Moved by Lord Purvis of Tweed
36: Clause 18, page 10, line 9, leave out subsection (1)Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would remove the Minister’s power to engage in any conduct in relation to any matter dealt with in the Northern Ireland Protocol, not otherwise authorised by this Act, if the Minister considers it appropriate to do so.
Clause 18 was neatly described by the former Treasury counsel Sir Jonathan Jones as the “do whatever you like” clause. It was unclear in Committee in the Commons what the Government’s intention behind the clause was. Michael Ellis, the then Paymaster-General, said that the Government needed Clause 18, which is a power to give legal effect to a Minister’s conduct in carrying out their duties. He said:
“It simply makes clear, as would normally be taken for granted, that Ministers will be acting lawfully when they go about their ministerial duties in support of this legislation.”—[Official Report, Commons, 20/7/22; col. 1004.]
It is a great relief that we need a Minister to state that. It was quite telling that he said that they needed this power to make their conduct lawful, which would normally be taken for granted.
However, the seriousness is that there has been little explanation on what that “conduct” would be. The Government’s delegated powers memorandum did not explain it. Perhaps that is because they consider this not to be delegated power. The Explanatory Memorandum did, however, give some examples, including issuing guidance. As Michael Ellis indicated, it would also be instructing civil servants. The concern is that we have many other examples where legislation frames the conduct of providing guidance. As the Hansard Society and the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee have highlighted, this is one example of disguised legislation. Powers on providing guidance can, in effect, have legal effect. For example, my reading of this clause suggests that it is so broad that it would allow a Minister to issue guidance, which is non-statutory, but also issue instructions that that guidance needs to be followed—which, in effect, is statutory. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that that is not within the scope of this clause.
The Hansard Society has sought an exhaustive list of how conduct can be described. If we are to be avoiding hidden legislation, the Government need to be clear in what they seem to do. In the UK Internal Market Act, which has been referred to previously in Committee, I tried to find some equivalent—and there is some equivalent when it comes to the powers of Ministers to provide guidance. However, there are a number of subsections on that power which restrict the Minister’s ability to provide that. Crucially, there is a statutory duty for Ministers to consult with those who would be in receipt of the guidance on the operation of the Act.
Finally, the DPRRC said:
“Despite its being highly unusual and its breadth, the exercise of the power in clause 18 will have no parliamentary oversight since it is subject to no parliamentary procedure.”
Previously in Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said that this is not what we do when it comes to breaking international law. This is not how we should be making laws—so broad, and with potentially few restrictions. The Minister simply says that this is about what they do already. If that is the case, why is it necessary? If it is necessary, what they intend to do with it should be spelled out exactly. I beg to move.
My Lords, I just wonder what Clause 18 is supposed to mean. Does it really mean that the Minister of the Crown may do whatever he likes? Yes, it does; that was what we were discussing on Wednesday, when noble Lords and the Government listened to me. I had a dream over the weekend that the Minister today is going to get up and say, “Lord Judge, you were entirely right on Wednesday. We have changed our minds: we are going to put this Bill into proper shape”.
My Lords, I support Amendments 36 and 38 for the reasons that have been so eloquently set out already—I do not think that I need to repeat them. The idea that Parliament is passing a law to allow a Minister to do whatever he likes without coming back to Parliament seems to be quite breathtaking. That is nothing to do necessarily with Northern Ireland or Brexit; that is to do with our parliamentary democracy. On the question of whether Clause 18 should stand part of the Bill, I would certainly support its removal.
I confess that I find it difficult to accept that just changing “appropriate” to “necessary” will actually sort out the problem that is inherent in so many of the measures in this Bill, because a Minister could easily just say that they are doing it because they think it “necessary”. Who is going to be able to challenge that? The law would still be changed.
I support the idea put forward by the noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie and Lady Suttie, of at least having approval from the Northern Ireland Assembly. This would once again be an example of the British Government doing something with Northern Ireland, rather than to Northern Ireland—as the current wording would imply.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, who highlights quite clearly the central proposition in Amendment 38, tabled in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie. It is about limiting the control of Ministers under the Bill by ensuring that the Northern Ireland Assembly is given necessary approval of the conduct in relation to the provisions within the Bill.
Amendment 38 seeks to amend Clause 18, “Other Ministerial powers”, to ensure a limitation of delegated powers to Ministers—the very issue that was discussed by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee—and to ensure that
“the exercise of the Minister’s power to engage in conduct in relation to any matter dealt with in the Northern Ireland Protocol that is not otherwise authorised by the Act to a motion approving the conduct in the Northern Ireland Assembly.”
It throws up the accountability issues relating to the Northern Ireland Assembly—I hope that all the institutions will be up and running eventually—and would ensure that devolved regions and nations have particular control in relation to this issue.
It is worth noting that there were two important developments in the long road of the protocol. Today, the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, met in the margins of the climate conference in Egypt and agreed to work together to end the turmoil in relation to the protocol. Also today, at the meeting of the UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly in this building, Vice-President Šefčovič said that if this Bill were to become law, the UK Government would put Northern Ireland’s unique access to the EU market of 450 million customers at risk.
I again urge the Government to put this Bill into cold storage and ensure that there is renewed political vigour given to the negotiations. It is only through joint negotiations that all the issues around the protocol in relation to east-west issues and to trade between GB and Northern Ireland can be satisfactorily resolved to the benefit of all businesses and people in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, when the purpose and the intended effect of a clause are unclear, it sometimes helps to look at the Explanatory Notes to the Bill. These are produced, of course, by the Government, and are designed to explain. But if we look at the Explanatory Notes to Clause 18, we see that the confusion and uncertainty are even more manifest.
Look at paragraphs 96 to 98 of the Explanatory Notes. Paragraph 96 tells us that:
“Clause 18 clarifies the relationship between powers provided by this Bill and those arising otherwise, including by virtue of the Royal Prerogative.”
That is what Clause 18(2) says. Paragraph 97 deals specifically with Clause 18(1). It says:
“Subsection (1) provides that Ministers can engage in conduct (i.e.”— and I emphasise that it is “i.e.” and not “e.g.”—
“sub-legislative activity, such as producing guidance) relevant to the Northern Ireland Protocol if they consider it appropriate in connection with one or more of the purposes of this Bill.”
If that is the intended purpose of Clause 18(1), why not say so? Why not limit the scope of Clause 18(1) specifically to say that Ministers can produce guidance? We could then have a debate about whether it is properly drafted, whether it is too broad or whether there should be some controls. I am afraid that what we find in Clause 18(1) bears no relationship whatever to what the Explanatory Notes tell us that Clause 18(1) is designed to achieve. My conclusion from that is that there must be real doubt here; that Ministers know what Clause 18(1) is designed to achieve and are reluctant to be specific because they do not want proper controls on the scope of their powers.
My Lords, I will speak in favour of Amendment 38, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, to which I have added my name.
My noble friend Lord Purvis of Tweed has already spelled out in great detail the potentially huge increase in power that Clause 18 could grant to a Minister of the Crown, and I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, has further explained the total lack of clarity as regards this clause.
I was reflecting on the many debates we had on this Bill last week and on the general and frankly astonishing lack of clarity from the Government as to why such sweeping powers should ever be deemed necessary—the Rumsfeld “unknown unknowns” clauses, as my noble friend has coined them. Later this week, I believe we will be hearing a Statement from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on progress—or, indeed, lack of progress—in bringing back the Northern Ireland Assembly and a functioning Executive, and whether there will be elections imminently in Northern Ireland to overcome this impasse.
The Government and other noble Lords have stated that one of the Bill’s main purposes was to deal with the understandable concerns of the unionist community, particularly the DUP, about the impact of the Northern Ireland protocol. One can hope that the talks taking place in Brussels and at the climate summit in Egypt will lead to genuine negotiations and a potential framework for agreement. It has also been stated that one of the Bill’s purposes was to facilitate the DUP’s return to the Northern Ireland Executive, yet it remains far from clear that passing this legislation in and of itself would achieve this. It is therefore increasingly hard to understand why we are pushing ahead with this very bad Bill, which sets so many dangerous precedents, if it does not, in itself, achieve even one of its so-called “main objectives”—namely, a much-needed return to a functioning Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive.
When the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, replies to this group of amendments, I would be very grateful if he confirmed that re-establishing the Northern Ireland Executive remains one of the Bill’s primary purposes. If it is, does he not agree that other much more productive approaches, such as genuine negotiations and a change of tone, could be taken that would achieve exactly the same goal, but more effectively?
Of course, everything is discerning and discriminating.
I would like the Minister to give us two reasons, or even one, why it is sensible to carry on with this Bill. We have heard today from the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, that sensible talks seem to be taking place on the fringes of the great COP meeting in Egypt and there are other signs of talking going on, so what is the point—I have used this expression before, and I make no apology for using it again—in Parliament putting government and negotiators into a straitjacket? It is just nonsensical. We all hope the negotiations will result in certain changes to the protocol, but why drive this Bill through at this very time?
The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, talked about the DUP. I have always felt that it is bad to pay danegeld. That, really, is what is happening here, and it is mixed up with treaty obligations—I underline the word “obligations”—and with opportunities which many people in Northern Ireland wish to take advantage of, suitably amended.
We are on our fourth day of debate on this very bad and, in my view, wholly unnecessary Bill. Let us pause it. Let us watch the negotiations with—I hope—acclamation and welcome their results. Let us not waste parliamentary time on such a badly drafted Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, reminded us, even the explanatory clauses do not explain it; they obfuscate and make it worse. Let us get on with some proper business and leave this rubbish in the heap where it should be.
I have reached the same conclusion as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, but via a slightly different route. I heard the noble Baroness and the noble Lord refer to talks proceeding amicably and constructively. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, has regularly assured us from his own involvement in the talks that they are proceeding satisfactorily and are in no way being derailed by this Bill.
I am miles away from the action, of course—like the noble Lord, Lord Dodds of Duncairn, I would be very grateful if the Government could find the time to give us some reports on the talks from time to time—but I get a rather different impression of the view in Brussels. My impression is that there is not a great deal going on in these talks, and that the officials involved do not have the kind of instructions which give them discretion to do any negotiating. My impression is that British Ministers are not particularly hands-on, that they are not very closely involved in the talks and that, in fact, no real political input and impetus has been given as yet.
On the EU side, I think there is a natural tendency to wait and see whether the arrival of a new Government and a new Prime Minister in Britain will bring about any changes in the British position. The Commission has succeeded in persuading the member states that the CJEU cases against us can be left in limbo for the moment; a number of member states would have preferred to proceed to having these cases heard, but they stay in limbo and there seems to be a sort of consensus on that. But there is absolutely no pressure that I can detect among member states for any softening of Šefčovič’s mandate or any change in the instructions he is getting, perhaps partly because they are waiting to see whether there is some change in the instructions our people have. I detect no sign of anybody believing that Šefčovič’s instructions will change while the threat of this Bill hangs over the negotiations.
In my view—I repeat that I am miles away from the action, so I may be quite wrong—the only real debate among member states is whether contingency planning should be started on their side and whether it is this Bill reaching the statute book or actual use of the powers it contains that should trigger resort to action. The action would of course be the end of the talks and the necessary review of the terms of the trade and co-operation agreement. I think everybody believes that in Brussels. As the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, reminded us on our last day of Committee, we committed ourselves in the TCA to carrying out our obligations as in the withdrawal agreement, which include the protocol. So if we were to use the powers in this Bill or, as some say—I am among them—put this Bill on the statute book, we would be in breach of not just the withdrawal agreement but the TCA.
So I think the debate is about contingency planning for that eventuality, rather than for any change or softening of the EU position in the talks. Therefore, it seems to me, we should recognise that what we are doing here, if we were to pass this Bill, is setting ourselves up for a rather serious trade war with the EU and for the return of all the problems in Northern Ireland that will result from Northern Ireland no longer being a member of the single market. We will go back to a different form of frontier problem, from which the protocol was designed to have us escape.
So I reach exactly the same conclusion as did the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, but by a slightly different route. I do not think that the talks are going particularly well, and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, will act on the promise that he made on our last day in Committee to see if he could ensure that we receive progress reports on the talks. Though I am miles away from the action, it seems to me that, if we proceed with this Bill, we are heading straight into a thunderstorm that will sink the ship.
Before the noble Lord sits down, could he go one step further and ask my noble friend the Minister, in responding to this debate, to say whether he agrees with the analysis of the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, which I do, that we would be in breach not only of the withdrawal agreement but of the trade and co-operation agreement? It would be very good to get that on the record at this stage. Will he just go so far as to press the Minister, in summing up, to say whether he agrees with his analysis?
My Lords, Amendment 38, among others, refers to the role of the Northern Ireland Assembly in approving the conduct of Ministers. I suppose that a parallel would be a legislative consent Motion; it is the same kind of principle. It is good to hear that negotiations are taking place, but the people who are most directly affected not just by this legislation but by the protocol itself are excluded from this process. Noble Lords should bear in mind that, if a trader brings a vehicle into Northern Ireland from Great Britain, the first person whom that trader will deal with will be an employee of a Northern Ireland government department, responsible to a Northern Ireland Executive Minister.
The people who are the most directly affected and who have a direct responsibility for the implementation of any of these processes—that is, the politicians in Northern Ireland—are spectators in a matter that most directly affects them. Of course, it is a national issue and an international issue; but when you drill down, as Amendment 38 is attempting to do, the people with their hands on the problem on the day, every day, are out of the frame altogether.
Now I do not care what the issue is, but have we learned nothing in this place over the last 30 or 40 years? If you exclude people from something that directly affects them—and we had the Anglo-Irish process in the mid-1980s, when we followed the same principle that you negotiate over somebody’s head and shove a piece of paper in front of them and say, “There you are: implement it”—it will not work.
Amendment 38 is just one example. Will the Minister ask his colleagues to engage the politicians in Stormont directly in this process? That could be part of a solution. When we were part of the EU, it was not unusual for Ministers from Westminster to include devolved Ministers with them in their delegations. That was quite a normal process. Can we not adapt that principle? One Minister said a week or two ago—he meant well, I have no doubt—“Leave it to us. We’ve got your back here. We’ll look after it for you.” I have to say, with the greatest respect, that our backs are so full of dagger holes that we know all about that. We will believe only what we see and hear ourselves. Bring our politicians into the picture; bring them to the table with you so they are not your enemy.
I accept, of course, that we are dealing with an international issue, and foreign affairs and related matters are not devolved—I get that. But have we not enough flexibility to bring people along as part of our delegation so that they can see persons and papers? We do not have to break any rules. What is so secret?
Before he left office, I asked the noble Lord, Lord Frost, who is in his place, a Question about all the committees that have been set up under the agreement and who populated them. I think he left office before he was able to reply to that Question, but who are they? I do not know who they are. Where are they? How many of these committees do we have? All I can tell you is that nobody of political significance in Belfast is engaged. It will not work—fix it. Let us make these discussions meaningful. Let us get the people who have to deliver what is agreed, at the table. We would never have got the Good Friday agreement had we not done that by bringing everybody in.
I have listened at some length to the arguments about the legality of the legislation and its role. I am not a lawyer, but I respectfully invite colleagues to review the evidence submitted to the Sub-Committee on the Protocol in Ireland/Northern Ireland by Professor Boyle and another colleague from the University of Cambridge on what they consider to be the legal position of this legislation. They came to the joint conclusion that the Article 16 process would have to be involved in order to make it legal. I do not know whether that is right or wrong, but I refer Members to that piece of evidence. The transcript is available, it was a public investigation by our committee, and I commend it to colleagues. I ask them to look at it and see what merit there is for us.
There is a solution here; we can find a way through this. However, I can tell colleagues from years of experience—other people in this Chamber can do the same—that, with the process that we have chosen to take, we are going about things the wrong way. I understand where the Government are coming from with the legislation, and I do not wish to see the UK Government’s negotiating position weakened, but I want success. We are facing the worst crisis economically in many decades. Northern Ireland’s community is facing increased costs, in part as a result of the protocol, obviously we have the lowest levels of income, and we also have a different energy system to the rest of the United Kingdom.
Basically, our political class is out to lunch. We are not contributing anything to the solutions, because of the stand-off at Stormont. I do not want to see Sinn Féin’s argument that Northern Ireland is a failed political entity justified, and that is the risk we are taking. My appeal to the Minister concerning any—indeed, all—of these amendments involving support and approval from the Northern Ireland Assembly is that one of the ways to get the Assembly going again is to engage the people who have to operate the outcome of the negotiations, so that they are part of the solution and have ownership of it.
Because we in Northern Ireland are half in the EU and half out of it, there is no total solution to this; it is just a fact of life. It is a problem that is largely insoluble, but there are bits we can help with. Not only do we have to make the protocol less invasive but there has to be treaty change in the long term, because of the constitutional damage that has been done. That will take time, so we have a two-stage rocket here. We have short-term mitigations and long-term treaty change but, in the meantime, leaving Stormont as it is, history tells us, after the last number of decades—we have been through it all, and the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, and others were part of the process—that a vacuum is the worst possible thing we can leave in Belfast. It brings in all sorts of events that we cannot anticipate. It takes only one thing to go badly wrong.
I have to say to the Minister and His Majesty’s Government about recent events that there does not appear to be any coherent strategy to deal with things, and that is what worries me more than anything else.
Does the noble Lord accept that in Northern Ireland, when we have a democratic vacuum, the men of violence fill the gap? Is he aware that only last week, because there was a call from Dublin for joint authority in Northern Ireland—government by both Dublin and London—a bomb was planned to be planted in a government building in the Republic of Ireland, which was called off, hours before it was due to explode, only when the Government here announced that there would be no joint authority?
The noble Lord is correct. I agree that history tells us that a vacuum will be filled, and it will not be filled by people who are committed to the democratic process. That is well established. There is no legitimacy for joint authority. The manifesto of the Government was clear in 2019 that it was explicitly excluded, although it was interesting that at this weekend’s Sinn Féin conference, its plan B was specifically aimed at some form of jointery. That is why I say we can see where the road is leading us.
I come back to the Minister and ask him to prevail on his colleagues to open the door to the people of Northern Ireland and the elected Members, so that they can participate in the process of negotiations; they will not be sitting in the front row, but they can be in the room, they can be advising Ministers, they can be contributing and they can feed that back to their supporters. It will have a calming effect if they can see that, and if the people who have to implement the thing on the ground are part of the solution. Surely that makes common sense. What is the point of having devolution if the people who have responsibility for delivering parts of this are not even at the table?
My Lords, we have ranged once again, in a debate on one of the amendments, far and wide across the whole gamut of the protocol Bill and the protocol itself. In that context, I want to follow up on the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, who talked about the state of the negotiations, the technical talks, the discussions, the conversations or whatever they may be. As he rightly said, we are not au fait with the detail, and those of us whom the noble Lord, Lord Empey, referenced who deal with politics in Northern Ireland and represent people in Northern Ireland are not privy to the details either.
I think that it is correct, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr said, that there appears to be no difference in the negotiating mandate of Commissioner Vice-President Šefčovič so far as the EU side of the negotiations is concerned. Indeed, that has been confirmed to me and, I am sure, to other noble Lords informally by people who are closer to the talks than many of us are. Of course, the Government’s position has been set out in the Command Paper, published in July 2021, and in the Bill, but so long as the negotiating mandate of the European Union negotiator is not changed, there can be little prospect for any positive outcome from the discussions, certainly not in the short term.
We can all agree that we need to solve this problem, and there are only two ways that it can be solved. It is either by negotiation or by action on the part of His Majesty’s Government. The danger of saying, “We’re not going to get anywhere in the discussions and we should pull or pause the Bill” is in what happens in Northern Ireland. What happens to the Belfast agreement as amended by the St Andrews agreement? What happens to the institutions? I have heard very little reference thus far from noble Lords who do not have a direct connection with Northern Ireland about the implications on the political and peace process in Northern Ireland.
The longer we do not have any outcome from negotiations, and if nothing is happening on the Government’s side on legislation, then the institutions will not be reformed, because there is not the basis for power sharing, when you have trashed one of the main strands of the agreement—strand 3, the east-west dimension—and when you have undermined the Northern Ireland Assembly through the removal of the cross-community consent principle. We have to address these matters.
While people may focus on what the outcome may be in terms of the withdrawal agreement and the trade and co-operation agreement—I entirely understand that—we also have to examine the implications on the Belfast agreement, on the St Andrews agreement, and on the peace and political process in Northern Ireland, which is in a very fragile state. The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, highlighted a recent example of where these things can go.
I urge your Lordships to examine and bear in mind the implications, if we do not get a negotiated outcome which is satisfactory. I share the analysis of noble Lord, Lord Kerr, that it does not look as if that is going to happen—certainly any time soon—and if we at the same time do not proceed with the Bill, where on earth does that leave the political process in Northern Ireland? It leaves it in a continuing state of limbo, which we have all agreed can be filled only by dangerous people—men of violence. We need to address these matters urgently.
May I clarify something? My position is that there will be no progress with these talks until there is the involvement of high-level politicians from this country. I remember in the 1990s the attempt to move Congress from its support of the wrong side—in the British Government’s view—in Northern Ireland. I was ambassador and made a certain amount of progress, but the real progress was made only when Prime Minister Major and the then Minister of State, now the noble Marquess, Lord Lothian, took an active involvement in helping me to see the people one had to convince on the Hill. We need the involvement of senior British Ministers. I strongly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that we need the involvement of people from Northern Ireland. This must not be an agreement, if one is achieved, that is imposed on Northern Ireland. It has to be one that is owned by Northern Ireland.
However, my view is that there is no chance of persuading the Council of the European Union that it should modify Mr Šefčovič’s mandate while technical talks are going nowhere and there are no signs of any movement, or even active involvement, by the highest levels of the British political establishment. I do not mean that I think the talks are bound to fail; I mean that, at present, they are not succeeding.
My Lords, I maintained a Trappist silence throughout all the earlier debates on this Bill. I may be prominent among those wishing I had maintained it when I sit down in a moment or two because I recognise that I speak from a position of having less knowledge of the political and economic background to this debate than perhaps anybody else here—certainly less than anyone who has spoken.
What has driven me to my feet is what seems a striking absence of any reference to Article 16; again, we heard it in earlier debates but not today. To my mind—I speak in this respect simply as a lawyer—it is custom-built to meet any legitimate needs, which there are, to adapt processes in the Province today. What is required of the protocol by way of rewriting treaties is in doubt, but the protocol does not pre-empt the Belfast agreement obligations and commitments on all sides. On the contrary, Belfast is the primary one of these two treaties, which are enforceable under international law.
Those who know much more about this than I do emphasise—rightly, to my mind—the third strand of Belfast, which concerns east-west trade within the UK internal market. Far from the protocol pre-empting what we as the UK are entitled to insist on under the Belfast agreement, surely it accommodates the crucial argument—let the politicians in Northern Ireland make, refine, emphasise and urge this—that the regulatory controls that the EU currently exercises under the protocol, as well as the intensity of their policing, are in fact quite incompatible with its obligation to observe the Belfast agreement. You have only to look at the Belfast agreement to see that we, the UK, are duty bound to fight against the long-term alienation—I forget the precise language—of any community. We did it for the nationalists in respect of language in Northern Ireland. Now we owe the unionists some obligation to try to reinforce the critical importance of the east-west trade link here.
I therefore have no brief for this Bill. The unionists say, “You need this to get back into the Assembly”. That is nonsense. They open their mouths far too wide but their legitimate interests should be—indeed, must be—protected. Do it under Article 16, which meets any imperative need of the day, and let the people of Northern Ireland specify precisely what is required by way of adapting the processes under the protocol. If there needs to be any adaptation of the language, let them deal with that too. As the noble Lord, Lord Howard, said in an earlier debate, do not be too theological about the language—just get the agreement to do what is necessary.
My Lords, this has been unusual in the debates that we have had so far in that far more has been said that I can agree with than that I disagree with. I even found myself agreeing with two-thirds of what the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said, which is unusual. He is undoubtedly right that the negotiations cannot really be going as well as we would all like to hope, and as so many commentators and Ministers imply they are, as long as the EU has not been prepared to change its negotiating mandate. It will not allow a single jot or tittle of the protocol to be changed under its existing mandate, even though the protocol itself envisages the possibility of it being changed in part or in whole. That surely has to change. Maybe it has de facto; maybe the EU is agreeing to talk beyond its mandate. Let us hope that that is the case.
The disappointing aspect of the debates so far is that I have been waiting throughout for any coherent response from noble Lords, in their very powerful speeches about the illegality of what we are doing, to the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bew, in particular as to what happens when there is a conflict between two international obligations, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, implied that there is between the obligations that we have under the Belfast agreement and those that we have under the protocol. I have not heard any direct response to that question: what do you do when you have conflicting international legal obligations?
I am very grateful to the noble Lord but the Committee has heard repeated explanations of what the answer is. The answer is that the protocol contains Article 16, which allows for a process to commence by which disputes can be resolved with an arbitration process. That is the answer. There is no conflict because the protocol provides a mechanism for addressing conflicts.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for sidestepping the question by saying that he does not need to answer it because there is an article in the protocol that means you do not have to answer on what happens when there is a conflict between two international obligations. Clearly, however, the Government and many noble Lords from the Province who have spoken think that there is a conflict and it cannot be solved just by invoking Article 16. If it can, fine; that is wonderful.
The other related question that we have not had a response to is the point made by the Lord Chancellor in the other place that Article 1 of the protocol specifically says that in the event of a conflict between the Belfast agreement and the protocol, the Belfast agreement takes precedence. I have not heard any response to that, nor to the point, which I might be alone in making, that the whole protocol is intrinsically temporary. We know that because the EU told us that it could not enter into a permanent relationship with us because we were then a member state and it could not, under Article 50, enter into a permanent relationship with a member state; it could be only temporary and transitional. That is why the protocol itself contains provision for it to be superseded, but I have heard no response to that point from anyone.
I heard the responses given to my noble friend so far, which he seems reluctant to accept. If he does not agree that the Article 16 process would be a way of resolving some of these conflicts that have arisen and caused problems, in what way does he feel that the passage of the Bill would itself resolve those conflicts, or indeed support the Good Friday agreement?
I certainly do not say absolutely that Article 16 is not the way to proceed, but I have spoken to lawyers much respected by people in this House—unfortunately I do not have their permission to give their names—who told me that we should not go down the Article 16 route because it would be a nightmare.
I am saying that there may well be problems. Indeed, I asked the noble Lord the other day, down the corridor, whether he was of the opinion that Article 16 could be used to solve all the problems. If it can be, fine; I am not ruling that out. However, if it cannot be, then the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bew, is there on the table, and the issue raised by the Lord Chancellor is there on the table. Whatever about that, the protocol is intrinsically temporary. The whole basis of the negotiations that we entered into on the withdrawal agreement was that a permanent agreement could not be entered into in the withdrawal Act with the United Kingdom covering trade or other matters; that could happen only after we had left. Therefore, anything in the withdrawal agreement was intrinsically transitional and temporary.
Again, I have not heard a response on that today. I wait to be interrupted with a response to the point. Usually, it comes from the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, who wrote Article 50, but he has forgotten what the alternative is.
These are important issues. We need to know why we were told one thing, that this was temporary, and now are told another thing, that it is permanent. Until we get an answer to those questions, I do not know that our debate can proceed as productively as it ought to. There are other more general points which I would like to make but I will save them for another batch of amendments.
My Lords, this has indeed been a very wide-ranging debate, but I will comment specifically on the amendments themselves.
The DPRRC refers to the power contained in Clause 18 as “strange” and notes that
“Despite its being highly unusual” there will be “no parliamentary oversight” whatever. This was the subject of some debate in another place, with much head-scratching as to what the Government were trying to achieve. Indeed, we cannot know that, because they have not offered a clear justification. A former head of the government legal service, Sir Jonathan Jones KC, described this as a “do whatever you like” power, but why is it needed in the first place? We have no definition of “conduct”. Can the Minister have a go at giving us a definition today? If that is not possible, can we have a detailed explanation ahead of Report?
In the Commons, the Minister tried to insist that concerned MPs had misconstrued the intent and that Clause 18 simply makes clear that Ministers will be acting lawfully when they go about their ministerial duties in support of this legislation. I cannot remember any other legislation where the Government have felt it necessary to clarify that Ministers are acting lawfully. Until recently, we took it for granted that this was always the case. Therefore, is this power an admission that the Government’s approach to the protocol is incompatible with international law and, as a result, in conflict with the Ministerial Code’s requirements to comply with the law?
There were a number of very interesting contributions in this debate. I highlight that of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, which was very constructive, about bringing into the process which is being embarked on by the UK Government respected people from Northern Ireland. I am interested to hear the Minister’s reaction to the proposals made by the noble Lord. The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, gave a rather chilling example of the stakes we are dealing with and how important it is that we take every opportunity we possibly can to resolve the current position. This has been an interesting debate, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate on the amendments and the wider context. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart, the noble Lord, Lord Caine, and I always look down the list to see when the first group in Committee will be. We know that the clock will strike an hour because of the context that will be set in relation not just to the amendments in front of us but opinions on the particular Bill. Like the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, I will focus on the specific amendments. Where I can add a degree of Ahmad colour, I will seek to do this in the best way possible.
As I and my colleagues have said, to pick up on a key point on the ultimate nature of the Bill, the reasoning behind the Government’s approach is that the Bill is consistent with our obligations in international law and supports our prior obligations to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, as has been said in various parts of today’s debate—and very eloquently by my noble friend Lord Lilley.
I will begin with Amendment 36, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, on the issue of the powers. In the Government’s view, Clause 18 is not an extraordinary power. It simply makes clear, as would normally be the case, that Ministers are acting lawfully in this case. This point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and others and I will attempt to put some colour on this—I do not know whether it will be to noble Lords’ satisfaction. Clause 18 is included because the Government recognise that the Bill provides, in a way that is not routinely done for other legislation, for new domestic obligations to replace prior domestic obligations that stem from our international obligations. Those international obligations are currently implemented automatically by Section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. That conduit pipe currently constrains—and in the Government’s view could cause confusion in the future—how Ministers can act in support of the Bill. The Government put forward that Clause 18 is to provide clarity on that point.
I note the DPRRC’s view on the issue of delegated powers, which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, highlighted again in his contribution. However, it is the Government’s view that the power being proposed here is within the normal scope of executive action. To provide a bit more detail, this would include, for example, direct notifications from Ministers to the EU. While I am sure—I am going to hazard a guess as I look around your Lordships’ House—that I may not have satisfied every question on that, I hope that that has provided a degree more detail.
I am very grateful to the Minister. Can I press him for a moment on what I understand to be his explanation for Clause 18, which is that otherwise there may be some concern that the exercise of powers is not consistent with Section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018? I think that is what the Minister said.
I would put it slightly differently. That is the section I referred to, but it is to provide clarification in that respect. The noble Lord will interpret that in the way that he has, but I have sought to provide clarity on why the Government’s position is that this should be included.
Could I complete my point? I am very grateful to the Minister but I am puzzled by that explanation, because the Bill already deals specifically with this subject in Clause 2(3). I remind the Minister that it states:
“In section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 … after subsection (3) insert … This section is subject to” this Bill. Therefore, with great respect, I do not understand why one needs Clause 18 to address exactly the same point.
My Lords, I suppose that, with any Bill, the challenge for the Government is often to provide added clarification. That is exactly what we are doing, perhaps to emphasise the point that the noble Lord himself has highlighted from other elements of the Bill. I am sure that the noble Lord will come back on these issues, but if I can provide further detail on the specific actions that this would thereby permit, I will. As I said, it is a point of clarification, and I will write to the noble Lord on this point.
The best way I can sum up Amendment 37 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, is that it is a well-trodden theme in the context of the Bill. The positions and different perspectives on this issue are noted. All I add is that the Government’s intention is to ensure that the powers—the ability for a Minister of the Crown to issue guidance to industry or provide direction to officials in relation to the regime put in place under the protocol—reflect their ability to carry out their responsibilities. In this case I can see no reason why Ministers should be able to issue “appropriate” direction in relation to trade with the EU via the short straits but only “necessary” directions over the Irish Sea.
Although the noble Baroness has not spoken in this debate, I know from previous debates that she is worried about the scope of executive action. Everyone is concerned by this when they are sitting on one side of the House. The usual channels of judicial review will be available, but I have noted the various concerns aired in previous debates on this issue of “appropriate” and “necessary”.
I turn to Amendment 38 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie. With her permission, I will first pick up on the valuable contributions of the noble Lord, Lord Empey. We have been engaging with Northern Irish parties. I know that when the Executive was operational there were regular meetings between the then Minister for Europe, now the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—and indeed my noble friend Lord Caine—and the various representatives. In the interests of time, rather than detailing the level or number of meetings, I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Empey, as I have said to him outside the Chamber, that we would really welcome his insights and valuable experience in this regard. I speak for my noble friend Lord Caine and others in the Northern Ireland department. Both they and I will be pleased to speak to the noble Lord to see how we can perhaps further enhance the engagement that we currently have on the ground with key parties and people.
The noble Lord’s point about wider delegations and representations is noticed. We value our devolved Administrations very highly in our engagements over international agreements, even when they are under reserved powers. On the wider point of engagement with the devolved Administrations, a point also raised in this debate, my understanding is that those have taken place, continue to take place and will continue to be updated as we make progress.
The Minister just indicated that discussions have taken place with the devolved Administrations. Maybe he can give us a little more colour about the type of discussions that have taken place. In that regard, I very much take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that there is a need for the Northern Ireland parties to be involved in the negotiations.
I know that these discussions have certainly taken place at an official level. My understanding is that the Foreign Secretary has also written to the devolved Administrations on the issue of seeking consent, but if there is more detail I will update the noble Baroness.
The noble Baroness also rightly mentioned the importance of understanding the issues on the ground. As I have indicated, I believe passionately that, irrespective of where you are coming from on the Bill—whether you are from Northern Ireland itself or wherever you are sitting in this Chamber—our ultimate objective in the discussions we are having is to ensure that the protocol, and indeed any other arrangements put in place after the negotiations and debates taking place, work in the interests of all communities in Northern Ireland. That is the premise of the Government’s approach.
“in relation to any matter … in the Northern Ireland Protocol (where that conduct is not otherwise authorised by this Act)”.
However, in the Government’s view, the amendment is unworkable in practice, because it would require the Northern Ireland Assembly to pass a vote every time any number of actions were taken in connection with the Bill. That could be as innocuous as providing instruction to civil servants or guidance to industry. Such a situation would clearly be prohibitive to the implementation of swift solutions to the problems caused by the protocol, and therefore would not work. Nor would it be appropriate or in line with the devolution settlement for actions—
I am sorry to interrupt but I am most grateful to my noble friend. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, made a very powerful and constructive speech. I listened to what my noble friend said in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, but would it not be possible for informal invitations to be issued to Northern Ireland politicians to attend talks, particularly if the talks themselves are informal?
As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Empey, I will certainly take back his comments and constructive suggestions and will, of course, advise the House if there is more scope in our current discussions with the European Commission.
I listened very carefully to all contributions. The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, raised the issue from where he was seeing it. As noble Lords know, when I have come to the House, I have reported. I was certainly involved in one discussion last week and, as I said, it was constructive and positive in both tone and substance. I am sure that all noble Lords who have served in government will appreciate that there are limits to what detail I can share.
Subsequent discussions have taken place, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, alluded. I do not share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, that they are not going anywhere. If they were not going anywhere, we would not be meeting and talking. I also challenge the premise that they have not engaged the highest level of the British Government. Last time I checked, the Foreign Secretary was among those counted in the highest levels of the British Government. I therefore say to the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, that that is definitely not the case. The lead person dealing with Commissioner Šefčovič is my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, who is a senior member of the British Government.
Returning to the amendment, for the reasons I have given, we cannot support it. However, I also point out that the Bill is needed because the Good Friday agreement institutions, including the Assembly, are not operating as they should be. I know that the noble Baroness will return to this issue. I welcome her valuable insights in this area, but I hope that, given my response, particularly on the important issues raised by her and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, she sees that we will certainly seek to further enhance our engagement with parties in Northern Ireland.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, focused on Clause 18, which simply provides the power for a Minister to engage in normal non-legislative contact where they consider it appropriate in connection with one or more of the purposes of the Bill. The clause also clarifies the relationship between powers to make secondary legislation under the Bill and those arising by virtue of the royal prerogative. It will ensure that actions not requiring legislation, such as issuing guidance for industry or providing direction to officials, can be taken in a timely manner by a Minister of the Crown. Clause 18 simply makes clear, as would normally be taken for granted—we just had a brief discussion with the noble Lord on the Government’s position on this—that Ministers will be acting lawfully when they go about their ministerial duties in support of this legislation. The Government’s view therefore remains that it should stand part of the Bill.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his response and to those who have taken part. I felt that I was agreeing 100% with the contribution by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, but then I started to have doubts when the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, said he agreed with two-thirds of it. I will come back on that in just a second.
In all seriousness, I am concerned about what the Minister said. If this power, which is not framed and not specific, is guidance for industry then that is now in direct contradiction with the requirement on Ministers to provide guidance on the operation of the internal market, under the internal market Act, for Northern Ireland. Section 48, which I understand is being repealed by this Bill, as we have discussed, has a requirement on Ministers to consult before guidance is published. Under Section 12 of the internal market Act it is a legal duty for Ministers to consult Northern Ireland departments before guidance is issued. Draft guidance must be issued first. To some extent, that is the point that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, made about inclusiveness before measures.
If Clause 18 can be used by Ministers—guidance for industry, as the Minister said twice—that is far weaker than the legal requirements, and I do not understand the interaction between the two. That is a significant problem. I would be grateful if the Minister could write to explain how guidance for industry will be operated under other parts of the legislation whereas they can simply decide to do it under Clause 18 because there are no restrictions, requirements or oversight of that whatever—there is no requirement for anything in draft.
That is important, given the subtext of this serious debate and the fact that—as the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, indicated—Vice-President Šefčovič is in London at the moment. The Minister did not state whether any Ministers are meeting the vice-president on his visit. I am happy to be intervened on if wishes to clarify whether, during the vice-president’s visit to London, any senior Ministers are meeting him.
This was the subject of conversation, but the noble Lord will be aware that my right honourable friend is currently in Sharm el-Sheikh on government business with the COP. We certainly sought to see whether they could meet on this particular occasion, but I will update the noble Lord as and when it happens.
I am grateful to the Minister.
When the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, says that he is miles away from the situation, I have known him long enough to suspect that there is a wee bit of code there. He is probably actually pretty close to knowing what is going on, and I suspect that he is right. I worry, because the Government are not engaging widely, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said, or consulting. We have not had sight of what is on the table; we know what the EU has put on the table but not what the UK Government have put on the table. My fear is that, if the Government told us what was on the table, many people would be disappointed that they are only technical talks. Some people want them to be negotiations.
That comes on to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lilley. I respect and understand his disagreement with the Government’s position—the Government want to mend it, not end it, and, as I understand it, the noble Lord thinks there is a more substantial issue with that. Ministers have said they want to fix it, not nix it. If you want to mend it, not end it, there are mechanisms, but there are also mechanisms if you want to end it. As Article 13 of the protocol states, it lasts as long as it lasts:
“Any subsequent agreement between the Union and the United Kingdom shall indicate the parts of this Protocol which it supersedes”— so, if there is another treaty, this ends. There is nothing special about that; that is every treaty. A treaty lasts for as long as it lasts, and if there is a subsequent treaty then there is a subsequent treaty. So the noble Lord’s beef is not with us; it is presumably with the Government in order to open up the element of the withdrawal agreement and the associated TCA that he thinks are in contradiction.
That is the point. We have now legislated for it, and the element we have legislated for includes Article 13.8, which is the process by which it would be superseded. I do not think there is any doubt about it; the noble Lord may have doubt in his mind about it, but in the other agreements there are mechanisms if we wish to open them.
The difficulty with this process taking such a long time is that if we were in grave and imminent peril—the Government have invoked the defence of necessity—then we would have anticipated some urgent, high-level talks to have resolved this by now. Regrettably, we are back to a situation where the stakes are getting higher because expectations are higher, but the reality, perhaps, is that some of these talks are technical.
With the greatest respect for the Minister, who I know tried to offer clarification, I am worried about what this power could be used for, and we will need to return to this. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 36 withdrawn.
Amendments 37 and 38 not moved.
Clause 18 agreed.
Clause 19: New agreements amending or replacing the Northern Ireland Protocol