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UK Internal Market Bill: Rule of Law

Volume 680: debated on Tuesday 22 September 2020

What assessment he has made of the implications of the UK Internal Market Bill for his responsibilities in upholding the rule of law. (906342)

What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s role in helping ensure that the Government is compliant with the rule of law. (906343)

What assessment he has made of the implications of the UK Internal Market Bill for his responsibilities in upholding the rule of law. (906365)

I am absolutely committed, under the oath I took as Lord Chancellor, to upholding the rule of law; the freedoms and protections we all enjoy rely on it, and as a responsible Government, we remain wholly committed to it. At all stages, as a responsible Government, we must ensure that we have the ability to uphold our commitments to the people of Northern Ireland. We will do what it takes to protect the integrity of our United Kingdom.

I believe the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but millions wouldn’t. The Bar Council and the Law Society of England and Wales say that clauses 41 to 45 of the Bill

“enable Ministers to derogate from the obligations of the United Kingdom under international law in broad and comprehensive terms and prohibit public bodies from compliance with such obligations. They represent a direct challenge to the rule of law, which include the country’s obligations under public international law.”

They are not wrong, are they?

With respect to those organisations, with which I engage almost daily, it is important that as a result of any potential conflict that might occur between domestic and international law, we make provisions as a responsible Government to prepare for the worst. That is the honest and upfront approach, as opposed to confession and avoidance in the event of any international dispute. Members must remember the context: these powers will be triggered only if there is a material breach by the EU, and we have set out examples on the Government website.

May I wish the Secretary of State a happy birthday? He will be delighted to know that he shares his birthday with my little dog, who is two today.

Mr Speaker,

“the Government are acting recklessly and irresponsibly… It will lead to untold damage to the United Kingdom’s reputation and puts its future at risk.”—[Official Report, 21 September 2020; Vol. 680, c. 668.]

Not my words, but those of the former Conservative Prime Minister just yesterday in this House. With the Government ready to break international law, can the Secretary of State please explain to my constituents in Cardiff North why there is one rule for them and another for this Government?

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind remarks.

Attractive and charismatic though the hon. Lady’s remarks might sound, they do not bear any scrutiny at all. The reality is that we are preparing for a situation that we do not wish to come about. It would have been far easier for us to ignore the matter and kick the can down the road, but it is far better to be upfront about the potential dispute. I hope and expect that it will never come, because we will get the deal and the Joint Committee will resolve its deliberations accordingly.

May I also wish the Lord Chancellor a happy birthday? With age may come wisdom.

The Lord Chancellor has said that he will resign only if the Government break the law in a way that is unacceptable. Thousands of ordinary members of the public were fined for breaking lockdown regulations, while Dominic Cummings did so with impunity. Can the Lord Chancellor explain to those people what criteria he uses to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable breaches of the law?

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind remarks. The issue is very straightforward. If we are in a position where the EU has acted in material breach of its own treaty obligations, meaning that acts to the active prejudice of the United Kingdom are being occasioned, then we will act.

I also wish the Lord Chancellor a happy birthday. I calculate that I have known him for about half his life. Throughout that time, I have never had the slightest doubt as to his integrity and his commitment to the rule of law. Does he accept that the important changes that the Government accepted in the course of the Committee stage yesterday would not have happened without some pressure from the Back Benches, and without his very close personal and direct involvement in making changes to the Bill and to the test that the Government will apply. That was precisely because he, I and many others are committed to the rule of law. Ad hominem attacks to the contrary are unworthy and unjustified.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend. He is right to remind us that personal attacks are no substitute for real debate. What he has done, and what I have sought to do, is, at all times, to make sure that we find a way through these problems. Brexit has thrown up unprecedented challenges to a Government in peacetime. I never pretended that it was going to be anything other than a difficult road. He shares that view and, through his constructive work and the work that I and others have done, this House has a lock on these matters, and, indeed, I think the way is much clearer and much more satisfactory.

On 30 July 2019, in the Royal Courts of Justice, the Lord Chancellor made an oath that no other member of the Cabinet is required to make. He said:

“I do swear that in the office of Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain I will respect the rule of law”.

Lord Keen, the Advocate General for Scotland, and Jonathan Jones, head of the Government’s Legal Department, resigned because the Government’s internal markets Bill does not respect the rule of law. May I ask the Lord Chancellor whether he thinks that Lord Keen and Jonathan Jones got it wrong and, if so, how? If not, may I ask him how he can turn up in this House with a straight face after voting to betray his oath and break the law?

That is a very serious allegation to make. I took that oath in English and Welsh—I took it twice—and I believe in it in both languages, indeed in any language. I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman takes that view. As he has just heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), I have done everything that I possibly can consistent with that oath to make sure that this Government act in a way that is consistent with the rule of law. That is what is happening. This House is directly involved, quite properly, in these serious deliberations. Amendments are being made to this Bill as we speak, and the contingency in which these exceptional provisions are to be used has been clearly set out. These are unprecedented times. We do not want to see a breach in any obligations either by us or by the EU, but it would be irresponsible if we did not make those necessary preparations. That is why I am here, and that is why I will continue to be here as long as I feel able to discharge my oath, and I can tell him that, thus far, I feel very able to discharge my oath.

It is not me who takes that view. Every living Prime Minister takes that view. The Bar Council and the Law Society take that view. The Lord Chancellor previously said that the Government can indeed break the law if it can be fudged, but there is no fudging this—not only does the Bill breach the international law, it is also a flagrant attack on the rule of law at domestic level, and he knows it. As the Bingham Centre states, clauses 42, 43 and 45 authorise a breach of any relevant international or domestic law, including any order, judgment or decision of any international or domestic court. I say to the Lord Chancellor that he is an esteemed barrister and he swears to a code of conduct. Does he not now risk bringing the profession into disrepute by breaching that code of conduct, which states:

“You must not behave in a way which is likely to diminish the trust and confidence which the public places in you or in the profession”?

I really find it extraordinary that the right hon. Gentleman brings the code of conduct into these matters. Like him, I am acting as a Member of Parliament. I am acting as a Minister in the Government—[Interruption.] I am not a Law Officer; I am the Lord Chancellor. The Law Officers of this country are the Attorney General, the Solicitor General and the Advocate General for Scotland. I do not give legal advice to the Government. I am not a Law Officer.

However, every member of the Government is obliged to follow the rule of law. It is very clear. I take a particular oath to uphold that and to defend the judiciary. As I have explained, I have absolutely no qualms about what has been happening. I have worked extremely hard to make sure that this House is fully involved. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that the idea that the passage of this Bill is a breach of UK domestic law is just plain wrong, and to misquote me is unhelpful, misleading and damaging, frankly.

The Bill affords the United Kingdom Government the power to breach obligations that they freely entered into less than a year ago, rather than employ the dispute mechanism that they agreed to. When Lord Keen resigned as Advocate General, he wrote to the Prime Minister that he found it increasingly difficult to reconcile what he considered to be his obligations as a Law Officer with the Government’s policy intentions. The highly respected former Attorney General the right hon. Dominic Grieve has said that the Lord Chancellor’s position is even more clear cut than that of the Law Officers, and that the Lord Chancellor has taken

“an oath of office to uphold or protect the rule of law. The rule of law includes international law…his position is untenable.”

Are both these senior distinguished QCs, Lord Keen and Dominic Grieve, wrong? If not, why is the Lord Chancellor still in office?

The hon. and learned Lady is right to draw attention to Lord Keen. I pay tribute to his long service in the Government as Advocate General for Scotland, and I was sorry to hear of his resignation. I do not believe that it was necessary, bearing in mind the important changes that have been made to the Bill.

I think that the position is now very clear. The hon. and learned Lady talks of breach, but as I will remind the House again, the eventuality or potential use of these clauses would be only if the EU was in material breach of its obligations, and therefore we would be facing a breakdown. I remind her again that of course we will use the withdrawal agreement mechanism and the arbitral mechanisms within the provisions of the withdrawal agreement, and indeed the Northern Ireland protocol, too. It is not a question of us abandoning our obligations; we will use them, but this is the “break glass in case of emergency” provision that underlies and will protect the United Kingdom’s position if we face such a breakdown.

Lord Keen’s resignation was in keeping with the highest traditions of the Scottish Bar. The Lord Chancellor has said that he wants us to consider his own actions as an MP and a Minister rather than as a lawyer, so I put this to him. In 2018, in the Gulf case, England’s Court of Appeal ruled that a Government Minister’s overarching duty to comply with the law includes international law and treaty obligations, even though these are no longer explicitly stated in the ministerial code. This Bill gives the Lord Chancellor and other Ministers the power to run a coach and horses through their obligations under the withdrawal agreement. I know that Conservative Members do not like hearing that, but that is the reality. In the light of what the English Court of Appeal has said, just how is this Bill compatible with his oath as the Lord Chancellor to uphold the rule of law?

As I have said to the hon. and learned Lady, the contingency that underlines the coming into force and use of these powers is a very narrowly and clearly delineated one. I do not believe, as I have said in public, that we are at that stage, and I do not believe we will get to that stage, if both parties renew their efforts, act in good faith and double down on making sure that we get a resolution. It would have been far easier for us to avoid the issue, to pretend that there was not going to be a problem, and then to hit the new year with an avalanche of difficulties when it came to Northern Ireland and its relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom. Members of this House would have rightly criticised us, and, frankly, we would have been in an indefensible position. This is a tortuous process. I reject her allegations—her assertions. We will continue to govern responsibly and consistent with our obligations under the rule of law.