Northern Ireland Protocol Bill
Published date : 13 July, 2022
I take this opportunity to welcome the new Secretary of State to his place; I look forward to working with him.
I rise to speak to amendments 29 and 30 on the Order Paper and to give notice to the Committee that I intend to put clause 15 to a vote, as it is the heart of the Bill. My party is opposed very much to the Bill in principle. In our view, the hard reality is that Brexit is not working for any part of the UK.
It was Brexit that created the need for a protocol, and we have been clear that within the ambit of that protocol there ought to be room for flexibility. It should be possible for a UK Government who are acting in good faith and are trusted to be able to negotiate constructively within the workings of that protocol to deliver better outcomes, which I think none of us would object to seeing.
We have seen that there is considerable overlap between the proposals of the UK Government and the European Union in terms of the opportunities presented by sanitary and phytosanitary checks and the labelling of goods to eliminate many of the checks currently causing so much difficulty and interrupting trading arrangements. However, introducing a Bill that will break international law and relies on the rather flimsy—at least in the context of the information we have—concept of necessity, is certainly not the way to go to build that trust.
The Bill will damage the UK’s standing in the world. Without a shadow of a doubt, it undermines the UK’s commitment to the rules-based international order. The Law Society of Scotland, which is not known as a revolutionary or radical organisation in such matters, has gone so far as to say that the UK Government should,
“as a matter of principle, comply with public international law and the rule of international law, pacta sunt servanda (agreements are to be kept)”.
That should be honoured. It strikes me that even citing the legal doctrine of necessity is tantamount to an admission of a potential future illegality, since the defence is only relevant when international law is being broken. On a political level, there is tremendous difficulty for the Government in seeking to put this argument across. The agreement was freely entered into, on terms that they in many respects insisted upon, which was not only lauded, but which the UK Government actively curtailed the time and opportunities for parliamentary scrutiny in respect of. That takes a considerable amount of chutzpah.
Although we do not consider it unreasonable for the UK Government, in light of experience, to seek to renegotiate the terms on which our future trading relationship with Europe is based and how that impacts Northern Ireland, we do not believe the Bill will create the conditions where such a negotiation might progress or allow the Government to act within the letter and spirit of international law. It also brings the risk of consequences, a reaction and a potential harshening of the trade situation, which would simply make matters worse for everyone right across the United Kingdom.
Yes, I think untold additional harms could befall Northern Ireland—and not just Northern Ireland, but all parts of the UK. That is why it is important that the Government’s stated position of preferring negotiation is the one that they pursue wholeheartedly. I am very concerned at the suggestion that there has been no direct dialogue between Her Majesty’s Government and the European Union on this since February; I sincerely hope that is not true.
Time does not permit me to speak on further amendments, but I am particularly attracted to amendment 1 tabled by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), who seems to be rapidly becoming the critical friend that this Government perhaps do not deserve, and whose argument is very sound. We also fully support new clauses 7, 8 and 10.
The only way forward on this is negotiation, and the Bill will risk our ability to take that forward. I urge the Minister to accept the amendments that have been tabled in good faith but fundamentally to put the Bill on ice until the Government are back in a stable position, and then proceed on the basis of that reorganised mandate to achieve the negotiated settlement that each of us desperately needs.
I rise to speak to amendments 15 to 18 and new clause 5. I will just have a quick canter through them, because they are quite technical.
Amendment 15 would apply House of Commons draft affirmative procedure in place of regulations on tax or customs matters being subject to annulment. Amendment 16 would prevent Henry VIII powers from being made on tax or customs matters using the made affirmative procedure. Amendment 17 would introduce the super-affirmative procedure set out in SNP new clause 5. Amendment 18 would remove the made affirmative procedure for tax and customs matters.
The SNP is proposing the super-affirmative procedure on what we regard as a point of principle: the Bill gives Ministers far, far, far too much power. Notwithstanding any of the unlawfulness inherent in it, it simply gives Ministers far too much power to act without reference back to elected Members. We think that that needs to be remedied, so under new clause 5, the super-affirmative procedure would ensure that the Treasury and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs
“must have regard to…any representations…any resolution of the House of Commons, and…any recommendations of a committee of the House of Commons charged with reporting on the draft regulations”
and must give details of any representations made. The new clause would ensure that approval for the draft regulations is given by Members of this House, rather than by Ministers. There are some important issues at stake.
I turn to the House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee’s seventh report of this Session. I have to say that the Committee’s publications are very worthy, although they are not exactly on my bedtime reading list every night. I am sure that the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), would agree; his highlighter pen has clearly been over exactly the same sections of the report as mine. What it says early on bears repetition:
“The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill…confers on Ministers a licence to legislate in the widest possible terms…The Bill represents as stark a transfer of power from Parliament to the Executive as we have seen throughout the Brexit process. The Bill is unprecedented in its cavalier treatment of Parliament, the EU and the Government’s international obligations.”
Quite apart from the unlawful nature of what is being proposed, it seems undesirable, if not improper, to vest quite so much power in the hands of Ministers.
I will keep my remarks brief, but I will just briefly touch on Opposition amendments 34 and 35, which appear to have a similar ethos to ours: they would remove Ministers’ ability to act on a subjective rather than objective basis. I also commend new clause 4 and amendment 24; the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) spoke very eloquently about the benefits that could come from taking a UK-wide approach once again on these matters.
I have certainly been doing my bit, in every forum to which I have had access, to make the case for putting a sanitary and phytosanitary deal in place. Not only would that solve many of the problems inherent in the protocol, but it would make things much better for my constituents in the north-east of Scotland, the seed potato growers and those who are involved in the food and drink industry more generally. It seems such a pragmatic thing to do that it beggars belief that we have come so far down the road of the Government saying
that they wish to negotiate without anything like it being concluded. It seems to me that Ministers would be knocking on an open door if they went to Brussels with it.
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