All 4 Richard Thomson contributions to the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill 2022-23

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Mon 27th Jun 2022
Wed 13th Jul 2022
Northern Ireland Protocol Bill
Commons Chamber

Committee stage: Committee of the whole House (Day 1) & Committee stage
Tue 19th Jul 2022
Northern Ireland Protocol Bill
Commons Chamber

Committee stage: Committee of the whole House (day 2)
Wed 20th Jul 2022
Northern Ireland Protocol Bill
Commons Chamber

Committee stage: Committee of the whole House (day 3)

Northern Ireland Protocol Bill

Richard Thomson Excerpts
2nd reading
Monday 27th June 2022

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
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I rise to speak in line with the basis of our reasoned amendment, namely that we believe that this Bill breaks international law.

We have already had to stumble our way through the consequences of a Brexit deal that was supposedly oven-ready. Quite frankly, what is proposed in this legislation is no better. The fact is that, if this Bill does not break international law, it is an act preparatory to doing so.

I will start my remarks by being as helpful as I think I can be to the Government. First, I hope I can understand and at least empathise with some of the concerns of people in Northern Ireland over how aspects of the protocol are working or, as they would view it, not working. Secondly, I do not consider it unreasonable in and of itself that, in the light of experience, the Government should seek to try to renegotiate aspects of the deal that has taken effect. However, I am firmly and clearly of the view that this is absolutely not the way to go about trying to achieve that objective.

I am bound to observe that, although we are here to talk about a Bill on the Northern Ireland protocol, the issues here do not only affect Northern Ireland. We are subject to a withdrawal agreement that does not work for Scotland or, I would contend, any other part of the United Kingdom. There is much rhetoric from the Government about our precious Union, but it is a Union under the stewardship of a Government who did not pay a great deal of attention to the concerns or priorities of the majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland who opposed Brexit. If relations are to be rebalanced across these islands, whether that is cross-community in Northern Ireland or even cross-Union, some recognition of those points by the Government is long overdue.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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I was very fortunate to have the hon. Gentleman in my constituency, where I gave him the opportunity, which I know he enjoyed it, to meet some of the Unionist community groups, the fishermen and the elected representatives. Every one of those people, as he will remember well, conveyed to him the unfairness of the Northern Ireland protocol and the impact it was having on fishing and on the community. He will know that the local people he met were very fearful of a future where the Northern Ireland protocol was retained. Does he understand those issues, and will he express that in the Chamber as well?

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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I recall that visit with great fondness, particularly the discussions we were able to have in Portavogie, and I am extraordinarily grateful to him and to everybody I met when I was last in Northern Ireland for the chance to discuss these matters. As I have said, I certainly hope I can empathise with and understand some of the issues raised there; if he will allow me to make some progress, he might see where there are perhaps areas of agreement and also, inevitably, some areas of divergence.

Richard Graham Portrait Richard Graham
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It seems to me that the fundamental issue of debate is whether the EU would move on the implementation issues that it claims are the only problem. For the EU, it is not a question of renegotiation, but of implementation. It has said that it believes that customs formalities can be reduced by about 80%, and the same with sanitary and phytosanitary checks, and that the expanded trusted trader scheme could solve many of the problems. How confident is the hon. Gentleman that those things will be delivered, given how long this has been going on for and the affect already evident in Northern Ireland?

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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It certainly appears to me that there is a potential landing zone between what has been proposed by the European Union and what has been proposed by the UK Government—indeed, there is a bit of an overlap. I would offer to come along with Ministers, but they might feel that reinforcements had arrived and somehow weakened their position. Nevertheless, there ought to be a landing zone here for those of goodwill and good faith.

Even as a supporter of Scottish independence, I find it utterly inconceivable that any Unionist Government would have signed up to the kind of arrangements that placed a trade border down the middle of the Irish sea while denying they were doing any such thing. All the issues inherent in the protocol could have been avoided had the UK Government maintained a modicum of statecraft and respect for all parts of the Union, acknowledged the limitations of the mandate they had from the Brexit referendum and remained in as close alignment as they could with the single market and customs union, thereby minimising the economic harms we have seen to the UK since then and ensuring that no part of that precious Union was left behind. Yet even now it seems that the Government have not learned from their mistakes. The Scottish Government were not consulted by the UK Government before they took this action. I believe I am right in saying that the UK Government did not even afford the Scottish Government the courtesy of a phone call in advance to advise of these plans.

It has also been reported that the UK Government did not consult their top legal adviser—the First Treasury Counsel, Sir James Eadie—on the legality of their move. So we have a UK Government who are in contempt both of international law, as we have seen in other matters, and domestic law. Aspects around the Prime Minister’s current travails are bad enough, but to stand up and use the full authority of a ministerial office to say that which is not gets right to the heart not just of the problems being presented by the protocol in its current form but of the fitness of the Prime Minister, or anyone aspiring to replace him.

Bob Stewart Portrait Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con)
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It is clear that the protocol is not working, and Northern Ireland business is suffering. In what way does this Bill act to the disadvantage of the European Union, because it seems to me that it is a very good way forward?

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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Well, it seems to me that whether it disadvantages or not is not something that Her Majesty’s Government get to decide. While I am clear that there are problems with the protocol, clearly there are aspects of it that are working very well, as indeed those on the Treasury Benches have admitted. I will set out some of the examples, particularly over trade, where it is not having the impact that we are told, in all aspects, that it is. I come from the point of view that trust has been broken between the UK Government and the people of all these islands, as well as between the UK Government and our international partners. That gets right to the nub of the issues about trying to renegotiate it.

We should not really need to say this, but it is absolutely vital that the UK Government should be able to respect the international obligations that they enter into freely. Lord Butler, who was head of the civil service for 10 years, has said that this country has repeatedly criticised states like Russia and China for breaking the rules-based international order and yet now holds that it is perfectly justified in breaching international law itself. It seems that in this Bill we are going from a “limited and specific” breach to something that is potentially extensive and egregious. General Sir Richard Barrons, the former chief of joint forces command, who served in Afghanistan, Iraq and Northern Ireland, has said that

“what the government is proposing is short-sighted tactics which will do much harm strategically in the wider world. In fact what is being done is particularly stupid.”

He went on to warn that these moves will empower our adversaries as

“it will undermine us with our enemies by giving them the opportunity to accuse us of hypocrisy when we call them out for breaking the rules-based international order. It will also undermine us with our allies who will doubt whether they can rely on us to keep to an agreement, keep to our word.”

Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison
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I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with a great deal of interest. He is right to defend international law and international treaties. Did he raise the concerns he has just expressed when the European Union was busy breaking those treaties—for example, over subsidies to Airbus?

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry
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Whataboutery!

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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My hon. and learned Friend says it very eloquently in one word: whataboutery.

We have been brought here by 40 years of political dysfunction in the Conservative party and the various neuroses it has had over Europe. The exceptionalists of the “punch above our weight” brigade to be found extensively, but not exclusively, within the European Research Group, where research seems to be at a premium, have led us to this point, in the process shredding any reputation that the UK might have preserved either for good, stable government or adherence to international norms.

Whatever the bluff and bluster, and personal agendas that might be at play—I notice that the Foreign Secretary is no longer in her place—it is of course the UK’s exit from the EU rather than the protocol that created this difficult situation, because there were only ever three options that would allow this particular circle to be squared: a return of a border on the island of Ireland, close alignment between UK and EU regulatory standards to reduce the need for checks, or checks to be carried out at the main Northern Ireland ports. The further that there is a diversion from the single market and the customs union, the harder the border then eventually becomes.

William Cash Portrait Sir William Cash
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Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in 1937 de Valera himself actually tore up the Anglo-Irish treaty in exactly the same kind of way as he is accusing other people of doing?

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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The hon. Gentleman seems to be confusing me with a representative of the Government of Ireland; that is an interesting historical diversion that I would be more than happy to discuss with him later, but I am not exactly certain how germane it is to this particular discussion. It seems a little bit recondite to say the least.

The Government have presented a precis of the legal advice. The Law Society of Scotland has identified a number of provisions in the Bill that it believes to be inconsistent with the UK’s international law obligations. Because of the amount of time available and the fact that we are only on Second Reading, I do not intend to go into those points in any great depth or delve unnecessarily into the horrors of the empowerment of Ministers that the Bill represents—the Henry VIII powers. However, I just specifically highlight the issues that the Bill creates given that article 4 of the withdrawal agreement states expressly that the UK cannot legislate contrarily to its commitments through primary legislation.

We now get on to necessity, which is ultimately the justification that the Government are using. As I understand it, that rests on two key points: first, that there is effectively, when viewed from London, no detriment to the single market from these measures; and secondly, that this underwrites the Government’s wishes to protect the UK single market and the Good Friday agreement. That argument was neatly eviscerated by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) in an earlier intervention, but there are three points that instantly leap out at me. First, as I have said, whether or not there is detriment is a largely subjective measure. Whatever unilateral assertions might be made on this, whether or not there is detriment requires to be determined in another manner.

Secondly, making an invocation of necessity must not seriously impair an essential interest of another party, and it is quite hard to argue that this could not at least be at risk of happening. Thirdly, it is not particularly credible now to cite the protocol as harming the single market or the Good Friday agreement when it was cited by HM Government as a means of protecting both those things. The Prime Minister wanting to override a deal that he himself was happy to claim credit for, in terms of having got Brexit done, during his 2019 election campaign is not the strongest basis for sustaining that argument.

With regard to the economic effect, Northern Ireland has clearly lagged behind the rest of the UK in economic performance in recent decades. For some reason, it is currently outpacing every other part of the UK, except, perhaps predictably, London. There must be some reason why that might be, and I do not know whether anyone can help me with it, but perhaps there is a clue—

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson
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If the hon. Gentleman were to examine the economic performance in Northern Ireland, he might find that, surprisingly, it is the service sector that has increased, by seven times more than the manufacturing sector, and of course the service sector is not covered by the protocol at all.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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Manufacturing also seems to be doing quite well, as I recall. Perhaps having a foot in both markets and easier access to both, in contrast to counterparts on the other side of the north channel, might also be a reason for that.

A survey by the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce shows that 70% of businesses now believe that that unique trading position with preferential access to both the EU and UK single markets presents opportunities for Northern Ireland, with the number of businesses reporting a significant problem dropping from 15% to 8%. While I would not seek to diminish in any way the problems that those 8% feel, that is perhaps an indication that many of the problems, at least initially, were because of the short lead-in time that was given and the lack of preparation and clarity ahead of the big changes that came in January 2021.

To come back to my fundamental point, we need a protocol. The nature of Brexit means that there needs to be a protocol. It does not need to be exactly the same as this version, but what we absolutely do not need, in the middle of a cost of living crisis, is the prospect of increased trade frictions through needless conflict and a developing trade war with our largest and closest overseas market. That is what I very much fear this legislation, if enacted and utilised, would do.

I believe that the way forward is through negotiations. Like the man asked to give directions, I would not be starting from this point, for a variety of reasons, and I need not detain the House on that. We need negotiations based on trust, good faith and co-operation. The UK Government would stand a much better chance of success if they were driven by that, instead of by this piece of legislative brinkmanship, and if they were to pursue measures that for once were motivated by a genuine desire to deliver the best possible outcomes out of this mess for all peoples on these islands, rather than simply pandering to the agendas of those in the tiny subset of the population who might have an influence over who the next leader of the Conservative and Unionist party might happen to be—a party that no longer seems to be very certain what it is here to conserve or to unify.

Northern Ireland Protocol Bill Debate

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Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
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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.

Philippa Whitford Portrait Dr Whitford
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Is my hon. Friend not concerned that, if this Bill were successful and therefore both the European Court of Justice and the rules of the single market were set aside, untold harm would be done to the economy of Northern Ireland?

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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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.

William Cash Portrait Sir William Cash
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Section 38 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 includes the word “notwithstanding”. In relation to section 38(2)(b), the use of that word applies to direct effect and direct applicability. I have some experience over the past 38 years of dealing with a lot of these treaties. We have had to implement every one of them as they have gone through, much to my regret—Maastricht and so forth. If there is the necessity, to use that expression, to have to pass legislation in order to implement a treaty into domestic law, I see no reason at all why we should not introduce legislation when that treaty does not work, as in this case, to disapply it. It cuts both ways.

There is a lot of huffing and puffing over this international law business. I was shadow Attorney General during the time of the Iraq war, and I saw things going on with the then Prime Minister, now Sir Tony Blair, implementing arrangements and bringing forward the Attorney General’s opinions. In fact, it was I, on the Opposition Front Bench, who instigated the necessity for him to bring forward his truncated opinion, which was done in order to assuage Labour Back Benchers.

I do not get too worried about the idea of disavowing treaties where they necessarily have to be disavowed in the sovereign national interest of a country. There is a lot of pretty rank huffing and puffing going on about how solemn and sacred all this is. If a treaty does not do something that it is in the interests of the voters and is seen to be doing damage, it requires review. The Bill will do a great deal of good in mitigating the damage. It does not rip up the protocol; it amends it in a sensible manner.

I do not need to repeat my point about the democratic deficit. I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Sir Geoffrey Cox) for acknowledging that this point needs to be made. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) made the same point himself. He and I have had long discussions about all this. It is unanswerable, perfectly clear and self-evident. It is coram populo. It has nothing to do with an evidence base—the amendment does not even refer to one; it talks about parliamentary approval for a Bill. It is neither chicken nor egg, nor are there any feathers on the chicken. For practical purposes, with great respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), the amendment is not worth pursuing, but I leave it to him to make his own decision.

When I heard my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) attack this Bill, I was reminded, because I have been watching these matters as Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee for a very long time, that the Northern Ireland protocol had its origins in her Administration. Let us not think for a moment that the protocol was an invention of the Prime Minister; it was conceived of over a long time. The pass was sold during the previous Administration. That is the point I needed to make.

I have heard the condemnations from the former Prime Minister, which I find to be completely unjustified in the circumstances. I was privy to the negotiations going on when Lord David Frost and Oliver Lewis were involved. I know a little about the background, and I suspect my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Sir Geoffrey Cox) knows a great deal more than me. I can tell the Committee that the whole thing was conceived in the previous Administration. Let us not put up too much—or at all—with criticism made of this Government, or as it proceeds, a new Administration with a new Prime Minister reasonably shortly, on the basis that they are responsible for the protocol, when it was the previous Administration in the first place.

--- Later in debate ---
Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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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.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

The DUP has not tabled any amendments to the Bill. We do have some reservations, especially about the regulations that Ministers may introduce to give effect to measures set out in the Bill. Nevertheless, we want the Bill to go through the House intact.

Having listened to the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry), I could have understood it if his amendment had come from the Labour party. After all, we know that the Labour party really wanted to remain in the EU and would love to get back in the EU; it is pushing to keep Northern Ireland as close as possible to the EU so that it could eventually be a foot in the door for the rest of the United Kingdom. I could also have understood it if it had been a Liberal Democrat amendment. The hon. Member’s amendment, which would be similar in effect to new clause 4, tears at the very heart of the problem. Rather than addressing the problem of the protocol, it seeks to ensure that that problem remains.

The protocol has caused two issues in Northern Ireland. The first is the democratic deficit. As a result of the protocol, Northern Ireland is subject to a list of EU measures which—in annex 2 of the protocol—goes on for 82 pages. Those 82 pages do not contain the details of the law; they are merely a list of the EU laws, directives and regulations that apply to Northern Ireland. Moreover, not only the historic regulations themselves but any changes in those regulations apply, and there will be no opportunity for politicians in Northern Ireland to have any say on them. They will have no opportunity to amend them; they will not even have any say in whether they are enacted, no matter how damaging they may be to the Northern Ireland economy. That is what causes the democratic deficit, and the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for North Down is intended to ensure that that situation remains.

In our earlier debate, we talked about the need for consent and the need for accountability. In fact, in his own speech the hon. Gentleman talked about how terrible it would be for Ministers to take on the powers in the Bill, because that would take away the right of this Parliament to make any decisions and have any say. Yet he was quite happy to move an amendment that would remove the powers in the Bill to ensure that that list of EU regulations—82 pages of them—should no longer apply to Northern Ireland unless it is deemed necessary. He is quite happy for the Bill to be amended to leave those in place. We have elected an Assembly in Stormont. I know that people complain about the fact that it is not sitting, and of course it is not sitting because of the protocol; but even if it were up and running, it could not do anything to deal with the problems caused by the protocol, because it does not have a say on them.

That is the first problem, and stemming from it is the second: the range of issues contained in article 5, which the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for North Down seeks to keep in place. What is article 5 all about? It is all about the fact that laws in Northern Ireland are different from, and will become more different from, laws in the rest of the United Kingdom. Goods coming to Northern Ireland from Great Britain will have to be subject to checks either if they are made in Great Britain under different rules and regulations, or if they come from third countries into Great Britain and then into Northern Ireland, and maybe go into the Republic. If passed, the amendment would leave unaddressed both the issue of the democratic deficit and the problem of EU checks, with all the impact that that has on businesses in Northern Ireland.

It has been claimed—we have heard much about this today—that what we should be doing, instead of acting unilaterally, is negotiating. Why do the Government not negotiate on all the things that they wish to do in the Bill? Why, for example, do we not secure a veterinary agreement with the EU? Well, we have been trying to do that. Indeed, Lord Frost told the House of Lords last year:

“On the question of a SPS or veterinary agreement, we proposed in the TCA negotiations last year that there could be an equivalence arrangement between us and the EU. Unfortunately, the EU was not open to that. We continue to be open to such an equivalence arrangement, if the EU is interested in it.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 March 2021; Vol. 811, c. 970.]

The EU has not shown any interest.

Northern Ireland Protocol Bill Debate

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Richard Thomson Excerpts
A report on those exercises would then have to be laid before Parliament. It should not be controversial to ask the Government to do that before proceeding with proposals which could have such a devastating impact on businesses in Northern Ireland.
Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
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I rise to speak to, or at least draw attention to, amendments 19 and 22 in my name, and to speak to the other amendments that have been discussed.

On amendments 19 and 22, I do not intend to rehearse in any depth the arguments I put forward on day one, except to say that even if the Bill was not at risk of being in breach of international law, in our view it still gives Ministers far too much power to proceed without adequate reference back to this place and opportunities for scrutiny by Members. I make that point again for the consideration of the Treasury Bench; no doubt they will instantly dispose of it, but nobody can accuse me of not having made it again.

On amendments 44 and 45, it seems to me entirely reasonable that Ministers should be required to consult appropriately on the impact of dual routes, and to make sure there is an agreement with the EU and the option to choose between dual routes so that the dual routes procedure can operate as intended. It also seems to me to be perfectly reasonable to refer back to the directly elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland in the Assembly on how they might wish such a mechanism to go ahead or to work, so we are supportive of amendments 44 and 45.

On amendment 28, ensuring that an economic impact assessment is carried out before proceeding with a dual regulatory regime seems to me to be the very essence of common sense. If only we had carried out a thorough economic assessment before stepping into this morass in the first place, it might have given people some pause for thought.

Finally—I said I would be brief—new clause 15 would require the House to be informed timeously of the details of discussions in the UK-EU Joint Committee when they involved regulation of goods in connection with the protocol, and to be given details of the regard that has been offered to the strand 1 and strand 2 arrangements. That seems a perfectly sensible way to ensure that consent is in place and that the views of all relevant stakeholders have been properly taken into consideration before such a momentous step is taken.

We entirely support those provisions and, if they are selected for separate decision, we intend to walk through the Lobby in support of them.

Jeffrey M Donaldson Portrait Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate on the various amendments. I say to my honourable friends and colleagues from the Alliance party and the Social Democratic and Labour party that, in all their contributions to debates on the Bill, I have yet to hear once any acknowledgment of the impact of the protocol on the Unionist community in Northern Ireland and its sense of identity, including its sense of identity within the United Kingdom. There has been no recognition from either party of the importance of these issues for the people I represent and how that has contributed significantly to the breakdown of power sharing in Northern Ireland and the breakdown of the North South Ministerial Council. If we are going to find a solution, I have to say, with respect to my colleagues, that simply focusing in on what I accept are important points while ignoring the elephant in the room will not take us anywhere close to finding a solution that restores political stability in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland Protocol Bill Debate

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Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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I rise to confirm on Third Reading that the SNP will also oppose this Bill, and to take the opportunity to thank Maria-Clorinda Luck from our research team and all the House staff for the support they have given us throughout this process. It has been very much appreciated.

Despite our opposition to this Bill throughout, and despite the fact that the protocol was of the Government’s own doing, we have always accepted that seeking a renegotiation of its terms was a legitimate aim. So we have tried to stay focused throughout on the content and intent of the Bill, and through doing that I have learned a number of things. Perhaps first and foremost, I have learned that the words “urgent” and “necessity”, at least in the eyes of the Paymaster General, do not mean quite what I previously thought. That was an education.

More importantly, the people of Scotland will have learned something about their own place and standing in the Union. The Paymaster General has more than once in Committee dismissed amendments that would have given the Northern Irish Assembly oversight and democratic control over whether aspects of the Bill would ever be switched on; they have been dismissed on the grounds that there is, clearly, no Assembly sitting. He has, however, also been happy to go past the fact breezily that a Parliament within these islands that is sitting, in Edinburgh, at Holyrood, has declined to give its legislative consent—but still the legislation continues without that consent.

I have tried throughout to empathise with and understand how Unionists in Northern Ireland would feel, and I have said on more than one occasion in this House that I cannot for the life of me understand how any Unionist Government who seek to have that label attached to them could ever have left Northern Ireland in a situation where there was, in effect, a trade border down the Irish sea; it is inconceivable that any competent Government could have done that. However, if this Bill brings some satisfaction to some in Northern Ireland, it throws a few issues for voters in Scotland into very sharp relief. We have found out that the precious Brexit has at all stages throughout this pantomime been much more important than the previous Union. We have found out that we do not exist in anything remotely approaching a partnership of equals. We have also found that we are no longer part of a state that can claim with any shred of credibility to stand up for international law and the rule of law and that can be respected for the stance it takes as part of that rules-based international order.

Sadly, this is not going to be the end of the process, because if the measures in the Bill are used, owing to the Government’s inability to negotiate and push at, what is, an open door, we are going to find ourselves, at the height of a cost of living crisis, experiencing even more frictions than we are currently for our manufacturers and our consumers. We will also find this legislation being prayed in aid by despots around the world as they seek to escape their own obligations under international law. What is clearest of all is that the Union in which Scots were invited to vote to remain in 2014—to “lead not leave”, as the slogan had it—has been changed utterly and is now unrecognisable. That, above all, is why we can, we must and we will have a referendum on Scotland’s future.