Ministers need to fix the “democratic deficit” affecting Northern Ireland and ensure better Parliamentary scrutiny over the pieces of EU legislation that continue to apply to the country, peers have urged.
The Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland Sub-Committee scrutinises EU legislative proposals that may affect Northern Ireland because of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
On Friday, the upper chamber debated a report from the committee that summarised the first year of its work on the issue.
The committee’s chairman, Lord Jay of Ewelme, said that under the protocol, as it currently operates, more than 300 pieces of EU legislation set out in its annexes apply to Northern Ireland.
In the view of the committee, Lord Jay said “that legislation must be subject to detailed parliamentary scrutiny” because without it “important areas of law applying to Northern Ireland would go unscrutinised and possibly even unnoticed by Parliament”.
The independent crossbencher and former diplomat welcomed the Government’s commitment to “do so through the production of explanatory memorandum summarising EU legislation applying to Northern Ireland”, but added: “The Government needs to go further.”
Lord Jay said the EU should also do more to “enhance transparency” and “take account of the impact of EU law on Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances and to engage with Northern Ireland stakeholders at an early stage to give them a voice on the application and implications of such legislation”.
While the debate saw peers from across the political spectrum agreeing with the need for increased scrutiny, different opinions arose over who should be blamed for the range of issues caused by the protocol.
Tory ex-chancellor Lord Lamont, a prominent Eurosceptic, said the “democratic deficit” cannot be “resolved simply by scrutiny”, adding: “The Government makes an important point in paragraph 30 of its reply to the committee when it says, I quote, the imposition of EU law was not a necessary consequence of Brexit, any more than Brexit requires dynamic alignment or the backstop.
“It was as it says, quote again, the consequences of the EU’s unwillingness to accept other solutions.”
He noted “these are very important points” as “they are saying it is not just the sometimes alleged intransigence of Unionist politicians but also the inflexibility of the EU that has been holding things up.”
Lord Lamont added: “It would be good to know from the minister today, what more the Government thinks can be done to fix, fix is actually the right word, the democratic deficit? Is it just some minor constitutional outrage that eventually we have to learn to live with?”
On the other hand, Conservative peer Lord Cormack blamed Lord Frost, the former chief Brexit negotiator, and Conservative former prime minister Boris Johnson, for signing the UK up to a “straitjacket”.
He said: “All we needed was a flexible garment and what we got was a straitjacket, but who signed up to the tailor’s plans for the straitjacket? Lord Frost and the Government, the then prime minister, so they imposed it upon us, not the EU.”
Meanwhile, Labour former Northern Ireland secretary Lord Hain said the EU should offer the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland the same “consultative rights” enjoyed by EEA countries, such as Norway.
Lord Hain said: “Boris Johnson and Lord Frost, endorsed by Rishi Sunak, negotiated a deal making Northern Ireland an EU rule-taker rather than as Northern Ireland was before Brexit, an EU rule-maker.
“Like Northern Ireland, Norway is in the single market but not in the EU. Yet Norway’s ministers and parliamentarians are able to scrutinise and achieve amendments to all draft EU proposals affecting Norwegians.
“These consultative rights for EAA members are important to overcome what would otherwise be their own democratic deficit over the single market legislation.
“Norwegian ministers say this works well. So why not give similar oversight of the implementation of the protocol directly to the democratic institutions in Northern Ireland?”
Foreign Office minister Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon said the Government has “long held that the protocol is leading to a democratic deficit with the EU law that applies in Northern Ireland but with little meaningful consultation on that EU law”.
He added: “Representatives of the Northern Ireland executive already attend meetings at the joint consultative working group, and we value their important expertise.”
However, he said: “There’s always things to improve existing processes and mechanisms, including through discussions we are currently taking forward with the EU.”
Updating the upper chamber on the ongoing Northern Ireland Protocol talks with the EU, Lord Ahmad said: “These engagements and negotiations continue in a constructive and collaborative spirit at all levels, including the issues of technical discussions between officials, which are taking place very regularly”.
On parliamentary scrutiny, the Foreign Office minister said Government officials are working with committee clerks to “review and enhance the format of the explanatory memoranda so they better reflect the information that committees find helpful”.
He added: “As part of the committees, there will be an interim review of arrangements in the summer and then a full review after two years at the end of this Parliament, whichever is sooner, where the Government looks forward to working with committees to see how these arrangements could be improved still further.”