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UK Internal Market Bill: Northern Ireland

Volume 680: debated on Thursday 24 September 2020

What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. (906446)

I regularly meet the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to discuss important issues of common interest. The United Kingdom Internal Market Bill is an essential and landmark piece of legislation, which will safeguard and enrich our precious Union. The Bill is a prudent step to create a legal safety net and to take powers in reserve, whereby Ministers can guarantee the integrity of the UK and protect the peace process.

Consideration of and voting for this Bill do not constitute a breach of the law. However, there are powers in the Bill which, if and when exercised, will operate to disapply treaty obligations at the international law level—in particular, article 4 of the withdrawal agreement, and articles 5 and 10 of the Northern Ireland protocol. Parliamentary supremacy means that it is entirely constitutional and proper for Parliament to enact legislation, even if it breaches international treaty obligations. I am glad that my right hon. Friend voted in support of section 38 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, which made it clear that parliamentary supremacy will prevail over international law.

The last five former UK Prime Ministers have all shared their concern about the Government’s intention to break international law through the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. The Northern Ireland Secretary said that the Government anticipated breaking the law in a “specific and limited way”. Even the Attorney General’s own predecessor said that the Government’s intention to break the law is “unconscionable” and will greatly damage Britain’s international reputation. So I ask the Attorney General: are they all wrong?

The question of whether in law the Government can act in this way is very simply answered: yes, they can. The question of whether they should is one for political debate, not legal argument. The hon. Lady may not like that answer, but it is one that is founded on a robust legal footing by the supremacy of Parliament, elucidated by Dicey and confirmed by a unanimous Supreme Court in Miller.

I have listened to what the Attorney General has said and I do not think that she has really answered the question. As a barrister, she knows full well the role of the Government Law Officers; they must uphold the rule of law without fear or favour. As her political hero, Margaret Thatcher, once said:

“In order to be considered truly free, countries must…have…an abiding respect for the rule of law.”

Yet there is a universal view among those who look to the Attorney General to defend the rule of law that she has betrayed them, so could she tell the House what she has done to defend the rule of law in the face of the Government’s breach?

I prefer to take a less emotional approach than the hon. Lady. I am extremely proud to be supporting this Bill. It protects our country and it safeguards the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The leader of the hon. Lady’s party called for patriotism this week, but their opposition to this Bill is anything but patriotic. How she can call herself an MP who sits in the United Kingdom Parliament and at the same time vote against a Bill that defends the unity of our country, maintains peace in Northern Ireland and enables the United Kingdom—our country, her country—to thrive is not only illogical but does a grave disservice to the nation’s interests.

The Attorney General has just clearly illustrated that she is in office because, unlike Jonathan Jones and Lord Keen, she is putting her political loyalties—her Brexit fanaticism—ahead of her loyalty to the rule of law, when it should be the other way around. That is why she should resign. But does not this whole episode also illustrate why future Attorneys General should be lawyers and not party politicians? It is all right for her to trash her own reputation, but not the reputation of the office of Attorney General.

The legal basis for the Government’s proposals was set out in the statements of 10 and 17 September. Those made it clear that it is entirely proper, entirely constitutional and lawful in domestic law to enact legislation that may operate in breach of international law or treaty obligations. It is a pretty basic principle of law, and if the hon. Gentleman is having trouble understanding, I would be very happy to sit down and explain it to him.