Amendment 4

Northern Ireland Protocol Bill - Committee (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords am 3:56 pm ar 31 Hydref 2022.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Baroness Suttie:

Moved by Baroness Suttie

4: Clause 2, page 1, line 17, at end insert—“(A1) This section is subject to section (Limitation of general implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol: approval of Northern Ireland Assembly).”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment is linked to Baroness Suttie’s new Clause after Clause 2 (Limitation of general implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol: approval of Northern Ireland Assembly).

Photo of Baroness Suttie Baroness Suttie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

My Lords, I will also speak to Amendment 5, in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, as well as to Amendments 68 and 69.

These amendments aim to require the approval of the Northern Ireland Assembly before the measures contained in the Bill can be used to limit the general implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. Clearly, we are debating these amendments against the backdrop of the 28 October deadline having been missed and the continued absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly, as well as the continued stalemate, with the DUP refusing to allow the Assembly to function since the elections in May of this year.

It is very hard not to feel deeply frustrated and indeed angry on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland. The lack of an Assembly and functioning Northern Ireland Executive has meant for ordinary people across Northern Ireland a deteriorating healthcare system, a lack of strategic economic planning, and little or no progress on legacy matters or on issues such as developing an integrated education system. The stop-start nature of devolution over the last 25 years in Northern Ireland has meant that we have seen only fleeting periods of stable government there, and the Government’s attempts to overcome their own internal divisions since 2016 have been at the expense of the people of Northern Ireland.

These amendments are therefore primarily probing in nature and aim to set out important matters of principle. As a strong believer in the principle of devolution, I think it is quite wrong that the Government are proceeding with this Bill in the absence of proper consultation and consent from the majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly. In paragraph 24 of the Explanatory Notes, the Government state their intention

“to seek consent from the Northern Ireland Assembly as soon as possible.”

In its recent report on this Bill, the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House stated:

“The need for consent from the devolved legislatures is important given the delicate nature of the Northern Ireland Protocol, particularly in light of the current political situation in Northern Ireland. We are concerned that enacting the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill without legislative consent will exacerbate tensions and ill will within the Union.”

The Minister will be aware that, in June, 52 of the 90 MLAs in the Northern Ireland Assembly signed a letter to the then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, stating their clear opposition to this Bill. They said:

“We reject in the strongest possible terms your Government’s reckless new Protocol legislation, which flies in the face of the expressed wishes of not just most businesses, but most people in Northern Ireland.”

Ultimately, we know that the decision to press ahead with this Bill is a political choice made by this Government to rectify their decision to sign up to the Northern Ireland protocol in the first place. It is true that, in their haste to get Brexit done, the Government did not give enough consideration to the sensitivities of the unionist community, in particular the DUP. Let us be clear: the protocol was no one’s first choice but, again, the Government put the interests of the Conservative Party ahead of those of the people of Northern Ireland. However, in realising their error and pressing ahead with this Bill, the Government have now vastly overcompensated and appear not to be listening to either the business community or the majority view in Northern Ireland.

Under normal circumstances—not something we have seen very much of recently—the impact of these amendments would be to strengthen the authority of the Northern Ireland Assembly. They would mean that changes to the protocol could happen only if they had the agreement of the democratically elected MLAs. One could even hope, perhaps in vain, that this would prove an incentive to the DUP. The current stalemate is utterly unacceptable and can be resolved only through genuine negotiations in Brussels and proper consultation with all political parties in Northern Ireland.

In concluding, I ask the Minister to set out what constructive engagement will now take place on this Bill with those who do not want to see it implemented; they are the majority in Northern Ireland. In the continued absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly, how will the Government keep the political parties in Northern Ireland informed of the progress, or otherwise, of the negotiations? I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Non-affiliated 4:00, 31 Hydref 2022

My Lords, I am absolutely delighted to add my name to this suite of amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie.

These amendments clearly have a specific purpose. First, I believe that full recognition needs to be given by your Lordships’ House and the UK Government that the Good Friday agreement is the bedrock upon which all institutions are based and out of which they emerged. It includes three strands: the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive; north/south; and east/west.

Devolved structures and the power of the MLAs must be recognised, acknowledged and reflected, and their mandate must be so acknowledged. They must be allowed to have an accountability role. If this Bill becomes law and results in the limitation of the protocol, your Lordships should remember, as the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, said, that a majority of MLAs elected in early May wrote to the then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, indicating their opposition to the provisions in the Bill.

It is important, as I said, that the UK Government recognise that the majority of Assembly Members support the protocol, with refinements. They believe, as I do, that mitigations are required and, most importantly, they want the restoration of political institutions, particularly after Friday’s very odd press conference, given by the Secretary of State in the middle of Chichester Street in Belfast with onlookers walking past. An election will serve no purpose whatever. We would probably end up with a more polarised outcome in Northern Ireland and it will not have served its purpose.

The view of Assembly Members was also reflected in a recent poll by Queen’s University Belfast, which stated that 51% think that the protocol is having a positive impact on the Northern Ireland economy. Immediately we see the evidence of our divided society in Northern Ireland—63% think that it offers opportunities that could benefit Northern Ireland and 60% think the same about its impact on British-Irish relations. There is a fear that the UK Government are not operating or proposing a consensual approach through this Bill and are recognising only the views of unionists. Arrangements work in Northern Ireland only when they have the buy-in of unionists, nationalists and the non-aligned, and that is not possible under the provisions of the Bill.

We have no political structures operating at the moment, with no impetus from the Government to have them up and running. I hope that this week’s discussions between the Secretary of State, the political parties and the Irish Government will produce better outcomes and a better trajectory of travel. People do not want direct rule; they want their own Government.

Elections will not provide the answer, as the default legal position allows. Designation of Joint First Ministers should have been allowed. That would have obviated many of the problems currently being experienced. I hope that if there are negotiations and there is a review of the institutions, this issue comes back into; the Minister will recall this item being discussed in debates on the Elections Bill. It is worth noting that, very sadly, institutions have operated only at a very low percentage in the last 24 years. There is a need to end the inherent sectarianism that was ushered in by the St Andrews agreement in 2006-07.

It is also important to remember that the poll from Queen’s University told us that 65% of the Northern Ireland Assembly agree that the Northern Ireland Executive should be fully functioning regardless of what happens with the protocol, while 32% disagree. Broadly, these figures represent the political support and opposition in the Assembly in relation to the protocol.

The protocol should not have prevented the restoration of all the institutions. Noble Lords will become very angry when they realise that there are important issues for many people, such as the cost of living, the cost of doing business, and health waiting lists and getting on to these. It is worth noting that, at the evidence session during the protocol sub-committee’s visit to Belfast two weeks ago, young people who were there as community representatives viewed health waiting lists and the cost of living as much more important than the protocol.

The bottom line is therefore that the GFA standard, in all its strands, must be adhered to and protected. The pathway to that includes the need for all-party talks to resolve the outstanding issues. Rather than having a potential election, there must be renewed vigour in the UK-EU negotiations on the protocol, not only on the technical aspects but with the political negotiations that are urgently required. My fear is that any election process could stop the political negotiations. There has been a renewed focus on the technical, and it is important that renewed focus is given to the political.

I support the amendments in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie. I urge the support of your Lordships’ Committee. The accountability mechanisms in the Northern Ireland Assembly must be recognised and adhered to if this Bill is passed. They must be given their say, because the vast majority of Assembly Members elected do not agree with this Bill. They would prefer that it were not on the table and that the Government removed it.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, Harold Macmillan, that great Tory Prime Minister, had a quotation on his desk or wall—I forget which—by WS Gilbert:

“Quiet, calm deliberation disentangles every knot.”

If there were ever a need for this, it is now, on the issue of the Northern Ireland protocol: a treaty negotiated by a British Prime Minister and one of his colleagues, who is present this afternoon; commended to both Houses of Parliament; and given support—with a degree of reluctance, because many of us realised that it was far from perfect.

I understand why my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford made the brief point he made before he left the Chamber. I believe that we are wasting our time in a prodigal fashion. To quote the noble Lord, Lord Reid of Cardowan, many years ago, the Bill is not fit for purpose. It never will be, however many amendments we pass on the Floor of your Lordships’ House.

We have all agreed that there will be no call for Divisions in Committee. Colleagues on both sides of the Committee know that I would have liked to have a vote to pause proceedings at Second Reading. However, it was conveyed to me that the Labour Opposition were not prepared to support that, and it would not have been right for me to go ahead when I clearly did not have strong support in all parts of the House.

We are now in an Alice in Wonderland situation where a series of amendments—the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, moved her amendment eloquently and persuasively—are not going to change the fundamental nature of the Bill; they are not going to make it acceptable. So this charade is going to continue through today and two more days, and then the Bill will go to its Report stage. I beg my noble friends on the Front Bench: for goodness’ sake, pause it there at least, so that negotiations can take place without any implicit threats over our European friends and neighbours. I deliberately and repeatedly call for that. Let us have those negotiations, and let us hope that they are entered into in good faith on the both sides.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, is right that we all accept that alterations should be made, although those who enthusiastically presented this to us as the answer to all our problems at the time did not think there were any alterations to be made, and frankly did treat the DUP with a cavalier disregard over which it is entitled to feel somewhat aggrieved—but let us calm it, let us pause it, as soon as possible. Let negotiations be conducted in a spirit of reciprocity, and then I do not think there will be any need for any sort of legislation. That would be an ideal situation, and it would echo the fundamental desire of a majority of people in Northern Ireland, the majority of elected representatives in the Northern Ireland Assembly, certainly a majority of those engaged in industry and commerce in Northern Ireland and, if my postbag is anything to go by, a majority of people even with a strong unionist inclination.

I am not going to make repeated speeches on this Bill because there is no point. Let the Government see that there is no point. Let us draw it to a convenient and seemly close as soon as possible, have the negotiations and, if I am entirely wrong, then perhaps there will be a case for coming back. But we are wasting your Lordships’ time. It would be far better to be having on the Floor of the House today consideration of the Bill on free speech which is taking place in the Moses Room, on which I cannot take part because I cannot be in two places at once and in which I would like to be taking part. So let us pause it. It would be in the interests of our country, as well as in the interests of the new Government and, most of all, in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland if we did that.

Photo of Lord Bruce of Bennachie Lord Bruce of Bennachie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland) 4:15, 31 Hydref 2022

My Lords, I rise to support these amendments tabled by my noble friend Lady Suttie and signed by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, and I thank both of them for the way they have introduced them. This is a Foreign Office Bill, but its implications are vital for the people of Northern Ireland and for the people of the United Kingdom, because it is a political Bill which is dangerous in terms of what the Government are playing with.

At the heart of the protocol is the debate about unfettered access to both the UK market and the EU single market. Of course, unfettered access to both those markets is what we had before we left the European Union, and leaving that Union inevitably led to a situation where an open border between the UK, GB, Northern Ireland and the EU is not compatible with the agreement post leaving the EU. That is clearly the source of the problem—but everybody knew that at the time when the agreement was struck and signed, including the UK Government and Northern Ireland politicians. However, on the face of it, from all the implications that the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, quoted, there is a clear majority for moving on—not for setting aside the protocol or, by implication, the trade and co-operation agreement or, frankly, the Bill to repeal EU law, when we have sweated for the past several years to transfer that EU law into UK law.

Do the Government really want to provoke a trade war when our economy is in such a fragile condition? The Prime Minister says, and I agree, that we are facing a profound economic crisis. Is tearing up the protocol more or less likely to alleviate this or help recovery in Northern Ireland? The issue, therefore, is surely not how to achieve the minimal friction. We all agree that we want minimal friction; we want as free access as we can get. The issue is not how to achieve it but how we can get it to the lowest compatible level for business to carry on with minimal cost and delay.

The case for consulting the Northern Ireland Assembly is overwhelming. Not least, it is not just a matter of the numbers. The whole point of legislatures is that they are where compromises can be negotiated and struck; where the balance can be found. And there is the rub. The DUP insists that the Irish Sea border must go. As I have said, it would of course be ideal to have no borders, but that would be inconsistent with being outside the single market and the customs union. So a low-friction agreement on implementation of the protocol appears to be the answer, appears to have wide support and could surely be negotiated with good will on all sides.

Unfortunately, as I understand it—and I would be happy to be contradicted when the DUP enters the debate—the DUP is insisting on what it knows to be an impossible solution: no borders. The party has said that, unless it gets that solution, it will never re-enter the Assembly or the Executive. The Good Friday agreement—the Belfast agreement—is a power-sharing arrangement between the largest nationalist and largest unionist grouping. It is not a majoritarian arrangement, as the DUP rightly insists on telling us—but nor is it a never-ending veto. To share power is to seek and find compromise. Refusal to do so is to deny the spirit and probably the letter of the agreement. It is to deny democracy. Most important of all, it is to deny the people of Northern Ireland the delivery of essential services that they require and that they voted for—and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, said, they desperately want solutions to be addressed.

So we are facing the prospect of a fresh election. I do not think anybody wants an election, and nor does anybody believe that it is likely to make a huge difference; it will not change much. I hope that it might further strengthen the Alliance but, on the whole, it is not likely to make a huge difference. If the DUP, before or after the election, blocks any compromise—I repeat, any compromise—is it not time to reconsider the arrangement? I have already said that power sharing requires compromise. Should refusing to compromise question the right to share power? Is it not time for some hard consideration of the rights of the people of Northern Ireland—their rights to have a functioning Government, to move forward and to have a solution that is based on reality, not fantasy?

Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench

I support the amendment, so ably moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, for a simple reason. It relates to what is frequently called the “democratic deficit”—a phrase that often finds itself in the mouths of those who support this Bill, among whom I am not numbered. They talk about the democratic deficit in Northern Ireland mainly in respect of the fact that the people of Northern Ireland do not have a say over the legislation for the single market, which will be passed in Brussels. They erroneously say that that is the only place in Europe where that happens. That is untrue; it is the same for Norway, which has no say over legislation passed in Brussels but accepts it when it is sent through on a fax. So the use of the words “democratic deficit” by the supporters of the Bill is in any case a bit erroneous. It is even more erroneous when you consider that the people of the Northern Ireland actually voted to remain in the European Union; that surely is something of a democratic deficit.

These amendments, which I imagine the Minister will explain the Government cannot support, are also an attempt to address the democratic deficit, to say that the people of Northern Ireland collectively should have some say in the operation of this deeply flawed legislation. So why will the Government oppose it? We know why: because a majority of Members of the Assembly who were elected in May have said they do not want any of it, and that would not be helpful to the Government’s objectives. When you bandy around phrases such as “democratic deficit”, you should follow them through to their logical conclusion, and that logical conclusion is in the amendments that the House is now debating.

Photo of Lord Browne of Belmont Lord Browne of Belmont DUP

My Lords, the amendments would subject aspects of the Bill to the approval of the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, my contention is that they will work only if preceded by a prior vote on the protocol itself in accordance with the standards of cross-community consent put in place for the controversial matters set out by the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

The Good Friday agreement is now very vulnerable because of the approach of the European Union in relation to two key principles at the heart of it. First, the Good Friday agreement is predicated on a commitment to affording the interests of both communities parity of esteem. The interests of unionism have not been afforded parity of esteem vis-à-vis those of nationalism with respect to the protocol. While the protocol represents an existential threat to all that unionists hold dear and is rejected by all the unionist parties, it authenticates that which nationalists and republicans desire: the breaking of the UK economy. Secondly, the Good Friday agreement is predicated on a commitment to non-majoritarian politics, which means that controversial decisions have to be made on the basis of cross-community consent. Again, that has been cast aside.

In the first instance, the EU sought to pressure the UK Government into the protocol without affording Northern Ireland any say in the matter, notwithstanding the fact that the effect of the protocol is to slash the value of the Northern Ireland vote, as 300 areas of lawmaking to which we are subject are taken from us and made by a legislature of a foreign power. When the EU finally agreed that the Northern Ireland Assembly should be given some say in the matter, it insisted for some bizarre reason that it should happen four years afterwards. It made provision for it to continue for at least another four years without cross-community support, resulting in eight years of government outside the confines of the Belfast agreement, which could of course continue indefinitely with regular four-year extensions.

That is the height of irony because anyone who studies democracy will know that leading academics in the field, such as Professor Arend Lijphart, are very clear that the EU is one of the most consensual, non-majoritarian polities in the world today. That the EU decided to betray its own commitment to non-majoritarianism by going out of its way to impose majoritarianism on a polity that it knew was based on non-majoritarianism is quite extraordinary.

This is a major problem not just for the Good Friday agreement but for the protocol. The protocol subjects itself to the Belfast agreement in all its dimensions through Articles 1 and 2. That is a problem for those who wish to argue that international law constrains those seeking to address the clear injustices of the Northern Ireland protocol, because Article 3 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties is very clear that:

“When a treaty specifies that it is subject to … an earlier or later treaty, the provisions of that other treaty prevail.”

Given that the convention also sets out mechanisms, such as Article 56(1)(b), whereby a state party can lawfully and unilaterally withdraw from a treaty, the refusal of the EU to amend the protocol so that it is properly brought into line with the prior treaty clearly gives grounds for our withdrawal.

We now find ourselves in a very difficult situation, where not only have the Government of Northern Ireland departed from the Belfast/Good Friday agreement but, because of this, a new arrangement has been permitted to develop that would never have come to pass had the Belfast agreement been respected. In this context, it is not appropriate to respond to the protocol as a given and to ask the Northern Ireland Assembly to agree, as the amendments before us now suggest, to any change.

If we are to engage the Northern Ireland Assembly and save the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, we have first to ask the more basic question of whether the Northern Ireland Assembly will consent to the protocol. If the Assembly endorses the protocol on the basis of cross-community consent, in line with the Belfast agreement, then it would be appropriate to move on to the votes mandated in these amendments. However, if the Assembly does not support the protocol on the basis of cross-community consent, in line with the Belfast agreement, and the surrendering of the right to elect legislators making laws to which the people of Northern Ireland are subject in some 300 different areas, then the protocol should fall away.

Whatever happens, we have to re-embrace the discipline of the Good Friday agreement and the subjection of the protocol to that prior treaty, courtesy of Articles 1 and 2 of the protocol, if we are to celebrate 25 years of the Good Friday agreement come April.

Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 4:30, 31 Hydref 2022

My Lords, I support my noble friend Lady Suttie in her amendments. Notwithstanding the appeal from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, these Benches do not need to be persuaded of his arguments. We are nevertheless tasked with scrutinising and testing this legislation, and I support my noble friend’s amendments.

I want to ask the Minister just two simple questions relating to the Sewel convention, which is now recognised as a constitutional principle. Michael Ellis, speaking on behalf of the Government in Committee in the Commons, was asked about legislative consent of this Bill. He said:

“As the hon. Member for North Down will be aware, the Sewel convention applies to this Bill, as it does to all Bills of this Parliament that intersect with devolved competence. I confirm that in the absence of functioning institutions, senior officials in the Foreign Office have already made contact with the head of the Northern Ireland civil service regarding legislative consent … The Government will consult stakeholders in Northern Ireland, including Members of the Assembly, on the operation of the Bill during its passage and thereafter”.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/7/22; cols. 385-86.]

What did the officials ask of the civil servants with regard to legislative consent in the absence of there being an Assembly? This is not a practice that has ever been seen anywhere else for the operation of the Sewel Motion. Which Members of the Assembly have been consulted during the passage of this Bill, and on what? Have they been asked, with regard to the dual regulatory regime that the Bill proposes, and what have their responses been so far?

Photo of Lord Bew Lord Bew Crossbench

My Lords, I rise to put a technical point. I am not sure of the answer—it is a genuine question—but it bears on the amendment. Trade is a reserved matter in Northern Ireland. When there was first sight of Theresa May’s protocol, there was great rage in Northern Ireland. People in Northern Ireland were told, “Sorry, this is a reserved matter.” Subsequently—it was the second iteration—it was very much the view of the noble Lord, Lord Frost, that that was not itself a satisfactory answer, and there is provision in the protocol negotiated by the Johnson Government. The one significant change is to make, in very specific circumstances, a role for the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly. That is probably the major difference between the two protocols. However, if it is a reserved matter—if that was the answer that I remember being given throughout 2017 and 2018 in this House—I cannot quite see the purchase of these amendments.

If it is a reserved matter, it is a reserved matter. It is for this Parliament to deal with these trade matters. The burden of the Bill is in dealing with Articles 5 and 10 of the protocol—not those on human rights and so on—in a way which, I accept, many Members of this House do not like. None the less, it does not seem appropriate to be raising these issues now about that role for the Northern Ireland Assembly, because trade is a reserved matter held by this House.

The history of this is perfectly clear: the Government of Ireland Act 1920 has language on trade, as do the prior Acts of Union 1800. Then there were modifications to the Government of Ireland Act—benign modernisations, I would say—under the Good Friday agreement and the legislation that went through this House, which left us with trade as a reserved matter. It seems to me that this should be taken into account. There may be some possible answer to it, and the noble Lord, Lord Frost, has negotiated a possible way that one might work around it, but trade is a reserved matter at this point. We are not concerned with the human rights provisions of the protocol and so on; they are not the issue in the Bill. It is directed mainly against Articles 5 and 10, rightly or wrongly—wrongly, I am sure many colleagues on my own Benches think—but trade being a reserved matter is a problem for amendments of this sort.

Photo of Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Crossbench

I agree that external trade is a reserved matter, but here we are talking about trade inside the United Kingdom—as well as trade inside the single market of the European Union, of course. I do not think it follows at all that one can say there is no role for the Assembly because external trade is a reserved matter.

I would love to support the amendment in the names of the two noble Baronesses. I agree with the spirit of it. It is extraordinary how, throughout this saga, things have been done to Northern Ireland without Northern Ireland being fully consulted or even informed. It is extraordinary, when you think about it, that the protocol was concluded without the involvement—I want to embarrass him now—of the noble Lord, Lord Caine, who knows far more about these issues than most of us do and has a judgment that we would all respect. That should have been brought to bear.

I hesitate to criticise the noble Lord, Lord Frost, who is busy with his emails, but, if he would like to listen, I will criticise him. It would have been good if he had found the ability to spend more time in Northern Ireland while he was negotiating. It would have been great if his master, the then Prime Minister, had been able to spend some time trying to understand the issues and seeing people on the ground, but it is an astonishing fact that Michel Barnier had more direct personal experience of Northern Ireland than the noble Lord, Lord Frost, had. That was because Barnier had spent time there doing jobs for previous presidents of the Commission.

I feel that the syndrome of imposing things on Northern Ireland, perhaps under cover of talk about reserved matters, which I disagree with, has been damaging to the United Kingdom and, of course, to Northern Ireland. I would love to support these amendments, and of course I would do so. But it would not make an illegal act less illegal if the Northern Ireland Assembly voted for it, so what are we talking about here?

I caused the Minister to look askance when I said that we are talking about a pig of a Bill. The Minister thought that was an indelicate reference. However, what we are doing here is trying to put lipstick on the pig. It will still be a pig even if this amendment is approved. If it were put to a vote, of course I would vote for it, but my general feeling is that we know what we have to do with this Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has correctly pointed out that what we are engaged in now is a waste of time because I am confident that at the end of the day, we will do what we have to do to this Bill. I hope the end of the day comes soon.

Photo of Lord Davies of Stamford Lord Davies of Stamford Llafur

My Lords, for a number of years I was shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I have not been involved in recent political discussions in the Province. In a sense, I have come back to the subject afresh today. It certainly keeps all its fascination. We have just heard two immensely important contributions to the debate by the noble Lords, Lord Kerr and Lord Bew. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, dealt clearly, decisively and definitively with whether or not trade is a reserved matter. We must be grateful for that analysis, which I hope will guide us in dealing with this Bill.

The Bill is an extraordinarily unpopular document, is it not? It is quite difficult to find anybody really prepared to defend it. The DUP is obviously very much opposed to it. We have heard this afternoon from people who are close to the DUP’s leadership. The European Commission has launched infringement procedures in relation to the British Government’s activity over this Bill. The British Government do not seem to be very convinced of the virtues of the Bill. Certainly no one this afternoon has made a strong defence of the Bill.

Against that background, I rather agree with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. It is quite unlikely that the DUP will do a U-turn; it would be a humiliating thing to do. Therefore, one must assume that the Bill in its present form does not have very far to go. That is not surprising because—and the reason I really oppose this Bill—it seems contrary to the essence of parliamentary democracy. The principle which underlines our whole system in this country is that the law must be made by the legislature—the legally elected representatives of the public. It is their responsibility to make laws; it is not the responsibility of the Government to make laws, nor is it desirable that they should try to do so.

Many of the provisions in this controversial protocol Bill reveal that there is an ambition for the Government to rewrite the law themselves. I look at the overview of the Bill in the very helpful summary produced by the Library. It says that one of the purposes is

“giving ministers delegated powers to make new provision in domestic law ‘in connection with’ ‘excluded provision’”; in other words, the Bill declares itself as being in the business of making law and imposing it on the public, which is quite contrary to all democratic principles, and we should be quite upset about it.

This is something which has disfigured European history in the last 100 years. A number of people, from Mussolini to Hitler to Marshal Pétain, have adopted this course of deciding to get through an assembly, which would be reasonably compliant, a Bill entitling the Government to write the law themselves in the future. That is what happens to democracies if they are under that kind of attack. We should not in any way be party to that.

The House of Lords Library’s summary of the situation makes it clear that, in this case, the executive branch is deciding to write law and change international treaties more or less at the drop of a hat. That is obviously not something that anyone in this House could tolerate, and we should therefore think about this extremely carefully before it proceeds. We should make it absolutely clear that the Government cannot get away with asking for power in an enabling Act to simply write the future statute—not making this clear would be contrary to what we should do in this place.

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann Ceidwadwyr 4:45, 31 Hydref 2022

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baronesses, Lady Suttie and Lady Ritchie, on their amendment. I associate myself with the remarks about the democratic deficit problems that have arisen in Northern Ireland as a result of Brexit. Many of us in this House have always believed that a hard Brexit was incompatible with the Good Friday agreement. However, the Government assured the people of Northern Ireland and this Parliament that the Northern Ireland protocol was the answer to ensuring that Brexit would work with the Good Friday agreement. It clearly imposed a border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as the impact assessment explained. The problems that have arisen do not seem due to the intransigence of the EU; they are inherent in the protocol.

Brexit is yet another example of how, for so long—decades and decades—Britain has imposed things on the people of Northern Ireland and, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said, done things to Northern Ireland, rather than working with the people there. But that is not a reason for our Government, shortly after signing the protocol, to say, “We don’t like it. We don’t like ECJ oversight or the EU deciding what it considers a risk to its single market. We must do that”, and then expecting the EU simply to accept that, in contravention of our signature on an agreement and of what was promised to the people of Northern Ireland.

Clearly, there is an issue. I hope my noble friend can explain how removing ECJ oversight and allowing the UK Government to assess risks to the single market will make hard Brexit work for all of the parties in Northern Ireland, not just the DUP.

Photo of Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, made a powerful—emotional, to some extent—speech last week and it certainly resonated with me. To a large extent, that has been reflected in the contributions so far, acknowledging that things have been done to Northern Ireland. Of course, when we consider what was done to Northern Ireland in relation to this protocol, it is right to remember that the then Prime Minister went to the DUP party conference and assured it that it was “oven ready”. In an aside, he also said, “Don’t worry about the paperwork”. Perhaps the DUP was overconfident in relying upon the word of the former Prime Minister: what has happened since has exploded the idea that what was in the protocol would somehow cover all circumstances.

The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, referred to the most helpful Library briefing, which says on page 50 that Article 16 is a “safeguard” mechanism. Are we looking for safeguards? Yes, of course we are. It allows either party to take temporary

“measures if the application of the Protocol leads to serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist”.

On the attitude being taken by the DUP, what better definition can we have than this expression that embraces its concerns—almost exactly and in detail? It goes on to say that the “diversion of trade” is an issue that would justify reference to Article 16.

It seems that Article 16 has been rejected by the Government. I have never really heard a proper argument for why that should be the case. I will put it this way: if Article 16 does not cover what we are about today, when will it ever be of any relevance? This question would give an answer, though perhaps not one that would suit the DUP in every respect. Should Article 16 be invoked, an answer to this question would go a long way to helping those—including me—concerned about anything that might have the effect of undermining the Belfast agreement.

I think we will have a discussion later this week in this House about trade arrangements, so I will repeat a point I made in the last debate: the trade arrangements that were held in front of all our noses were those to be made with the United States. They were going to remedy any difficulties or subtractions that we might experience if we left the European Union. However, nothing much has happened with that. As I said then—I say it again now—we forget the extent to which the politics of the United States, as they affect us domestically in both Houses and across both sides of the aisle, are influenced by their attitudes towards Ireland. It seems that, so long as we have this unresolved issue, the prospects for a trade agreement are pretty remote. For this reason, I ask the DUP why Article 16 is not enough for it, and I ask the Government to give us a coherent explanation of why they are not willing to invoke it. At the very least, by invoking it, we would be able to test it.

Photo of Lord Dodds of Duncairn Lord Dodds of Duncairn DUP

My Lords, it is indeed a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, with whom I had the honour of serving alongside for many years in the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. I understand that he continues to serve there with great distinction, so it is a pleasure to hear what he has to say.

On the issue of Article 16, I say with the greatest of respect: I well remember that, when this was being discussed and advocated by us and others, there was agreement that some of the articles in the Northern Ireland protocol should be suspended. Article 16 was absolutely opposed tooth and nail by the vast bulk of everybody, not just in Northern Ireland on the nationalist side but both here in this House and in the other place. In the last debate, I quoted statements from leading members of what was then Her Majesty’s Opposition, including the Liberal Democrat Benches—as well as others on the Conservative Benches—who were vociferous and vehement in their opposition to any notion of the implementation of Article 16. The Irish Government went so far as to say that it would completely upend the Belfast agreement, which seems to be the chosen form of words when something is proposed that is not liked. I hear with interest what noble Lords are saying now about Article 16, but that certainly was not what was being said a few months ago. Noble Lords should look back in Hansard to what the situation actually was. The reality is that Article 16—whether or not it was invoked—was not going to solve all the problems.

Photo of Lord Dodds of Duncairn Lord Dodds of Duncairn DUP

Other Members have had their say so I am going to proceed in terms of my speech.

The amendment before us from the noble Baronesses, Lady Suttie and Lady Ritchie, has the intent of saying that the Bill’s operative clauses should not proceed unless there is approval from the Northern Ireland Assembly. I note, however, that this is not by cross-community vote. What is fascinating about people who defend and say they are defending the Belfast agreement—as amended by St Andrews, of course—is that they say, “Let’s give a vote to the Northern Ireland Assembly”. Regardless of whether or not it is reserved, the fact is that you are giving a power to the Assembly, and the Assembly in Northern Ireland operates by cross-community vote: there must be a majority of unionists, a majority of nationalists and an overall majority for all major pieces of legislation to pass. If it is subject to a majority vote, it can be turned into a cross-community vote by a petition of concern. Yet, uniquely, the proponents of the Belfast agreement only ever want to give a vote on the protocol issues to the Northern Ireland Assembly without a cross-community vote. So, if we are going to be consistent about defending the Belfast agreement and the institutions thereof, this amendment should include provision for a cross-community vote.

The other big flaw of course is that there is no such requirement for the absolute implementation of the protocol itself. I pointed out that Article 50 of the joint declaration in December 2017, signed by the EU and the United Kingdom Government, said that there could be no regulatory difference between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom unless it was by a cross-community vote of the Assembly and the Executive in Northern Ireland. So that is what should be the priority. As my noble friend Lord Browne said, there needs to be a prior step before we go down this route, which is to ask whether the protocol has the assent of the Northern Ireland Assembly on the basis of the Assembly’s decision-making powers, which are by cross-community vote.

It has also been said that the democratic deficit argument is not valid because there are other countries that have no say in laws that govern them. Norway was cited. Of course, Norway is a member of the European Economic Area but is not a member of the customs union, so it does not have EU customs laws applied to it in the way that Northern Ireland has. That is a significant difference. But the other major difference is this: the whole of Norway is a member of the single market. Northern Ireland is separated out from the rest of the United Kingdom, so one part of the United Kingdom is subject to EU laws while the rest goes its own way, making its own laws and being free to make its own decisions. Given that Northern Ireland does more trade with the rest of the United Kingdom than with the rest of the world, Europe and the Republic of Ireland put together, that makes no sense whatever. So it is entirely wrong to suggest, “Oh, well, there’s no difference between Northern Ireland and places like Norway”—there is a world of difference. I am surprised that that has not been noted.

Then we have the argument that it is the Government who have set out the position as to what needs to be done in relation to the protocol and putting it right. They issued a Command Paper in July 2021 and have now published this Bill. A lot of it is good in terms of restoring democratic control over laws that apply to Northern Ireland; it goes some way to rectifying that, although it does not do everything that we would like. Then we are told that if the DUP do not get on board with this—the Government’s proposals—then somehow the rules for power sharing in Northern Ireland should be cast aside. Again, I ask defenders of the Belfast agreement: where are you when people say, “Let’s just do away with the cross-community mechanisms and go for majority voting”? We have not had majority rule in Northern Ireland for over 50 years.

But when people talk about the Assembly not functioning for a large bulk of the period since the Belfast agreement, remember that between 2003 and 2007 it was down because of the actions of Sinn Féin and its military wing, the IRA, in robbing the Northern Bank. The Government rightly insisted that it would have to give up its weaponry before it could be considered fit to have a place in the Government of Northern Ireland. For four years—and between 2017 and 2020, again Sinn Féin kept the Assembly down and boycotted the Executive—would not agree to re-form it—on the issue of language and culture. But, as soon as there is any suggestion that the DUP insists on the democratic rights of people in Northern Ireland to be treated in the same way as other citizens of the United Kingdom, to have their say and vote on laws that affect them, we have the defenders, it appears, of the Belfast agreement saying, “No, let’s jettison all that, let’s change the rules”. Well, I am afraid that really is a recipe for disaster.

The fact of the matter is that yes, we have had this 28 October deadline pass, and whether there is an election called or not, it appears to be something that is only in the mind of the current Secretary of State who has succeeded, I have to say, in uniting everybody in Northern Ireland, and across all parties here, in bamboozling the entire polity in Northern Ireland as to what on earth is going on, or what the thinking or rationale is. The DUP does not seek an election in Northern Ireland—no party does—but we do not fear an election; we have absolutely no difficulty about putting our position and our case to the people of Northern Ireland, and we will see who speaks for unionists, and we will see who speaks for a large section of the community in Northern Ireland.

As I say, we do not seek an election, we do not think an election will do any good, we think that it will be polarising and divisive and will not forward the case for finding the solutions that need to be found—but if it happens, so be it. But I would urge the Secretary of State, whatever he has decided, to get on and announce it, and stop the current limbo situation. Are we going to respect the Sewel convention? It has been disrespected with the support of some Members who have spoken here today in relation to imposing abortion laws, which are matters for the Northern Ireland Assembly—that has been disrespected. It has been disrespected in relation to the culture and identity Bill, which I just referred to, because that again is a devolved matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly—but many noble Lords were content to push that through, regardless of the views of the Assembly.

But what I would say is that, if you are going to give the Assembly a say on these matters, then respect the Belfast agreement. Why change it? Give it a cross-community vote. What is the problem with that? I humbly say that, when it came to the protocol itself, all of those safeguards were of course jettisoned, and we need therefore to go back to the rationale for this Bill. Whether it is through the Bill or new negotiations, we have got to get to a situation where we have a position which both unionists and nationalists can support in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench 5:00, 31 Hydref 2022

My Lords, I am not going to comment on the politics of Northern Ireland—I am a mere lawyer—but the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, raised a particular point on Article 16, and the answer given by the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, as I understood him, was that there were discussions about that, and statements were made at various times by various politicians. But the fact of the matter is that Article 16 is part of the protocol; it cannot be ignored.

What it says is that it provides a procedure for dealing with

“serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade”.

It is a very broad concept; it provides a means by which such disputes can be resolved and, as I have said before in debates on this Bill, I simply do not understand how the test of “necessity” in international law can be satisfied when the Government have available, and are not using, a provision that is expressly provided in the protocol. You simply cannot resile from an international agreement because of problems when the protocol itself, the international agreement, provides a means of addressing them; it is as simple as that.

There is one other legal point. The noble Lord, Lord Browne, deserves an answer. He rightly emphasised that Articles 1 and 2 of the protocol preserve the Belfast agreement in various respects, upholding and emphasising it. As I understood it, his argument is that the Bill is consistent with international law because the protocol, in his view, undermines the Belfast agreement. However, if I may respectfully say so, there is an insuperable difficulty with that argument: this country signed the protocol on the basis of the view that the protocol was consistent with the Belfast agreement in the context of the difficult problems posed by Brexit.

Having signed the agreement, with respect, it is trite as a matter of international law that the United Kingdom cannot unilaterally resile from the protocol because, under political pressure, it now wishes to take a different view. Therefore, this Bill, as I have suggested before, is quite simply inconsistent with international law.

Photo of Lord Frost Lord Frost Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I appreciate that I am a relative newcomer to this House, but I had understood that in Committee discussion is supposed to focus on the amendments before us. What I have heard today is very much a rerun of the discussion we heard in this place last week, with repeated invocations of issues of principle around this Bill and the protocol, which are extremely important but might not be resolved in this debate simply by repeating the points over and over.

I have been trying to follow the detail of this on my electronic device, with my documents in front of me—I know the technique may not be familiar to everybody in this House, but I am trying my best. I was not intending to speak but, as some points of principle have been raised, I feel it is right to put certain circumstances on record.

I will make three brief points. First, I feel we are having a highly abstract discussion about a very concrete and real situation. Noble Lords all know what is happening in Northern Ireland at the moment and what has happened over the last year and in recent months: the constant, gradual deterioration of the real political situation in Northern Ireland, the undermining of the institutions of the Good Friday agreement, and the degradation of some of the habits of co-operation and working together that we have seen over the years. This is a real situation, which must be dealt with. This Bill is a way of dealing with it and the Government—rightly, in my view—believe it is the best way of doing so.

We have to engage with that. We have to take real-life action to deal with the problems that exist on the ground in Northern Ireland. Important though discussions of international law and a reinvocation of why we signed this agreement may be, they do not deal with the real situation on the ground now. The Government are the Government of this country, and they are right to put forward proposals that deal with this situation. The best way to deal with it would be to expedite this Bill, not to delay, defer or withdraw it. The best contributor to stability in Northern Ireland would be to get this on the statute book and enable people to know what they are dealing with.


Photo of Lord Frost Lord Frost Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

No other noble Lords have taken interventions, so I will complete my points if I may.

It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, who made the points I was about to make about Article 16. When I was on the Front Bench here, I repeatedly stated that the conditions for meeting Article 16 had been met but we would prefer to proceed by negotiation. I was looked at as some sort of barbarian by many people in this House, and elsewhere, for daring to contemplate such a possibility. Yet it now seems that it is what many people would wish to do to resolve this situation—the natural way of doing so. I am very glad that is the view, but I am afraid that my view is that the situation on the ground in Northern Ireland has gone beyond that and Article 16 will not be the best way to resolve that.

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann Ceidwadwyr

I thank my noble friend for giving way. The view that I think many around the Committee hold is that the triggering of Article 16 was something that we did feel would be premature and we had all expected that there would be negotiations with the EU. However, the opposition to triggering that stage never envisaged that something like this Bill could be introduced which would rip up the whole protocol before negotiations had even been completed.

Photo of Lord Frost Lord Frost Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I thank my noble friend for her comments; she is correct to say that the situation last year was different from this year. We did not invoke Article 16 in the end and many people were disappointed about that. Since then, the situation has moved on; it has deteriorated. I think this Bill is really the only way of resolving it.

Thirdly and finally, many noble Lords seem to believe that a negotiated way through this would be made easier by withdrawing the Bill. I profoundly disagree. It is very much the best way through to find a negotiated solution and that is what I wanted to do last year. The observed behaviour of the European Union, through last year and this year, is that it does not wish to negotiate about the fundamental core of the problem. The proposals it has put on the table are at the margin; they are not to do with the core of the difficulties in so many areas—not just trade but state aid, VAT and other issues that go into the depths of the protocol. I do not believe it will unless it is forced to engage with the fact that the UK Government have an alternative, which is to use the powers in this Bill. If we take the Bill off the table, we are removing such limited leverage as the UK Government have to deliver for their people, the people of Northern Ireland, a better outcome.

I will wind up there. It is very important that we do not show infirmity of purpose on this and that the Bill continues. I urge the Minister in winding up to make it clear that we intend to move forward with it.

Photo of Baroness Wheatcroft Baroness Wheatcroft Crossbench

I did not plan on speaking in this debate, but I think it is only right that somebody should thank the noble Lord, Lord Frost, for explaining to us how bad things have become in Northern Ireland as a result of the treaty he negotiated. I am very happy to do that. I will, however, keep my speech brief and not make a Second Reading speech.

Of course, I support these two amendments but hope very much that we will not get to vote on them. To echo the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, we have been asked to put lipstick on a pig again. We have been asked to do that many times in the last couple of years, but to my knowledge, this is first time that the pig is not only ugly but illegal. On that basis, we should not get to vote on it. What we should do now, as others have said, is invoke Article 16. If negotiations are not working, as the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said, there is a route open to us but passing an illegal Bill is certainly not it.

Photo of Lord Hannan of Kingsclere Lord Hannan of Kingsclere Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, I had been planning to speak on the detail of the amendments. It seems to me to be quite unreasonable, as the noble Lords, Lord Dodds and Lord Bew, have already said, that the whole essence of the Belfast agreement, which was that important decisions would be made on a cross-community basis—a difficult principle for unionists to accept at the time—is now being abandoned the moment it becomes inconvenient. I say that as someone who was rather opposed, at the time, to the Belfast agreement—not on orange or green grounds but because I thought it was unhealthy to have all the parties in power all the time. I thought it would be healthier for democracy to have a more genuine competition. I lost that argument and we went down this road. It seems a little inconsistent that we should move to majoritarianism only when it suits people pushing one agenda.

The point ably made by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, is that this is not really what this or any of these amendments are about—I commend him on his honesty as well as on his customary eloquence. What all these amendments have been about—noble Lords have been perfectly frank about this—is their fundamental disagreement because of their contention that the Bill is illegal; that point was well expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. You can share or not the sense of the noble Lord, Lord Bew, that it is covered by Articles 1 and 2 giving primacy to the Belfast agreement and that that has prior force.

I am not a lawyer—there are many more distinguished people than I am—but I wanted to bring before the Committee one other observation. I sit on the sub-committee that deals with the protocol. We have heard from all the parties in Northern Ireland, and all of them support the unilateral grace periods. Not a single one has spoken out for full implementation of the protocol in the sense of wanting those unilateral grace periods withdrawn. In fact, I do not think that anyone in the European Commission is pushing for either. Other than one or two fairly ill-informed Democratic congressmen in the US, I do not think that anyone at all now says that we should apply in full the protocol without those alleviations and suspensions. I therefore put it to your Lordships that we are already in breach of international law, so the question is simply one of degree.

I very much sense that I am in a majority in this Chamber—I can see very well where most people stand. However, I plead with your Lordships to consider in mitigation that the Government are dealing with imperfect alternatives, it is simply a question of how far you want to go to prioritise one over another, and that therefore some of the more extreme rhetoric that we had both at Second Reading and on the first day of Committee about dictatorships, this being the worst Bill ever, tyranny and so on may be a little misplaced.

Photo of Baroness Chapman of Darlington Baroness Chapman of Darlington Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 5:15, 31 Hydref 2022

This has been a much more wide-ranging debate than I had anticipated. I guess we will see a lot of that in Committee, because, as many noble Lords observed, of the fundamental nature of our objection to what the Government are trying to do. However, this group of amendments is timely and makes an important point. Whether or not we agree that we should be supporting these to the letter is not, I think, what the noble Baronesses, Lady Suttie and Lady Ritchie, were trying to ask in tabling them. They were trying to make an important point. The issues which the noble Lord, Lord Frost, quite rightly reminds us are real on the ground in Northern Ireland absolutely are. However, this situation is now unique to Northern Ireland, and in every instance where there are a set of problems that relate to one specific geographical area—perhaps especially Northern Ireland, but it could be Wales or the north of England—the idea that you would try to resolve them unilaterally, without proper engagement with communities who live there, is unrealistic. Whatever happens with our deliberations on the Bill, with the negotiations or even if there are to be elections, and as a consequence of all that, we will not be able to move forward unless all the parties in Northern Ireland get together and agree a way to proceed. Any other way of going about this will not provide us with a durable solution, and that durability of an agreement is what we all want.

The Government were warned about the protocol at the time. It has been said, “But we were in a bit of a hurry because we weren’t allowed to leave without a deal; we just had to do something and this was better than nothing.” We have heard all that, and whatever we think about a Government making that kind of argument when they had an 80-seat majority and could pretty much at that point do whatever they wanted, we are where we are. However, these problems were completely foreseeable, and I regret that we have got to where we are.

Some people say that we need to expedite the Bill—I think that the noble Lord, Lord Frost, said this—and move on. That is fine, but to do what? What is it that the Government want to do instead? We do not know. Last week, the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, said he was concerned that he did not know. We have not seen draft regulations. We are being asked to agree to something without knowing what it is we will be left with at the end of the process; that is not reasonable for this Committee.

At the risk of making a wide-ranging and ponderous speech that deviates all over the place and does not address these amendments, let me say that saying, “Oh well, some people on your side said it was a bad idea at the time; therefore we must never do it”, is not a serious response to the challenge from the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, about this being the legal mechanism to which the UK Government agreed. We have not heard an adequate response from the Government on why they now view Article 16 as an inadequate provision that would not address the issues with the protocol that they say, and we agree, need to be resolved.

Also, on the idea that having this issue on the table will somehow make the EU more forthcoming in giving us what we want—although we lack clarity on that—I think we could be forgiven for not placing too much faith in the brilliance of the UK’s negotiating ability, given that it has brought us to precisely where we are today. The point that the noble Baronesses were making in tabling these amendments is a very important one, and one that we want to take seriously—especially in what the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, said about the cross-community nature of that involvement. We absolutely take that on board but it remains a point of principle, and one we should not lose, that we cannot do things to or act unilaterally in a way that has a huge impact on Northern Ireland without proper, full engagement with the communities there.

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

My Lords, I trust that the Committee will forgive me if I, somewhat unfashionably, pay lip service to the Standing Orders of the House and actually speak to the amendments. In so doing, I want to try to live up to the comments from my noble friend Lord Cormack. As an admirer of Harold Macmillan and the Baldwinite tradition in the Conservative Party, I will try to deliver my comments in that quiet, calm, deliberative way of which Mr Macmillan was so fond.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, for his kind words. I fear that, from now on, I will only disappoint him. Without going over the history, I say that he is well aware of what my views were three years ago but, as I have said many times, I am less interested in how we got here and more interested in how we can move on and get out of here into a more satisfactory state of affairs.

Before I turn directly to the amendments, as this is my first opportunity to speak from the Front Bench since the passing of May Blood, I want to reiterate a number of the comments made about her last week. She was an absolutely fearless and tireless champion of the rights of everybody in Northern Ireland. Her record in bringing people together, particularly through her work on integrated education, was absolutely inspirational.

I have just been sent a text. Some people will have come across a chap called Bob Mauro, who was the director of Irish Studies at Boston College; I see the noble Lord, Lord Hain, nodding. Sadly, I have just been informed that he has passed away. He was a man with whom those of us who have been involved in the affairs of Northern Ireland over a number of years had a great many dealings, so our sympathies go to his family and colleagues as well.

I emphasise a couple of points on which I strongly agree with the noble Baronesses, Lady Suttie and Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, and which underline the frustrations that we all share in this House over the lack of devolved government since February. A number of us have sadly been through this experience on too many occasions in recent years, and Members opposite went through it from 2002 to 2007. It is not a satisfactory state of affairs. We are firmly committed to the Belfast agreement, to its institutions and to getting devolved government back up and running as soon as possible. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State will have this at the top of his agenda when he meets the political parties in Northern Ireland over the coming days.

Amendments 4 and 5, in the names of the noble Baronesses, would essentially, by requiring the prior approval of the Northern Ireland Assembly, undermine the ability to exclude elements of the protocol and therefore undermine the entire operation of the Bill. In application, these amendments, if passed, would be wrecking amendments. We are very committed to restoring a fully functioning Executive and Assembly, but I remind the Committee that it is because of the operation of the protocol in its current form that the Northern Ireland Assembly has not sat since February. Sadly, we cannot be sure how long that state of affairs will persist. Therefore, these amendments risk setting a test which, in the current circumstances, could not be met due to the lack of an Assembly. The disapplication of elements of the protocol is also an excepted matter of foreign affairs reserved for the UK Government. Although we of course engage with parties in Northern Ireland, it would be improper, effectively, to transfer a new competence to a devolved Assembly in this way.

I assure the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, that we are committed to the Sewel convention and that we are pursuing options for obtaining legislative consent to the Bill from devolved Administrations. The Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office wrote to the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service regarding legislative consent and it remains our hope that we can reach a positive resolution on this point as soon as the institutions are restored. Regarding conversations with MLAs and political parties in Northern Ireland, I assure the noble Lord that these continue all the time, involving the Secretary of State, the Minister of State and me. We are in Northern Ireland, talking to political parties, all the time. It will not surprise the noble Lord that these issues surface from time to time. Without going into details of individual conversations, we continue to engage.

The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, referred to the letter sent earlier this year to the then Prime Minister, setting out opposition to the protocol Bill. This was raised by a number of noble Lords. Like the noble Lord, Lord Dodds of Duncairn, I am somewhat surprised, as one who spent many years as an adviser in the Northern Ireland Office and was told that particular arrangements for Northern Ireland were completely unsuitable because they did not have the support of a minority, now to be told that somehow majority rule, after a 50-year absence, ought to make a return. As a number of noble Lords have pointed out, cross-community consent is at the heart of the Belfast agreement. Following the May election, the largest single designation in the Assembly remains unionist. Under the 1998 rules, we would still be looking at a unionist First Minister. That remains the largest single designation and it is worth pointing out again that not a single unionist Member of that largest designation in the Assembly supports the protocol in its current form. In those circumstances, it is fair to point out that we have a problem.

The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, for whom I have great respect, and my noble friend Lady Altmann said that a majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain within the EU. At the risk of exciting controversy, I point out to both of them that so did I. However, the vote was by the United Kingdom, and the United Kingdom as a whole voted to leave. For the sake of our democracy, it is important that we respect that vote.

The noble Lord said that Northern Ireland is not uniquely disadvantaged by a democratic deficit and referred to the European Economic Area. The noble Lord, Lord Dodds of Duncairn, dealt with this somewhat, but I should add that new EU legislation is not automatically added to the EEA agreement, whereas the protocol provides that new EU legislation automatically applies in Northern Ireland if it amends or replaces legislation in the annexes to the protocol, without adequate opportunity to reflect on its implications for NI. That is where the sense of a democratic—

Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench 5:30, 31 Hydref 2022

I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way. Could he perhaps give an instance in which Norway has not immediately adopted a piece of European legislation since the EEA agreement came into effect?

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

The noble Lord is a former diplomat. He is a far greater expert on these matters than I will ever be. However, my noble friend Lord Hannan has just whispered in my ear “the post office directive”. I will come back to the noble Lord with further details.

Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I know that we will come on to the application of EU law in later groups, but since the Minister has helpfully referred to that, it would be good for him to be clear that, even under this Bill—the dual regulatory regime that the Government are proposing—there will be direct application of EU laws.

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

As the noble Lord rightly pointed out, we will deal with this subject in the fourth group of amendments. I shall be responding for the Government, so if he can contain himself, we will deal with it at the appropriate point—if we get there this evening.

In summary, we do not think that it would be right to make implementation of measures in this Bill contingent on the restoration of the institutions, given the urgency of the situation in Northern Ireland to which the Government must respond.

I turn briefly to Amendments 68 and 69, also in the name of the noble Baroness. Taken together, these would make the commencement of all operational aspects of the Bill dependent on the approval of the Northern Ireland Assembly. At the risk of repeating myself, it is because of the operation of the protocol that the Assembly has not sat since February. We do not know how long this state of affairs will persist. The situation in Northern Ireland is urgent, and we cannot allow addressing the problems with the protocol to be delayed indefinitely.

The noble Lord, Lord Bew—I should really call him my noble friend—rightly referred to the fact that trade has been a reserved matter ever since the Government of Ireland Act 1920. The amendments would essentially prevent the Government making secondary legislation in a reserved area. That is another reason why we cannot accept them.

Given the urgency of the situation—the need to fix the protocol—it would not be right to make the implementation of the vital measures in this Bill contingent on the restoration of the Assembly and Executive. For those reasons, I ask the noble Baroness not to press her amendments.

Photo of Baroness Suttie Baroness Suttie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

My Lords, I begin by echoing the Minister’s comments on May Blood. On behalf of these Benches, I pass on our condolences to her family. I heard about her when I first went to Belfast, and she was held up as a role model for so many in Northern Ireland.

At the outset, I said that this would be a probing amendment. It would be fair to say that it has provoked and probed quite extensively. We have covered a variety of topics, with some very interesting and thought-provoking speeches. In particular, I single out the very measured speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, and that of my noble friend Lord Bruce, who perhaps displayed his irritations and frustrations with the situation a little bit more clearly than I did.

As ever, I found myself agreeing entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, and the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann. They are both absolutely right in their analysis that things are being done to Northern Ireland rather than for it. That is, in essence, the purpose of these amendments: they are probing amendments about the principle of consulting, and not just with one part of one community.

I totally agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. It was a wonderful piece of common sense. Would that we could all now finish what could perhaps be described as a waste of our collective time. There was an interesting series of contributions none the less.

I want to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, who rightly said that the amendments are about the principle of consultation—consulting the Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly and, in their absence, making sure that they are properly involved in the process. I fear that the Minister did not really expand on how that will happen in the weeks and months ahead.

It is, perhaps, one of the peculiarities of this Bill that no one department ever seems to want to take ownership of it. However, it was very welcome to have the Minister from the Northern Ireland Office today because, with all his experience, he was at least able to speak first hand about the consultation and the details of this legislation.

To repeat, the Northern Ireland protocol is a problem of this Government’s own making. Finding practical solutions needs to be their responsibility. However, it is important to listen to all voices in Northern Ireland and, as I said earlier, not just those of one part of one community. It is hard to see how creating further ill will through this legislation will achieve that aim. However, I will not press these amendments this afternoon but reserve the option of re-tabling them on Report, depending on what happens in the weeks ahead in Northern Ireland around the possible elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. I beg leave to withdraw.

Amendment 4 withdrawn.

Clause 2 agreed.

Amendments 5 and 6 not moved.

Clause 3 agreed.

Clause 4: Movement of goods (including customs): excluded Protocol provision