Northern Ireland

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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Thursday 1st February 2024

(3 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Chris Heaton-Harris)
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I beg to move,

That the draft Windsor Framework (Constitutional Status of Northern Ireland) Regulations 2024, which were laid before this House on 31 January, be approved.

Getting devolution back up and running has been the principal focus of Government policy in Northern Ireland since February 2022, when the then First Minister resigned. The agreement that I set out to the House yesterday is designed to secure the widest possible support among the community in Northern Ireland for participating in the political process. These regulations should be seen and considered in the context of forming part of a package. This package will safeguard and durably strengthen Northern Ireland’s integral place in the Union and the UK’s internal market, and it will do so by placing commitments in that package into law.

The Windsor Framework (Constitutional Status of Northern Ireland) Regulations 2024 affirm, strengthen and future-proof Northern Ireland’s place within the Union, underpinned by the Acts of Union and the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

John Redwood Portrait John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)
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If the Chancellor of the Exchequer wishes to lower the VAT rate or to take something out of VAT altogether, will that be a good law for Northern Ireland as well as for the rest of the UK, and can we now set taxes for the whole country?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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On the example my right hon. Friend has given of VAT, that has just been done for a number of different things. I believe the latest one was solar panels, but I will check with those in the Box. There are various other products, and I will get an answer for my right hon. Friend. But, yes, is the answer for VAT, and also for tax.

The regulations address the concerns that have been expressed in parts of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland that its status has been diminished. Let me say from the outset of our discussions that what the Government wanted and the Democratic Unionist party wanted, and which we had, was our shared determination to strengthen our Union.

Conor McGinn Portrait Conor McGinn (St Helens North) (Ind)
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May I sincerely recognise the efforts of the right hon. Gentleman, his team and his colleagues in achieving what they have achieved over the last week? One of the most encouraging things in the last week is that leaders within nationalism and Unionism have all emphatically said they want to make Northern Ireland work. We all have different views on the constitutional future, and that discussion and debate is ongoing, but if Unionists want to make Northern Ireland work and nationalists want to make Northern Ireland work regardless of that, everyone benefits.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. It has been a pleasure to work with all the party leaders over the time I have been Secretary of State. I am absolutely convinced—indeed, I have seen this on a number of occasions—that they can work together behind the scenes. It was striking last February, when Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell, a police officer, was shot by dissident republicans, how all the political leaders of Northern Ireland came together in such a strong repudiation of that attack. I have seen them work together behind the scenes on a whole host of things, and I know that, when Stormont is up and running, they will be able to deliver strong government, make the right decisions for Northern Ireland and make Northern Ireland a much more prosperous place. I thank him for his intervention, and he is absolutely right.

Again, let me say from the outset that what united the Government and the DUP was our shared determination to strengthen our Union.

Colum Eastwood Portrait Colum Eastwood (Foyle) (SDLP)
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There was a memorial service on Tuesday for somebody who I think never gets enough credit for his role in the peace process. Peter Brooke once said that Britain had “no selfish strategic interest” in Northern Ireland, and that was later repeated in the Downing Street declaration. Reading the Command Paper, it seems to me that the Government have moved from that position, which I think undermines the Good Friday agreement. They seem to have moved away from the principle of rigorous impartiality. Does the Secretary of State agree with Peter Brooke’s assertion and the Downing Street declaration, or is he moving to a different place?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I disagree with what the hon. Gentleman said at the end of his intervention and completely agree with what Sir Peter Brooke said at the time and our commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all of its different facets.

I want to stress our determination to strengthen the Union, and the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) has powerfully argued that strong and effective devolution delivering a thriving Northern Ireland within our United Kingdom is the surest way to ensure that this United Kingdom remains united in the time ahead. In taking the steps he has taken, he is delivering far more for the future of Northern Ireland in the Union than any of his detractors.

Julian Smith Portrait Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con)
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Can the Secretary of State give a list or summary of what those who are against the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) feel they have actually achieved in their months of campaigning?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I would love to be able to outline anything. I have a piece of paper with that on it; oh, it is blank—nothing, absolutely zero.

Gregory Campbell Portrait Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP)
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I am holding up the piece of paper.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I am afraid that the back of a postage stamp is too big to write what they have achieved. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) has achieved so much in this deal in safe- guarding the Union and his detractors have not come up with anything.

The changes the right hon. Gentleman has secured in these regulations and the other instrument before this House, which we will consider shortly, will further enhance those protections. The regulations end any presumption that there is any form of automatic and unchecked dynamic alignment with European goods rules. Section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, the so-called pipeline of EU law, is now expressly subject to the operation of vital democratic safeguards that the Northern Ireland Assembly, when sitting, will be able to exercise, including the Stormont brake. Indeed when— I emphasise when—Stormont begins to sit again and first assembles, I will be able to sign that Stormont brake legislation into law and it will be available to be used by the Assembly as we move forward. When Parliament passed the 2018 Act, it was exercising its sovereignty so that the UK-EU withdrawal agreement could be implemented in domestic law.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)
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The Secretary of State indicates that there are now “vital democratic safeguards”—he used the plural term—to guard against EU law, including the Stormont brake. Can he tell us what the other safeguards are?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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Yes: we have the withdrawal Act itself, and the right hon. Gentleman is sitting in the place that safeguards our laws themselves.

It is right that we are updating domestic law to reflect the fact that democratically elected representatives in Northern Ireland will now be able to reject new and amended EU law and that the withdrawal agreement’s implementation is subject to robust scrutiny.

Edward Leigh Portrait Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)
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The ability of Ministers to govern is already severely constrained by things like the Human Rights Act 1998. What worries me about this is not the deal as such; I am a Brexiteer and want a dynamic and deregulated economy, so what happens when we try to diverge from EU laws? Will some civil servant have to sign this off—will it be a question of “No, Minister” before we even get to the House of Commons? Can the Secretary of State therefore assure me that we will be able to enjoy our Brexit freedoms under this deal?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, which has been put before. It was put yesterday and it is a genuinely fair question. I can honestly say that this package of measures will not change the freedoms and powers we have secured through leaving the European Union or through the Windsor framework. It will not reduce our ability to diverge or our commitment to do so should it be in the interests of the United Kingdom, and if the legislation does carry significant adverse effects, of course the House would expect the Minister to set out any steps to be taken in response to that assessment.

William Cash Portrait Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con)
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As my right hon. Friend may expect, I shall now refer to section 38 and ask him a question about it. On the amendments made under the statutory instrument—which is not by Act of Parliament, of course—the arrangements under section 38 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2020 state that the Parliament of the United Kingdom is sovereign and that its sovereignty subsists notwithstanding section 7A of the 2018 Act, including the Windsor framework. My right hon. Friend will know what I am saying: in practice and in law constitutionally there is the capacity for overriding not only the withdrawal agreement and the protocol but the Windsor framework as a result of what is contained in those words.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I note my hon. Friend’s point. As I said yesterday, I hope he recognises what we are doing in this statutory instrument—making Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom a strong addition to the section. As I said to him yesterday, his original clause has been a big part of the solution to this conundrum. I am grateful to him for it and completely understand the point he has just made and thank him for it.

Colum Eastwood Portrait Colum Eastwood
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From listening to the Secretary of State and reading the Command Paper, we would perhaps think there is only the Democratic Unionist party in Northern Ireland and no people with any other constitutional preferences, but of course there are many people in the north of Ireland who want to see a new Ireland as soon as possible. Despite what might be in the Command Paper and what the Secretary of State and others have said, does he agree that the Good Friday agreement is sacrosanct and that it is absolutely clear that if people vote for constitutional change, that is what will happen—that it is not up to the British Government or anybody else; it is up to the people of Ireland, north and south?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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Yes, nothing that we are doing here changes that fundamental principle. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to make that point and I hope I have clarified it for him properly.

Jeffrey M Donaldson Portrait Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP)
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Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood), the difficulty was that in the eyes of Unionists the Northern Ireland protocol undermined the principle of consent, which is at the heart of the Good Friday agreement. Does the Secretary of State agree that these new measures and the legislation reset the balance so that the principle of consent and the will of the people of Northern Ireland alone will determine the future of our country as part of the United Kingdom?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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Yes, and I think the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) are making exactly the same point, and rightly so. They represent two communities that have governed by consent in the past and what we are doing here today is trying to get government by consent back up and running in Stormont in the future.

Peter Bottomley Portrait Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con)
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As one who in living memory served as a Minister responsible for the environment and for agriculture in Northern Ireland because the Northern Ireland political process was not working, may I say that, as well as the exercise in syntax and the like in the writing of these instruments, the key point is that the Assembly should be effective and Ministers should come from Northern Ireland doing the jobs we do not want to have to do from Westminster?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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Anyone who ever becomes Father of the House is obviously wise and well experienced and that was a particularly wise comment from a particularly well experienced hon. Member. My hon. Friend is completely right in everything he said.

Crucially, this legislation will also change the law so that new regulatory borders between Great Britain and Northern Ireland cannot emerge from future agreements with the European Union. That is an important new safeguard to future-proof Northern Ireland’s constitutional status. No Government in the future can agree to another protocol; neither can the UK internal market be salami-sliced by any future agreement with the European Union.

This legislation will also introduce safeguards so that Government Bills that affect trade between Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK are properly assessed. Ministers in charge of such Bills will need to provide— my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) raised this point—a written ministerial statement to Parliament as to whether a Bill would have a significant adverse effect on trade between Northern Ireland and another part of the United Kingdom. If the legislation does carry that significant adverse effect, the House would expect the Minister to set out any steps to be taken in response to that assessment. Indeed, we have Select Committee Chairmen present, and they would expect to do high levels of scrutiny in that space. This is a very good transparency measure that we should all welcome.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)
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The Secretary of State has repeatedly said that the deal we are looking at today will not prevent Britain from diverging from EU laws, which is obviously welcome. On page 17 of the Command Paper, it states:

“We will also…set out plans to introduce legislation in the spring that would avoid new regulatory divergence between GB and NI on veterinary medicines.”

Is the Command Paper saying that in that area there will be no future divergence?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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If my right hon. Friend goes through paragraphs 136 to 141 of the Command Paper, she will see us stating that we know that the current situation is not right. We have a grace period that will run out soon, and we want to find a solution similar to the one we found for human medicines. It has been suggested that we set up a working group of experts and people who truly know and care about this subject to look at this matter quickly and come to Ministers and Parliament with a solution that we will take to our European partners and negotiate hard to get, and we want to do that. The situation is not quite as she states; there is a process to get to a point where we have a settled view from this House, and indeed from experts from Northern Ireland in this space, so that we can move forward on this matter. I know it is important to all Members from Northern Ireland.

As I was saying before that intervention, the SI will increase transparency by ensuring that Parliament is presented with evidence of the GB-NI trade impacts of relevant legislation before proceeding with it. The concrete steps we are taking and enshrining in law will deliver clarity to business that Northern Ireland’s unfettered access to the UK internal market will not be threatened by a new regulatory border.

Finally, with this legislation the Government will provide for additional duties and further requirements in statute regarding the operation of an independent review of the Windsor framework, reflecting our steadfast commitment to ensuring that the framework operates on the basis of the broadest cross-community support. As Secretary of State, I will be put under a duty to commission a review within one month of the Assembly having passed a consent vote, but without cross-community consent, and I will be obliged to respond to the report from that review within six months. That constitutes a new and important commitment by this Government. All those steps we are taking are designed to ensure that tangible action is taken off the back of a review and solutions are found. Government Ministers are being placed under a legal duty to raise the contents of the review at the UK-EU Joint Committee on the withdrawal agreement.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry (North Down) (Alliance)
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Can the Secretary of State provide a little further clarity about the independent review of the Windsor framework? He will appreciate the spectrum of views on the Windsor framework, and it is worth stating that most people in Northern Ireland, most elected representatives and most businesses are pragmatic about it, although there are those who are opposed to it. Can he assure us that it will be a genuinely independent review that takes on board the full spectrum of opinion, not least in the context of the Assembly potentially having confirmed at that stage ongoing support for the Windsor framework?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I can give the hon. Gentleman that confirmation. It will be for Ministers to make sure that the panel is completely independent.

Paul Girvan Portrait Paul Girvan (South Antrim) (DUP)
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On the regulatory issues in Northern Ireland, several laws have been passed in Europe—we hear that up to 300 have gone through since we agreed to leave—and some of those are already in place in Northern Ireland. As part of the review, is it possible to look at those that have been implemented to make sure that we get rid of those that we can? That mechanism should be in place.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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The review will be based on the entirety of law, but essentially it has to look forward. The hon. Gentleman is right that there is always a pipeline of European Union law. I was a Member of the European Parliament for 10 years, and I saw at first hand the quantity of law that came from the European Union. The point I would make to him is that had we been able to get to this place earlier, we would have had the Stormont brake in operation earlier, and Northern Ireland Assembly Members might well have been able to trigger the Stormont brake and see it in action. I very much hope that we will see it in action in the future to demonstrate its worth in this space.

Gavin Robinson Portrait Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) (DUP)
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It is worth making the point that while the Secretary of State is right in his response on the review, which was the subject of the rightful concern raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan), he is also right to focus on the democratic scrutiny and accountability mechanism. That is not before us today, but it has been legislated for and it was a change to the Northern Ireland protocol.

The Secretary of State will also know that in this statutory instrument, there is a proper amendment, being made here in the UK Parliament, to section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which relates in particular to that pipeline. To give a sense of how regulations have been changed through this process, on Tuesday evening when the European Union and the UK Government reached agreement on what was contained in the red lane for rest-of-the-world products, 60 pages or more of legislative text and change were published that show the benefits. Not only has this legislation dealt with regulatory barriers that could be created in the future; as part of the overall package, some of those barriers have already been removed.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I could not have put it better myself. The hon. Gentleman is knowledgeable about the subject and has been well involved in the negotiations behind the document and the statutory instruments we are talking about. He is 100% right.

William Cash Portrait Sir William Cash
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Does my right hon. Friend, who himself was on the European Scrutiny Committee, recognise that we are constantly monitoring these things? Indeed, the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) is on that Committee.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I had the pleasure of serving for five years on the European Scrutiny Committee under the wise chairmanship of my hon. Friend, and he is absolutely right. That scrutiny is what this House does best. The Select Committee system is there to scrutinise all aspects of legislation, what the Government do and what comes our way. I know his expertise, having experienced it.

When we were members of the European Union, wading through the hundreds of different explanatory memorandums that came the Committee’s way was quite a job and quite a responsibility. One of the commitments we have made is that we will make sure that information is freely available to Assembly Members in Northern Ireland—when they take their seats—to ensure that they can undertake democratic scrutiny of proposals that might well affect Northern Ireland, so that they have the information they need to use the Stormont brake, should they so choose. Scrutiny is a vital part of all this.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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The Secretary of State and everyone on these Benches will know that over the past two years, I have done lots of consultation and had lots of discussion with party groups, community groups, the Orange Order, those in the NHS and many other people as well, seeking their opinions. From all that comes where we are today. I suspect that this legislation is not the fulfilment of everything we would wish to see, and with that in mind I ask one question.

The constitutional legislation and the legislation to secure our place in the internal market are here, but I and my constituents retain some level of concern, so I press the Government for more assurance. It was highlighted yesterday that European laws might be overruled by the Government, but that wording suggests they may also be accepted, allowing Northern Ireland to diverge. I want the answer, Secretary of State. Does the last word lie in this place, or does it lie with the EU when it comes to making those decisions?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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Actually, for an element of law that would be triggered by the Stormont brake, I think the biggest say would be with Assembly Members, though this place—Parliament—is sovereign, and the hon. Gentleman will know that this place has already chosen for Great Britain to diverge from Northern Ireland. That has happened on the matter of animal welfare and livestock exports, and for good reason: Northern Ireland has a land border and a vociferous and lively trade in live animal exports with the Republic of Ireland, and were we to extend the ban in Great Britain to Northern Ireland, that would affect the export of about 3,500 cattle, 1,700 pigs, 337,000 sheep, and so on. Those are the figures for livestock moved to Ireland from Northern Ireland in 2022. This place already makes such decisions and it will continue to do so.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson
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The Secretary of State is at odds in making that argument. That is one argument that the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries made in saying why Northern Ireland should be excluded, but the reason given was that, because Northern Ireland is part of the EU single market, there could not be discrimination between cattle being transported to the Republic of Ireland and cattle being transported thousands of miles away to the south of Italy. That is the real reason why this House once again found itself subservient to EU rules in Northern Ireland.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. I know that he has written to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries—I have his reply, which I was copied into—expounding that some sort of carve-out should be made. But this is on the basis of a range of international agreements and their core principles, and that includes the World Trade Organisation. As good a Eurosceptic as I am, I am careful not to blame the wrong organisation for the wrong things. We have signed up to World Trade Organisation rules, and we benefit from those rules. One element of this issue is World Trade Organisation rules, and he is picking the wrong thing to point his finger at. Those rules prevent discrimination against different countries in all sorts of ways, and they are important, vital rules. I am afraid that on this particular point, he is completely wrong.

I have long been clear to right hon. and hon. Members that I serve in the Government proudly as a Unionist. I am pleased that the regulations, which I commend to the House, will address the concerns expressed by part of the community in Northern Ireland in past years that our Union of nations has been somehow diminished as a whole. The regulations demonstrate that the Government have listened so that trust can be rebuilt, so that people and businesses can be reassured that they are in the UK’s long-term future, and so that we can see Northern Ireland’s political institutions restored.

Julian Smith Portrait Julian Smith
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We are obviously debating the regulations, but may I point right hon. and hon. Members to annex A of the Government’s “Safeguarding the Union” Command Paper, which provides an excellent summary of the historical context of the Acts of Union, including article 6? Many keyboard warriors across Northern Ireland—I am not sure what they have achieved in the last eight months other than to create a whole kerfuffle—would be well advised to read it. They would see that none of the Acts of Union is under threat in any way.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank my right hon. Friend for making that point. He is right that a lot of noise and heat have been generated in many ways by people who have done absolutely nothing in this space. They are trying to cloud the reality that he expressed and which we have set out in annex A for everybody to see. I very much hope that right hon. and hon. Members will welcome the progress we have made in delivering the agreement by supporting the passage of these regulations and that, in coming days, they will join me in welcoming the return of Stormont, so that the Assembly and the Executive may serve the people of Northern Ireland once more.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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I thank the Secretary of State for being generous in giving way. As he knows, I always try to be constructive. It is for all the people out there, including my constituents, who have concerns and probably do not have trust in the Government, for genuine reasons—forgive me, but we have been let down on a number of occasions—that I ask the Secretary of State to reiterate this once again; my apologies for asking him to do so. With his hand on the Dispatch Box—we all know what that means and are aware of the duty of his position—will he answer in simple terms for my constituents: does this deal constitute the renewal of our place in the constitutional and economic United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as fully and as completely as any other area in this great UK?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I believe that it does—100%.

John Redwood Portrait John Redwood
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Someone wanting to send goods from GB to NI would naturally expect to use the new internal market lane—the green lane. Who decides whether they would not be allowed to do so? Would it be the EU, the UK Government or the Stormont Executive?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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It is the UK Government in that area.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)
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Further to that point, in respect of paragraph 96 of the Command Paper, will the Secretary of State outline whether he expects further SIs in the pipeline to give full effect, impact and clarity to the issues raised in this wide-ranging document?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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We will give legal direction to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs on these matters. We will use other legal instruments for the deal, but it is for us to give legal direction to DAERA on that point.

Colum Eastwood Portrait Colum Eastwood
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We all accept that the DUP had a particular issue about all this, but does the Secretary of State accept that it is not good practice in Northern Ireland to have a one Government, one party process? Will he commit in the future to having a much more inclusive process for dealing with these types of issues?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point; he makes it fairly. To be honest with him, there was one party that was staying out of government, and that party represents a community. I did try to keep him as updated as I could throughout the process, as we have done with the other political parties, but I needed to talk more to the party we needed to persuade to go back into government.

In future, I will always try to treat everybody equitably, but I hope the hon. Gentleman understands that I had to ensure there was an agreement that the Democratic Unionist party could stand behind so that I could start to rebuild the trust—the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) used the word “trust”—that had been lost between the Democratic Unionist party and the United Kingdom Government. That is something we had to do between the two of us.

Colum Eastwood Portrait Colum Eastwood
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I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way again. I think it has to be understood that there are more people in Northern Ireland than just the DUP and Unionism. I think nationalism feels that north-south has been undermined by the massive emphasis put on east-west. I ask him to think carefully about that. For me, the Command Paper undermines the Good Friday agreement, undermines north-south, and goes far too far in the direction of the DUP’s thinking.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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The hon. Gentleman is a friend of mine, so I hope that he does not mind my disagreeing with him on this. The Command Paper will, I hope, deliver the restoration of Stormont: the most important strand 1 institution of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. It will also allow for Ministers to be appointed to the North South Ministerial Council: an important institution in a different strand of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which could then function properly. What the Command Paper does is allow for all strands of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement to start humming again as they should. He will have to forgive me, but I must disagree with him on that point.

Robert Buckland Portrait Sir Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con)
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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for being so generous. Does it not all boil down to this? As is outlined in annex A, it is important to distinguish between Northern Ireland’s “integral place” constitutionally within the United Kingdom and its internal market, and the access it has to the single market as a result of its unique position. Those two words—the difference between access and its constitutional place—are what we really need to focus on when trying to square this circle.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend, the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. He makes an important point eloquently, as ever.

Mr Speaker—sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker, it is very nice to see you in your place, and I am sorry I did not see you come in—the regulations undoubtedly will strengthen Union. It is for that reason, and more, that I wholeheartedly and unequivocally commend them to the House.

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Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn
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We have seen quite a lot of disruption to arrangements in recent years, have we not? The point I tried to make a moment ago was that our departure from the European Union caused a problem. Everybody knew that there would be a problem between Northern Ireland and the Republic, because of the open border that everyone continued to support. I think I said last week that it was about the only thing in Brexit where there was agreement. If there is a problem, we have to find a way through it. What we are grappling with here, and have done previously and may do in the future, is how to solve that problem, which is the result of a democratic decision taken by the British people.

Turning to these particular regulations, part of them updates previous legislation to include references to the Windsor framework, which came after those pieces of legislation, or reaffirms for clarity the existing legal position. I welcome the prohibition made by regulation 2(3) of any agreement with the EU that would

“create a…regulatory border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”

However, if we were to form the next Government, Labour would seek to negotiate a sanitary and phytosanitary agreement with the EU with the intention of removing checks on animals, food and plants, not only between GB and NI, but between the whole of the UK and the EU. That would benefit farmers, food businesses, the horticultural industry in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Regulation 3 amends section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act to include a reference to the Stormont brake procedure and the democratic consent vote. I note that the Secretary of State said that the Windsor Framework (Democratic Scrutiny) Regulations 2023 passed by Parliament last March, which I think he said he had signed, will take effect once the Assembly is back up and running.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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indicated assent.

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn
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I see that the Secretary of State is nodding. It is also important to remind ourselves of the significance of those regulations and the democratic checks that they will create. The Stormont brake will be available to the Assembly when the EU seeks to amend or replace existing EU goods legislation in annex 2 of the framework. The Windsor framework gives a new role to the Assembly to approve or reject any proposed new EU legislation being added to the framework. I note that page 47 of the Command Paper states that the full operational details for the Stormont brake will be set out “in writing” for the Assembly. Can the Secretary of State confirm when that will happen and what form it will take, so that we in the House can see it?

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Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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With the leave of the house, I will answer a few of the points that have been raised. We have heard a wide and varied range of contributions on all aspects of the regulations from Members across the House. In my closing remarks, I wish to take the opportunity to address those points.

First, I thank the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) for the way that he has approached everything we have done. He asked a few questions, which I shall try to answer. He talked about these measures and how we will be protecting the European single market with this package. What these measures also do, which is unbelievably important, is protect our internal market at the same time. [Interruption.] I know that the right hon. Gentleman knows that, but I just wanted to emphasise the point, because it is important. He asked for an example—I think that it is in proposed new section 13C introduced through the regulations—of where there would be a significant adverse effect. I can refer him best to the example I gave of the Animal Welfare (Livestock Exports) Bill, where there is an obvious advantage to Northern Ireland to be different, which we took on board. He very kindly showed some ankle on Labour’s position on our future relationship with the EU. Can I beg him to continue to do that? While we all enjoy a good political debate—I will not go too far into this point, because we are in a consensual place—we would very much like to explore exactly what Labour’s position is on European Union free movement and a whole host of other things.

Carla Lockhart Portrait Carla Lockhart (Upper Bann) (DUP)
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The right hon. Member makes reference to the fact that, within the legislation, there is now a safeguard around significant disadvantage towards Northern Ireland and significant adverse effect. Does he not agree, though, that the significant adverse effect is very subjective? It has no concrete definition and section 13B allows the Minister to go ahead anyway, even if it does cause a significant adverse effect.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Before I answer it, may I say that I owe her an apology, because I completely misheard her question yesterday? I was having trouble hearing her—I think it might be my age, but hopefully it was the microphone—so I wanted to apologise for not answering her question properly. I disagree with her and I think a written ministerial statement allows this place to scrutinise what the Minister is doing and to allow more transparency.

I also wish to make a point—I hope that I will not punch a bruise here—about the intervention of the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) on the right hon. Member for Leeds Central. The hon. Member for North Antrim said that tariffs between GB and Northern Ireland would be acceptable if they were the will of the Parliament. I disagree. I think a £3 tariff on Bushmills would not be that great. None the less, all of the arrangements in the framework are given full effect by the will of this Parliament, and so, by his definition, it must be completely acceptable. I thank him for his support.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That the draft Windsor Framework (Constitutional Status of Northern Ireland) Regulations 2024, which were laid before this House on 31 January, be approved.