solicitor-General Sir Robert Buckland said in another place, the very first article of the protocol says:

“This Protocol is without prejudice to the provisions of the 1998 Agreement”.

So the Belfast/Good Friday agreement take precedence over the protocol. The UK, as guarantor of the Belfast agreement, has not just a right but a duty to ensure that elements of the protocol that threaten the Good Friday agreement are changed, as envisaged in Article 13 of the protocol. If the EU resists this—I hope it will not—it will be acting against both the letter and the spirit of the protocol.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, my noble friend has detailed what my right honourable friend Robert Buckland said, and I totally agree. As I said, the position the Government are taking is about not scrapping the protocol but addressing the very issues that are not consistent with the important agreement that was reached by all in Northern Ireland: the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We need to ensure that it is upheld.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

My Lords, does the Minister understand why some of us who warned of the dangers of Brexit and the withdrawal agreement—every day, as my noble friend said—

A noble Lord:

Move on!

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

We are just a wee bit fed up when those people who were responsible for it and got peerages as a result of supporting that campaign now get up and criticise what they advocated, and when the former Minister, sitting on the Back Benches over there, who pushed this on us leaves the front line and snipes from the sidelines, leaving the poor noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, to come and explain it to us. He does it very well but it is not his responsibility. We should blame those whose responsibility it really is.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, first of all, I have worked closely with my noble friend Lord Frost and continue to have a strong friendship with him and to hold him in the highest regard. I pay tribute to the important work he did in our discussions on this important agreement with those across the European Union. I do not regard myself as “poor”, because I am often enriched by contributions and knowledge shared by your Lordships.

Equally, I assure noble Lords that being part of this Government is about collective responsibility. As a Minister, I believe we are ensuring that we fulfil our obligations as a custodian of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement when it comes to upholding the rights and obligations of those in Northern Ireland. At the same time, we continue to work with our colleagues across the EU to say that, yes, we are introducing these provisions but we have not closed the door. As I said in the Statement and as my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary repeated during her discourse in the other place, ultimately we want a negotiation with the European Union; that would be the best outcome.

Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach Conservative

My Lords, noble Lords would expect me, as a horticulturalist, to address the House in the week before the Chelsea Flower Show. This country has a thriving horticultural industry, but trade between Northern Ireland and the mainland has been crippled by the Northern Ireland protocol. I hope it is possible that the horticultural industries can be fully taken into account in the negotiations the Government have entered into, because trade in horticultural goods is an important part of our inter- community economy.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, my noble friend raises the important issue of the horticultural industry. On a personal note, during his time as Chief Whip and a Minister I often benefited from the precious gifts he provides around Christmastime to many of us across your Lordships’ House. Flowers bloom in your Lordships’ House courtesy of my noble friend. I think the noble Lord, Lord Collins, is feeling left out, and I say to my noble friend that perhaps that can be extended to him.

Of course, my noble friend is absolutely right. The horticultural industry, as well as all others, is very much part and parcel of our consultations to ensure that businesses operating across the United Kingdom continue to benefit from their own perspective and, importantly, that citizens across the United Kingdom benefit from businesses as well.

Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP

My Lords, in the other place, the Secretary of State referred to unintended consequences. I have to say that all the consequences were foreseeable—and indeed were foreseen. The Foreign Secretary said,

“I want to be clear … that this is not about scrapping the protocol”, and my noble friend Lord Moylan hit the nail on the head. Does this mean that, in perpetuity, laws will be made on behalf of Northern Ireland by a foreign power over which we have neither input nor say?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, my noble friend brings great insight and experience, and I pay tribute to his work in Northern Ireland. The Government’s position is very clear: we are acting and will continue to act in good faith. Practical issues have arisen from the imposition of the protocol which are simply not working—they are not working for Northern Ireland or for businesses, and they go against the actual agreement that we all want to uphold. As my noble friend Lord Lilley articulated very well, we all want to see the essence of the Good Friday agreement sustained as part and parcel of our discussions going forward. We will continue to work to ensure that all people across Northern Ireland have the opportunities and rights that are protected in that agreement, and where the protocol does not do that, it needs to change.

Photo of Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, is not the effect of what the Government are proposing to issue an ultimatum to the European Union? How do they expect the European Union to respond positively to that approach?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, as my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said, we have been negotiating with the European Union for 18 months, and my right honourable friend has been leading on this for the last six months. I have seen how serious and focused she has been in finding practical solutions; that door is very much open. Mr Šefčovič has been invited to have further discussions, and one hopes that the European Union will respond constructively.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, as a former chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in the other place, I ask my noble friend to take particular note of the very wise words of the current chair, who, after all, leads a committee of several parties and has got to know Northern Ireland very well. I hope that he will be present at key negotiations.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I certainly regard all contributions as wise words, whether they are in the other place or in your Lordships’ House. I reiterate the point—I know I speak for others on our Front Bench—that there are many people who have direct insight and experience on this important issue. As we work through the proposals that the Government bring forward we will be well placed to leverage, utilise and make sure that that experience feeds into what one hopes will be a practical outcome to the issues around the protocol that we currently face.