I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time—and that this House act to preserve one of the crucial achievements of the past three centuries, namely our British ability to trade freely across the whole of these islands.
The creation of our United Kingdom by the Acts of Union of 1707 and 1801 was not simply a political event, but an act of conscious economic integration that laid the foundations for the world’s first industrial revolution and the prosperity we enjoy today. When other countries in Europe stayed divided, we joined our fortunes together and allowed the invisible hand of the market to move Cornish pasties to Scotland, Scottish beef to Wales, Welsh beef to England, and Devonshire clotted cream to Northern Ireland or wherever else it might be enjoyed.
When we chose to join the EU back in 1973, we also thereby decided that the EU treaties should serve as the legal guarantor of these freedoms. Now that we have left the EU and the transition period is about to elapse, we need the armature of our law once again to preserve the arrangements on which so many jobs and livelihoods depend. That is the fundamental purpose of this Bill, which should be welcomed by everyone who cares about the sovereignty and integrity of our United Kingdom.
We shall provide the legal certainty relied upon by every business in our country, including, of course, in Northern Ireland. The manifesto on which this Government were elected last year promised business in Northern Ireland
“unfettered access to the rest of the UK”.
I am listening carefully to what the Prime Minister is saying, but why did one of his own distinguished Members describe his policy this week as “Nixonian Madman Theory”? Is the Prime Minister not deeply worried that his policies and approach are being compared to those of the disgraced former US President Richard Nixon, rather than someone like Winston Churchill?
Actually, I think that this Bill is essential for guaranteeing the economic and political integrity of the United Kingdom and simply sets out to achieve what the people of this country voted for when they supported our election manifesto: not only unfettered access from NI to GB and from GB to NI, but also—I quote from the manifesto—to
“maintain and strengthen the integrity and smooth operation of our internal market.”
I will not.
The Bill is designed to honour that pledge and maintain those freedoms. When we renegotiated our withdrawal agreement from the EU, we struck a careful balance to reflect Northern Ireland’s integral place in our United Kingdom, while preserving an open border with Ireland, with the express and paramount aim of protecting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the peace process. In good faith, we accepted certain obligations in the Northern Ireland protocol in order to give our European friends the assurances they sought on the integrity of their single market, while avoiding any change to the border on the island of Ireland. We agreed to conduct some light-touch processes on goods passing between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in case they were transferred to the EU.
This is a very important debate, as the Prime Minister and I know and as everyone in the House knows. Does he accept that the EU’s determination to use Northern Ireland as a stick to beat the UK with as punishment for daring to leave an institution that had no respect or concern for our people has been underlined by the behaviour of MEPs, and indeed of some in this House, as they seek again, against the will of the majority of people, to stop Brexit instead of doing the honourable thing: respecting the vote and the recent general election validation, taking care of the UK and putting our people first, as the Prime Minister has said he will do? This legislation is a way of doing that.
The intention of the Bill is clearly to stop any such use of the stick against this country, and that is what it does. It is a protection, it is a safety net, it is an insurance policy, and it is a very sensible measure.
In a spirit of reasonableness, we are conducting these checks in accordance with our obligations. We are creating the sanitary and phytosanitary processes required under the protocol and spending hundreds of millions of pounds on helping traders. Under this finely balanced arrangement, our EU friends agreed that Northern Ireland—this is a crucial point—would remain part of the customs territory of the United Kingdom, able to benefit from free trade deals with other countries, which we are now beginning to strike. It ensures that the majority of goods not at risk of travelling to the EU—and that is the majority of goods going from GB to Northern Ireland—do not have to pay tariffs.
But the details of this intricate deal and the obvious tensions between some of its provisions can only be resolved with a basic minimum of common sense and good will from all sides. I regret to have to tell the House that in recent months the EU has suggested that it is willing to go to extreme and unreasonable lengths, using the Northern Ireland protocol in a way that goes well beyond common sense simply to exert leverage against the UK in our negotiations for a free trade agreement. To take the most glaring example, the EU has said that if we fail to reach an agreement to its satisfaction, it might very well refuse to list the UK’s food and agricultural products for sale anywhere in the EU. It gets even worse, because under this protocol, that decision would create an instant and automatic prohibition on the transfer of our animal products from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Our interlocutors on the other side are holding out the possibility of blockading food and agricultural transports within our own country.
Does the Prime Minister agree that there is no greater obligation for MPs than to our voters, that the British people were told that no deal is better than a bad deal and we would prosper without a deal, and that given that the EU refuses to negotiate in good faith, we have no alternative but to legislate to protect our internal market?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. Absurd and self-defeating as that action would be, even as we debate this matter, the EU has not taken that particular revolver off the table. I hope that it will do so and that we can reach a Canada-style free trade agreement as well.
It is such an extraordinary threat, and it seems so incredible that the EU could do this, that we are not taking powers in this Bill to neutralise that threat, but we obviously reserve the right to do so if these threats persist, because I am afraid that they reveal the spirit in which some of our friends are currently minded to conduct these negotiations. It goes to what m’learned friends would call the intention of some of those involved in the talks. I think the mens rea—
I never object to another promotion.
I have listened carefully to what the Prime Minister says, but does he accept that were our interlocutors in the EU to behave in such an egregious fashion, which would clearly be objectionable and unacceptable to us, there is already provision under the withdrawal agreement for an arbitrary arrangement to be put in place? Were we to take reserve powers, does he accept that those reserve powers should be brought into force only as a final backstop if we have, in good faith, tried to act under the withdrawal agreement and are then frustrated? The timing under which they come into force is very important for our reputation as upholders of the rule of law.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right in what he says. He knows a great deal about this matter, and it is of great importance that we go through the legal procedures, as we will. As things stand, however, in addition to the potential blockade on agricultural goods, there are other avenues that the EU could explore if it is determined to interpret the protocol in absurd ways, and if it fails to negotiate in good faith. We must now take a package of protective powers in the Bill, and subsequently.
For example, there is the question of tariffs in the Irish sea. When we signed the protocol, we accepted that goods “at risk” of going from Great Britain into the EU via Northern Ireland should pay the EU tariff as they crossed the Irish sea—we accepted that—but that any goods staying within Northern Ireland would not do so. The protocol created a joint committee to identify, with the EU, which goods were at risk of going into Ireland. That sensible process was one achievement of our agreement, and our view is that that forum remains the best way of solving that question.
I am afraid that some in the EU are now relying on legal defaults to argue that every good is “at risk”, and therefore liable for tariffs. That would mean tariffs that could get as high as 90% by value on Scottish beef going to Northern Ireland, and moving not from Stranraer to Dublin but from Stranraer to Belfast within our United Kingdom. There would be tariffs of potentially more than 61% on Welsh lamb heading from Anglesey to Antrim, and of potentially more than 100% on clotted cream moving from Torridge—to pick a Devonshire town at random—to Larne. That is unreasonable and plainly against the spirit of that protocol.
The EU is threatening to carve tariff borders across our own country, to divide our land, to change the basic facts about the economic geography of the United Kingdom and, egregiously, to ride roughshod over its own commitment under article 4 of the protocol, whereby
“Northern Ireland is part of the customs territory of the United Kingdom.”
We cannot have a situation where the boundaries of our country could be dictated by a foreign power or international organisation. No British Prime Minister, no Government, and no Parliament could ever accept such an imposition.
I thank my hon. Friend very much. The best way for us all to be sure that such lamb can be sold throughout the whole United Kingdom is to vote for this Bill, and to protect the economic integrity of the UK. [Interruption.] To answer the questions that are being shouted at me from a sedentary position, last year we signed the withdrawal agreement in the belief, which I still hold, that the EU would be reasonable. After everything that has recently happened, we must consider the alternative. We asked for reasonableness, common sense, and balance, and we still hope to achieve that through the joint committee process, in which we will always persevere, no matter what the provocation.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, and I want to ask him, if I may, about the ministerial code. When I was the Attorney General in the previous Government, I was happy to confirm that the ministerial code obliged Ministers to comply with international as well as domestic law. This Bill will give Ministers overt authority to break international law. Has the position on the ministerial code changed?
No, not in the least. My right hon. and learned Friend can consult the Attorney General’s position on that. After all, what this Bill is simply seeking to do is insure and protect this country against the EU’s proven willingness—that is the crucial point—to use this delicately balanced protocol in ways for which it was never intended.
The Bill includes our first step to protect our country against such a contingency by creating a legal safety net taking powers in reserve, whereby Ministers can guarantee the integrity of our United Kingdom. I understand how some people will feel unease over the use of these powers, and I share that sentiment. I say to my right hon. and learned Friend that I have absolutely no desire to use these measures. They are an insurance policy, and if we reach agreement with our European friends, which I still believe is possible, they will never be invoked. Of course, it is the case that the passing of this Bill does not constitute the exercising of these powers.
If the powers were ever needed, Ministers would return to this House with a statutory instrument on which a vote—perhaps this is the question to which the hon. Gentleman is awaiting an answer—would be held. We would simultaneously pursue every possible redress—to get back to the point I was making to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill)—under international law, as provided for in the protocol.
In addition to our steps in domestic law, if we had to make clear that we believed the EU was engaged in a material breach of its duties of good faith, as required and provided for under the withdrawal agreement and the Vienna convention on the law of treaties, we would seek an arbitration panel and consider safeguards under article 16 of the protocol.
It is a question not of if we meet our obligations, but of how we fulfil them. We must do so in a way that satisfies the fundamental purpose of the protocol, the Belfast Good Friday agreement and the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. We will work with the EU on all of these issues. Even if we have to use these powers, we will continue to engage with the joint committee so that any dispute is resolved as quickly and as amicably as possible, reconciling the integrity of the EU single market with Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s customs territory.
What we cannot do now is tolerate a situation where our EU counterparts seriously believe that they have the power to break up our country. If that is what hon. Members on the Opposition Benches want them to have, then I am afraid that they are grievously mistaken. That illusion must be decently dispatched, and that is why these reserve powers are enshrined in the Bill.
In addition, the Bill will help deliver the single biggest transfer of powers to the devolved Administrations since their creation, covering a total of 160 different policy areas. Each devolved Administration will also be fully and equally involved in the oversight of the UK’s internal market through a new independent body, the Office for the Internal Market. The Bill will maintain our common cause of high standards, where we already go beyond the EU in areas ranging from health and safety to consumer and environmental protections.
May I take the Prime Minister back to the question asked by the former Attorney General, the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright)? It seems to me quintessential to the way we do our business that Ministers abide by the law. Indeed, the Justice Secretary is required by law to swear that he will uphold the rule of law. How, therefore, can the Prime Minister seriously advance a piece of legislation that says:
“regulations…are not to be regarded as unlawful on the grounds of any incompatibility or inconsistency with relevant international or domestic law”.
That is just gobbledegook, isn’t it? It is complete and utter nonsense.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was listening, but I made it very clear that we do not relish the prospect of having to use these powers at all. We hope very much, as I said, that the EU will be reasonable, but any democratically elected Government of this country—indeed, I would say any MP representing the people of this country—must be obliged to do whatever he or she can to uphold the territorial integrity of this country. That is what we are doing. Furthermore, instead of UK taxpayers’ money being disbursed by the EU, this Bill, which is an excellent Bill, will allow the Government to invest billions of pounds across the whole of the UK to level up.
A year ago, this Parliament was deadlocked, exasperating the British people by its failure to fulfil their democratic wishes and, worst of all, by undermining our negotiators, as the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) will recall. Effectively, Parliament told the EU that if it played hardball, this House would oblige it by weakening our country’s hand and legally forbid our representatives from walking away from the negotiating table. I hope that this House will never make that mistake again. Instead, let us seize the opportunity presented by this Bill and send a message of unity and resolve. Let us say together to our European friends that we want a great future relationship and a fantastic free trade deal.
The Prime Minister will remember that we have some history in this regard. I did not want us to leave with no agreement last year, and we fell out over that. But he was true to his word and we had an agreement.
We said in our manifesto:
“We will ensure that Northern Ireland’s businesses and producers enjoy unfettered access to the rest of the UK”.
Is it not the truth of the matter that the way to do that is either through this Bill or by agreeing the free trade agreement—the Canada-style deal—that the EU said was on the table and of which the Prime Minister said when he came into office, “Okay, they now seem to have stepped back from that”?
I thank the Prime Minister for saying that tonight is difficult for some of us, but this is an important piece of legislation. Will he assure me that it is still his policy and the policy of his Government to secure that FTA with the EU that it said it wanted and that we know we want?
I thank my hon. Friend for the spirit in which he asked his question and made that important point. He is absolutely right to focus on where we are now in our talks on the free trade agreement. It is by passing the Bill tonight and in subsequent days that we will make the possibility of that great free trade agreement more real and get it done sooner.
Therefore, with this Bill we will expedite a free trade agreement not only with our European friends and partners, but with friends and partners around the world; we will support jobs and growth throughout the whole United Kingdom; we will back our negotiators in Brussels; and, above all, we will protect the territorial integrity of the UK and the peace process in Northern Ireland. I urge the House to support the Bill and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) rightly said, to get back to the business of securing a free trade agreement with our closest neighbours that we would all wish to see. I commend the Bill to the House.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “That” to the end of the Question and add:
“this House notes that the UK has left the EU; calls on the Government to get on with negotiating a trade deal with the EU; recognises that legislation is required to ensure the smooth, effective working of the internal market across the UK; but declines to give a Second Reading to the Internal Market Bill because this Bill undermines the Withdrawal Agreement already agreed by Parliament, re-opens discussion about the Northern Ireland Protocol that has already been settled, breaches international law, undermines the devolution settlements and would tarnish the UK’s global reputation as a law-abiding nation and the UK’s ability to enforce other international trade deals and protect jobs and the economy.”
There are two questions at the heart of the Bill and of why we will oppose it tonight. First, how do we get an internal market after 1 January within the UK while upholding the devolution settlements, which have been a vital part of our constitution for two decades and are essential to our Union? Secondly, will our country abide by the rule of law—a rules-based international order, for which we are famous around the world and have always stood up?
Those are not small questions. They go to the heart of who we are as a country and the character of this Government. Let me start with the first question. An internal market is vital for trade and jobs at home, but also for our ability to strike trade deals. It is the responsibility of the UK Government at Westminster to safeguard that market and legislate. On that, we agree with the Government. But that must be done while understanding that the governance of our country has changed in the last two decades. Two decades of devolution settlements reflect a decision that we would share power across our four nations, including devolving key powers over issues such as animal welfare, food safety and aspects of environmental legislation. We should legislate for an internal market, but in a way that respects the role and voice of devolved Governments in setting those standards. That is to respect the devolution settlement. From across the UK, we have heard that the Government are not doing that; that they want to legislate with a blunderbuss approach that does not do that and simply says that the lowest standard in one Parliament must become the standard for all, with no proper voice for devolved Governments. If the Westminster Government decided to lower standards, there would be no voice for the devolved nations, even in a discussion about those standards because the Government have decided not to legislate for common frameworks.
The right hon. Gentleman is getting to the nub of the matter. We have Joint Ministerial Committees, and huge progress had been made in the last few months on agreeing frameworks that would allow us to do exactly what the right hon. Gentleman asked for. Is not the right way to proceed through frameworks in agreement with the devolved Administrations, not the race to the bottom that we get with the Bill?
The right hon. Gentleman and I come from different positions. I want to respect the devolution settlements that uphold the Union and he has a different point of view, but on this matter we should be legislating for common frameworks. That would be the way to respect devolution. I do not know whether the Prime Minister even understands the legislation—I know he has many things on his plate—but I am sorry to say that on this issue, the Government’s approach has been cavalier. Since 2017, common frameworks have developed and the Government could have legislated for that. We will seek to do that during the Bill’s passage.
The issues were prefigured in the White Paper. Since then, we have an even bigger question to confront. Let me say at the outset that we want the smoothest trade across our United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. There is a way to resolve those issues in the Joint Committee set up for that purpose. I have to say that, from a man who said he wanted to get Brexit done and won an election on it, the Bill gets Brexit undone by overturning key aspects of the protocol that were agreed.
I have been part of many issues of contention across the Dispatch Box, but I never thought that respecting international law would be a matter of disagreement in my lifetime. As Leader of the Opposition, I stood opposite the Prime Minister’s predecessor David Cameron for five years. I do not know why the Prime Minister is rolling his eyes. I disagreed with David Cameron profoundly on many issues, but I could never have imagined him coming along and saying, “We are going to legislate to break international law” on an agreement that we had signed as a country less than a year earlier. Yet that is what the Bill does, in the Government’s own words.
I want to address three questions at the heart of the matter. Is it right to threaten to break the law in the way the Government propose? Is it necessary to do so? Will it help our country? The answer to each question is no. Let us remember the context and the principle. If there is one thing that we are known for around the world, it is the rule of law. This is the country of Magna Carta; the country that is known for being the mother of all Parliaments; and the country that, out of the darkness of the second world war, helped found the United Nations. Our global reputation for rule making, not rule breaking, is one of the reasons that we are so respected around the world. When people think of Britain, they think of the rule of law. Despite what the Prime Minister said in his speech, let us be clear that this is not an argument about remain versus leave. It is an argument about right versus wrong.
The Brexiteer and former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Lamont, says that the Bill is impossible to defend. The Brexiteer and former Attorney General who helped to negotiate and sign off this deal as Attorney General says that the Bill is “unconscionable”. And the Brexiteer Lord Howard—the Prime Minister’s former boss—said this:
“I never thought it was a thing I’d hear a British minister, far less a Conservative minister, say, which is that the government was going to invite parliament to act in breach of international law…We have a reputation for probity, for upholding the rule of law, and it’s a reputation that is very precious and ought to be safeguarded, and I am afraid it was severely damaged…by the bill”.
Does the right hon. Gentleman think that the EU has been negotiating in good faith?
It is very interesting that the hon. Gentleman should say that because a report came out today from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which is chaired by a Conservative Member. This is what the report says and this is my answer to him:
“These talks began in March and continued throughout the summer in a spirit of good faith and mutual respect for the delicate arrangements in Northern Ireland.”
That is what the Conservative-controlled Select Committee says about this issue.
The Prime Minister has said many times that he wants to bring unity to the country during his premiership. I therefore congratulate him on having, in just one short year, united his five predecessors. Unfortunately, their point of agreement is that he is trashing the reputation of this country and trashing the reputation of his office. Why are these five former Prime Ministers so united on this point? It is because they know that our moral authority in the world comes from our commitment to the rule of law and keeping our word. We rightly condemn China when it rides roughshod over the treaties dictating the future of Hong Kong. We say it signed them in good faith, that it is going back on its word and that it cannot be trusted. And his defence? “Don’t worry; I can’t be trusted either.” What will China say to us from now on? What will it throw back at us—that we, too, do not keep to international law?
Actually, yes we do, and I will tell the hon. Lady why. We respect the fact that the Conservative party, under this Prime Minister, won the election. He got his mandate to deliver his Brexit deal: the thing that he said was—I am sure she recalls this because it was probably on her leaflets—“oven ready”. It is not me who is coming along and saying it is half-baked; it is him. He is saying, “The deal that I signed and agreed is actually—what’s the word? Ambiguous. Problematic.” I will get to this later in my speech, but I wonder whether he actually read the deal in the first place.
My hon. Friend makes an important point; I do believe it was the Prime Minister who signed the deal.
In fairness to the Prime Minister, I want to deal with each of the arguments that the Government have made in the last few days for this action. It is quite hard to keep count of the different arguments—you know you are losing the argument when you keep making lots of different arguments—but I want to give the House the top five. First, let us deal with the argument about blockades, which made its first outing in The Telegraph on Saturday through the Prime Minister, and obviously it made a big appearance today.
I have to say, I did not like the ramping up of the rhetoric from the European Union on Thursday, following the Prime Minister’s publication of this Bill, but even by the standards of the Prime Minister, this is as ridiculous an argument as I have ever heard. Let me let me explain to him why—the point was very well made by the former Attorney General this morning. This is what article 16 of the protocol says:
“If the application of this Protocol leads to serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade, the Union or the United Kingdom may unilaterally take appropriate safeguard measures.”
In other words, let us just say that this threat somehow materialised—and by the way, I believe that Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs officials would have to implement it, making it even more absurd that it would happen. If the threat materialised, it is not overturning the protocol that is the right thing to do; it is upholding the protocol, as article 16 says. But do not take my word for it, Madam Deputy Speaker; take the word of the former Attorney General—who definitely read the protocol—who wrote this morning:
“There are clear and lawful responses available to Her Majesty’s government”.
As if that was not enough, there is also an irony here—the Prime Minister tried to slip this in; I do not know whether the House noticed—which is that this Bill does precisely nothing to address the issue of the transport of food from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. It is about two issues where the Government are going to override international law: exit declarations, Northern Ireland to GB, and the definition of state aid relating to Northern Ireland. If the Prime Minister wants to tell us that there is another part of the Bill that I have not noticed that will deal with this supposed threat of blockade, I will very happily give way to him. I am sure he has read it; I am sure he knows it in detail, because he is a details man. Come on, tell us: what clause protects against the threat, which he says he is worried about, to GB-to-Northern Ireland exports? I give way to him. [Interruption.]
There you have it: he didn’t read the protocol, he hasn’t read the Bill, he doesn’t know his stuff.
Let us deal with the second bogus argument. The Prime Minister claimed on Wednesday that it was necessary to protect the Good Friday agreement. The first outing for that argument was on Wednesday, at Prime Minister’s questions. I have to say to him, I would rather trust the authors of the Good Friday agreement than the Prime Minister, who has prominent members of the Government who opposed the agreement at the time. However, this is what John Major and Tony Blair wrote—[Interruption.] They don’t like John Major. They said that the Bill
“puts the Good Friday agreement at risk”—
[Interruption]—this is very serious—
“because it negates the predictability, political stability and legal clarity that are integral to the delicate balance between the north and south of Ireland that is at the core of the peace process.”
These are very important words from two former Prime Ministers, both of whom helped to win us peace in Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister may not want to believe them, but he will, I hope, believe himself—[Laughter]—maybe not—because this is what he said about the Northern Ireland protocol:
“there are particular circumstances in Northern Ireland at the border that deserve particular respect and sensitivity, and that is what they have received in the deal.”
“a great deal for Northern Ireland.”—[Official Report, 19 October 2019; Vol. 666, c. 578-579.]
I do not understand this. He signed the deal. It is his deal. It is the deal that he said would protect the people of Northern Ireland. I have to say to him, this is not just legislative hooliganism on any issue; it is on one of the most sensitive issues of all. I think we should take the word of two former Prime Ministers of this country who helped to secure peace in Northern Ireland.
Before the shadow spokesman lectures the Prime Minister about reading documentation or starts lecturing us about the Good Friday agreement, does he not recognise, first of all, that the Good Friday agreement talks about the principle of consent to change the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, which is what this protocol does? The Good Friday agreement has within it a mechanism to safeguard the minorities in Northern Ireland through a cross-community vote, which again the protocol removed. So before he starts talking about the threats to the Good Friday agreement, does he not recognise that the protocol was a threat to it in the first place?
The right hon. Gentleman did not like the protocol at all. He would rather have not had the protocol. He and I just have a disagreement on this issue. I believe it was necessary to make special arrangements for Northern Ireland, or for the UK to be in the EU customs union to avoid a hard border in Ireland. That is why the Prime Minister came along and said the protocol was the right thing to do.
Let me deal with the third excuse we heard. This is the “It was all a bit of a rush” excuse. As the Prime Minister said in his article, times were “torrid” and there were “serious misunderstandings”. He tries to pretend that this is some new issue, but they have been warned for months about the way the protocol would work. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who is sitting in his place, was warned at the Select Committee in March and was asked about these issues. The Business Secretary was written to by the House of Lords Committee in April.
Let us just get this straight for a minute, because I think it is important to take a step back. The Prime Minister is coming to the House to tell us today that his flagship achievement—the deal he told us was a triumph, the deal he said was oven-ready, the deal on which he fought and won the general election—is now contradictory and ambiguous. What incompetence. What failure of governance. How dare he try to blame everyone else? I say to the Prime Minister that this time he cannot blame the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), he cannot blame John Major, he cannot blame the judges, he cannot blame the civil servants, he cannot sack the Cabinet Secretary again. There is only one person responsible for it and that is him. This is his deal. It is his mess. It is his failure. For the first time in his life, it is time to take responsibility. It is time to ’fess up: either he was not straight with the country about the deal in the first place, or he did not understand it.
A competent Government would never have entered into a binding agreement with provisions they could not live with. If such a Government somehow missed the point but woke up later, they would do what any competent business would do after it realised it could not live with the terms of a contract: they would negotiate a way out in good faith. That is why this is all so unnecessary. There is a mechanism designed for exactly this purpose in the agreement: the Joint Committee on the Northern Ireland protocol. What did the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster say on 11 March at the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union? He will recall that he was asked about state aid. He said:
“the effective working of the protocol is a matter for the Joint Committee to resolve.”
The remaining issues to which the Bill speaks are not insignificant, but nor are they insurmountable, and that is the right way to pursue them, not an attempt at illegality.
Let me come back to the excuses. Fourthly, on Sunday, there was the Justice Secretary’s “the fire alarm” defence: “We don’t want to have to do this, but we might have to.” I want to be clear with the House about something very, very important about a decision to pass the Bill. I have great respect for the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), but I want to make this point. The very act of passing the Bill is itself a breach of international law. It would be wrong for hon. and right hon. Members on either side of the House to be under any illusions about that as they decide which Lobby to go into tonight. If we pass the Bill, even if there is a nod and a wink from the Prime Minister to the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, we equip the Government with the power to break the law. That in itself is a breach of the Northern Ireland protocol and therefore a breach of international law.
I have listened carefully to the right hon. Member’s formulation and I understand much of what he says. However, an Act passed by this House only becomes law when it comes into force. He will be right, I submit, to say that as soon as any of these provisions came into force we would potentially breach international law. That is not quite the same thing, as I think he would fairly concede.
That is not a risk we are going to take.
So the fire alarm defence simply does not work. The last defence was floated as a trial balloon, one might say, by the Northern Ireland Secretary last Tuesday, I believe. He said it was a breach of the law in a “specific and limited way.” That really is a new way of thinking about legal questions. It now turns out that breaking the law specifically and in a limited way is a reasonable defence for this Government. We have all heard of self-defence, the alibi defence, the innocence defence; now we have the Johnson defence: you can break the law, but in a specific and limited way.
Think about the grave context we face. The Home Secretary is in today’s newspapers warning everyone, “You must abide by the law.” On this, she is absolutely right. She says,
“I know that, as part of our national effort, the law-abiding majority will stick to these new rules. But there will be a small minority who do not”.
You couldn’t make it up. What she does not say in the article, but what we now know about this Government, is that the Johnson defence means something very specific: there is one rule for the British public and another rule for this Government. Pioneered by Cummings, implemented by Johnson—that is the Johnson rule.
This is the wrong thing to do. It is not necessary and it is deeply damaging to this country. Let us think about the impact on our country in the negotiations. The Government’s hope is that it will make a deal more likely, but that relies on the notion that reneging on a deal we made less than a year ago with the party we are negotiating with now will make that party more likely to trust us, not less. Think about our everyday lives: suppose we made an agreement with someone a year ago and we were seeking to have another negotiation with them; if we had unilaterally reneged on the first deal we made, would it make them more likely to trust us, or less likely? Obviously, it would make them less likely to trust us.
We know the risks. I very much hope the Prime Minister gets a deal. As a country, we absolutely need a deal. We know the risks of no deal if this strategy goes wrong. The Prime Minister said last week that no deal is somehow “a good outcome”. He is wrong. I hear all the time from businesses—I am sure the Business Secretary, who is in his place, does too—that are deeply worried about the danger of no deal. I know what the Prime Minister thinks about the views of business, thanks to his four-letter rant, but this is what businesses have to say. Nissan says there could be no guarantee about its Sunderland plant if there were tariffs on UK to EU trade. Ford says that no deal would be disastrous. The NFU says it would be catastrophic for British farming—indeed, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, when he was Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said the same thing. We are in the biggest economic crisis for 300 years, the biggest public health crisis for 100 years. No deal is not some game; it is about the livelihoods of millions of people across our country.
What about the prized trade deal with the United States? I know the Prime Minister thinks he has a friend in President Trump, but even he must recognise the necessity of being able to deal with both sides. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, said:
“The UK must respect the Northern Ireland Protocol as signed with the EU… If the UK violates that international treaty and Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement passing the Congress.”
This is the signal that we—the country known for the rule of law, the country that abides by the law, the country that founded international law—are sending to our friends and allies around the world. That is why we cannot support the Bill.
The Government must go back, remove the provisions breaking international law and ensure that the Bill works in a way that respects the devolution settlements. That is what a responsible, competent and law-abiding Government would do. This is a pivotal moment to determine the future of our country—who we are and how we operate. In shaping that future, we have to stand up for the traditions that matter: our commitment to the rule of law. The Bill speaks of a Government and a Prime Minister who are casual, not to say cavalier and reckless, about the gravity of the issues confronting them. The Prime Minister should be focusing on securing a Brexit deal, not breaking international law and risking no deal. He is cavalier on international law and cavalier on our traditions. This is not the serious leadership we need, and it is why we will oppose the Bill tonight.
Before I call the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, I should draw to the attention of the House that 100 Members are hoping to catch my eye from the Back Benches. It will not be possible to call everyone, but in order to allow as many people as possible to participate in such an important debate, we will have a time limit of four minutes with immediate effect. I call Sir William Cash.
It would be unconscionable for us to have left the EU lawfully, which the EU has accepted, and then allow it to threaten us and strangle our jobs and businesses by imposing unfair state aid rules that go much wider than traditional subsidies, and then for it to seek unwarranted legal action when we are properly defending our national, economic and political sovereignty. If so, we would become a neutered, trivial Lilliput—an enslaved economic satellite of the EU. No UK Parliament could allow itself to be so prostrated. We won the referendum and the general election across the country because voters wanted to leave the EU and free ourselves from undemocratic rule from Brussels and from majority voting, and to regain our right to govern ourselves and our economic freedom. This Bill guarantees that promise to them and maintains the Union.
International law comes in all shapes and sizes. There are many instances of express override in UK statute law. The EU itself sometimes breaks international law, including refusing certain compliance with World Trade Organisation rules. EU retaliation by a blockade would be utterly unlawful. Even the Belfast agreement contains “notwithstanding” provisions, as does USA statute law. The express powers in the Bill, which constitute the taking of powers rather than actual implementation, are justified precautions against the risk of an expansionist interpretation of article 10 of the protocol, which would lead to great uncertainty, litigation risk and a serious threat to the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom into the indefinite future.
There has never been a level playing field in the EU. Its cardinal objective in these negotiations from the outset has included preventing us from being able to compete fairly. That is not good faith. Under the protocol, the EU would even control our legal tax freedom to create freeports and enterprise zones. All of this would massively undermine our businesses and jobs and therefore our voters.
Let us consider the wide legal sphere of EU state aid regulation. It is concerned with not only subsidies but tax reliefs; taxation favouring particular sectors or undertakings; remission of national insurance contributions; bank bail-outs such as those of RBS and Lloyds, where contrived, draconian EU legal conditions were imposed; and a raft of other measures too numerous to list, including gas tariffs for horticulture, airport landing fees, private health insurance, carbon trading emission certificates for free, failing to follow public procurement procedures and so on. By contrast, more recently, the German Government have procured approval for vast amounts of aid, notably for Lufthansa, and this is a pattern that has continued for decades across many commercial sectors. I recommend that people read Ambrose Evans-Pritchard’s article today in The Daily Telegraph.
Mr Šefčovič has outrageously dared to threaten the UK Parliament itself if we do not remove the clauses, and he misrepresents our position on the Good Friday agreement. This contradicts our sovereignty and autonomy, which the EU accepted. The EU seeks to subject us to a foreign regulator, taking essentially political decisions and armed with undemocratic prohibition powers and authorisations. It would be unconscionable and utterly naive for us to allow that to happen. It would be contrary to our national interests at this time of economic instability generated by coronavirus.
I remind the House that section 38 of the 2020 Act was passed without a single person in either House formally objecting, either on Second Reading or in Committee. The Bill is needed as an insurance policy and as a guarantee of our national sovereignty within the meaning of the Vienna convention, and our national security.
Over the past few years, we have all witnessed this Tory Government plunging this Parliament and our broader politics into ever deeper chaos and disgrace. In that time, Scotland has been dragged out of the European Union against our will. It is almost a year to the day on which this Parliament was illegally prorogued, and in recent months a raft of senior civil servants has been forced out the door. That instability is this UK Parliament’s new normal; it is now part and parcel of a broken Westminster system.
Here we are again: having dragged us deeper and deeper into their dangerous agenda for the past four years, today this right-wing Brexit cabal has reached rock bottom. The United Kingdom Internal Market Bill is the greatest threat to devolution that Scotland has faced since our Parliament was reconvened with the overwhelming support of the Scottish people in 1999. We are discussing the principles of a Bill that this Tory Government casually and brazenly admit violates international and domestic law—a Bill that cynically uses the precious peace at the heart of the Good Friday agreement as nothing more than a Brexit bargaining chip.
The Bill runs to 50 pages, but people across these islands have a right to know exactly what it proposes to do. It does two fundamentally dangerous and undemocratic things: it breaks international law and it breaks devolution. Those two facts explain why there has been such a widespread chorus of opposition to the Bill. That opposition comes from every profession, sector and corner of these islands, and it is why this legislation should and must be resisted by anyone who claims to respect the rule of law and anyone who claims to respect the current devolution settlement.
As we know, there is opposition on the Conservative Benches. In the other place, the former Tory leader, Lord Howard, told the Government that the legislation would result in the UK is showing itself as having “scant regard” for its treaty obligations. When the Government are getting verbally slaughtered by a Brexiteer who has—how shall I say it?—“something of the night” about him, it is as clear as day that the Tories have gone way beyond the pale.
The Law Society of Scotland has commented on the Bill, stating:
“The bill should, as a matter of principle, comply with public international law and the rule of international law, pacta sunt servanda…should be honoured. Adherence to the rule of law underpins our democracy and our society. We believe that to knowingly break with the UK’s reputation for following public international law could have far-reaching economic, legal and political consequences and should not be taken lightly.”
I repeat: to knowingly break international law. I ask each Member to think on that tonight.
Every Member has a choice. We know that the Bill breaks international law—so many learned individuals, including the previous Attorney General, have told us so. Tonight, this House can tell the Government that it is not on and that this House is not going to be complicit in a breach of international law. I venture that that is the responsibility that each Member has. Every Member—every Member, Madam Deputy Speaker—should examine their conscience. This is about a Bill that breaches the terms of a treaty, the ink of which is barely dry and on the delivery of which the governing party fought an election.
The hon. Lady is correct about that, because we know that the Government have got into trouble with the judiciary over their actions in the past, and I will come on to talk about that.
The right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), who spoke for the Opposition, was correct when he said that the Prime Minister cannot pretend that he did not know the terms of the treaty or its obligations when he signed it—that simply beggars belief. This is a test for the House this evening; do not wait for the Committee stage, as legally, morally and ethically the right thing to do is to vote down this Bill tonight. This House must be accountable. Do not follow the Prime Minister in acquiescing in breaking the law—if you vote to give the Bill its Second Reading tonight, that is exactly what you are all doing. So this is a test, and I understand the challenge the Conservative Members face. Do not support the Prime Minister by breaking the law this evening—it is as simple as that.
Of course, the Prime Minister has form: a year ago he went to the Queen to prorogue Parliament, an illegal act that the courts forced him to reverse. Here he is again—although in this case he is not, because he has run off—woefully breaking international law this time, seeking to ask the Queen to enact legislation that breaks international law. We have the power individually and collectively to stop the Prime Minister in this act of madness this evening. This is a matter of principle; it is about this House saying that we should not breach our legal obligations—I implore the House to say exactly that.
We were expecting the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to have drawn the short straw in having to come here to argue for this dreadful piece of legislation, but he was stood down. We all know who the parcel of rogues are behind this legislation; this Bill has the fingerprints of the Prime Minister, the Minister for the Cabinet Office and, of course, Dominic Cummings. We have just heard the bluff and bluster of the Prime Minister in seeking to defend the indefensible. He can try all he likes to dress this up as a business Bill, but no amount of dressing up will hide the fact that this is a naked power grab. The Tories are fooling no one, least of all businesses in Scotland. If this UK Government were actually serious about delivering an ounce of business confidence, they would not be threatening to blow apart any hope of a future trade deal with the European Union.
We can see from the right hon. Gentleman’s speech so far that he clearly shares many of the concerns of the Labour Front-Bench team. On that basis, will he confirm that he will be supporting the reasoned amendment standing in the name of the Leader of the Opposition?
I am grateful for the question. We will be voting against this Bill this evening but we will not be supporting the reasoned amendment, because of some of the other conditions attached to it, not least that there should be a single market Act that does not enshrine the rights of the devolved nations to be able to protect their own interests—that is the fundamental difference we have this evening. I ask the House to oppose the Bill and vote it down on Second Reading.
The provisions of this legislation recklessly and deliberately risk a bad deal or, increasingly, the economic devastation of a no deal. You cannot claim to support business while pursuing a bad Brexit. You cannot claim to support business by burdening it with yet more economic uncertainty, in the face of a global pandemic, one where we know the challenges we face. Yet, in the midst of this, the Prime Minister brings this Bill. The Government cannot claim to support the Scottish economy by taking more economic powers away from Scotland’s democratically elected Parliament.
I will turn now to some of the contents of the Bill, and specifically the numerous aspects that will undermine the powers and authority of Scotland’s Parliament. Clauses 2 to 9 contain sweeping powers that could act to compel Scotland to accept lower standards set elsewhere in the UK. That means standards on animal welfare, food safety and environmental protection to name but a few. We all know the risk and the threat that that will bring, especially for Scotland’s farmers and consumers. This law is a Tory invitation for chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef in our supermarkets. [Interruption.] We can hear the guffawing from the Conservative Benches, but yesterday morning on “Politics Scotland” a Treasury Minister more or less admitted that they could not stop chlorinated chicken coming into the United Kingdom. [Interruption.] Go and check the tapes; it is there.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman shares my dismay that the non-discrimination clause would mean that popular policies already made by the Welsh Government and our Senedd to do with the smoking ban, the ban on plastic bags, and organ donation could have been called in and not been valid under this legislation.
The right hon. Member makes a very good point. There are policies that we are very proud of introducing in Scotland, such as minimum alcohol pricing, which was so critical in dealing with misuse of alcohol in Scotland, but there is no guarantee that we would be able to bring in such initiatives in the future. We would have to go cap in hand to Westminster for authority. The days of us being “too wee, too poor, too stupid” are well and truly over.
Don’t be so hard on yourself.
The sneering contempt that we get from the Minister for the Cabinet Office—he really ought to be ashamed of himself.
In part four, provision is made for the establishment of a new unelected monitoring body called the Office for the Internal Market. The Bill proposes to hand that unelected body—we often hear about unelected bureaucrats, but here we are—the power to pass judgment on devolved laws, directly over the heads of the Scottish people’s chosen Government. It will also lead to an open invitation for businesses with deep pockets to challenge the democratic decisions of our Scottish Parliament.
Clause 48 reserves state aid: one of the most blatant power grabs in the Bill, and that is a very high bar. We know that the state aid provisions will merely mirror those of the World Trade Organisation. That will inevitably make a deal with the EU even more difficult and provide little or no scrutiny. Finally, there is clause 46: the ultimate insult and the ultimate attack on devolution. If this legislation is forced through, powers will be given to UK Government Ministers to design and impose replacements for EU spending programmes in devolved areas: infrastructure, economic development, culture and sport, education and training—all of it.
The Government’s agenda is clear. The Transport Minister would have input and decision-making powers over road building in Scotland, over the heads of the Scottish Parliament. We won a referendum in 1997, when 75% of the people of Scotland voted to have a Parliament. We have elections every five years. Manifestos are put in front of the Scottish people. It is the settled will of the people that that Parliament has control over health, education, housing and transport. How dare this Tory Government feel that they can come in and impose their will on those areas of democratic accountability in Scotland? What an insult to our Parliament in Edinburgh and our Parliament in Wales. I say to this Government, “We will stand up against this attack on our Parliament, and on those that enshrined that Scottish Parliament.”
The agenda of the Conservatives is clear. The Tories will seek to bypass democratically elected MPs and Ministers in Scotland. Union Jack-badged projects will be paid for and prioritised ahead of the priorities of our Parliament. Bitter experience is a good teacher. Tory Governments cannot be trusted to spend money in Scotland.
We remember what happens when the Tories control state aid spending. In 1992, John Major’s Government diverted cash from the highlands to try to boost dwindling Tory support in south-east England. And we have not forgotten that this legislation comes from a Prime Minister who bragged that a pound spent in Croydon has far more value to the country than a pound spent in Strathclyde. That is the way that the Conservatives look upon Scotland. The Tories will look after their own interests. They will never—not ever—support Scotland’s interests. This Bill would allow them free rein to serve their own narrow needs.
At its heart, this Bill confirms the centralising obsession of this UK Government. Those in No. 10 who not so long ago made a lucrative living scribbling endless newspaper articles about a supposed centralised Brussels elite are now attempting to centralise and grab every devolved power that they can get their hands on. Apparently, the Tories are not only determined to preside over the death of devolution; they are clearly determined to oversee the death of irony, too.
The real reason behind this Government’s hunger to pursue this power grab is what should concern us most, though. Paragraph 26 of the explanatory notes makes it clear that the Business Secretary will be given the power to change exemptions from the Bill at any time. In effect, this is a Trojan horse allowing Tory Ministers to encroach even further on devolution, and we know where that will inevitably lead. In order to deliver bad trade deals—the only deals they can now realistically get—the Tories want private health companies to have a guaranteed right to trade unhindered in Scotland and across the UK. With no protections for our Parliament, this would fundamentally weaken and undermine our national health service in Scotland. The same is true for private water companies, with the same threat of undermining standards and raising prices in Scotland. The Tories’ real agenda is about imposing the creeping privatisation and rampant deregulation that they are already implementing in England.
I am heartened by one thing: the scale of the threat of this legislation is equalled by the scale of the opposition with which it has been met across Scottish society. Those on the Government Benches, especially the Scottish Tories—mind you, there is only one of them in here—would do well to listen to this. The National Farmers Union Scotland confirmed that
“the proposals pose a significant threat to the development of Common Frameworks and to devolution.”
The chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation, Yvonne White, expressed fear that
“the proposed legislation will lead to a race to the bottom, threatening our high standards in food, environment and animal welfare, thus damaging the image of Scottish produce.”
“These standards are best safeguarded by the Scottish Parliament.”
[Interruption.] I hear someone shouting from a sedentary position, “Don’t let the facts get in the way.” That is a statement from the chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation. It might not suit those on the Tory Benches, but that is the reality.
The Scottish Council for Development and Industry believes that
“mutually agreed common frameworks should be the foundation of the UK internal market, rather than the imposition of a single approach across the UK in devolved policy areas.”
The SCDI is absolutely right. Why is the Joint Ministerial Committee not finishing the work it was engaged on in delivering those frameworks on a consensual basis? But of course that does not suit the Tory Government, who want to attack our democratic institutions.
The General Teaching Council for Scotland said that supporting the Bill
“would undermine the four UK nations’ devolved education functions.”
I hear the Cabinet Office Minister shout, “How?” Perhaps he should go and talk to the General Teaching Council, and it will give him its views directly. [Interruption.] Really? We have the Business Secretary, who is supposed to be taking this Bill through, sitting laughing—laughing at the legitimate comments made by stakeholders in Scotland. It is little wonder that the Tories are rejected in the way they are at the polls in Scotland.
On its impact on devolution, Professor Nicola McEwen, co-director of the Centre on Constitutional Change, found that the internal market Bill
“limits policy divergences and risks stifling innovation”.
The Scottish Trades Union Congress stated that the Prime Minister
“is uniting political parties, trade unions and wider civil society in Scotland against a power grab which would see UK Government interference in previously devolved matters and a rolling back of the”
“settlement we voted for in 1997”.
What is happening is that the Tories are uniting civic Scotland against this attack on our Parliament and its powers—farmers, crofters, teachers, industry, academics and trade unions: a coalition of opposition to this Bill and this Tory agenda. Civic Scotland has made its voices and views crystal clear. Anyone supporting this Bill will be ignoring their interests.
We all have a responsibility to listen to these voices. The new Scottish Tory leadership have been running around half the summer, telling anyone who would listen just how keen they were to stand up to the Prime Minister when they think he is wrong. Well, you have that chance tonight. Listen to the coalition of opposition in Scotland rather than your masters in Downing Street. If the Scottish Tories follow their colleagues into the Lobby in support of this power grab, they will expose themselves as being weaker than ever, as failing to stand up for Scotland’s interest against a London power grab. The very first test of the new Scottish Tory leadership will have turned out to be their biggest, and they will have failed. They will simply have shown themselves to be the Prime Minister’s poodles, turning their back on Scotland’s interests. They will have failed once again to stand up for Scottish democracy.
There is also a special responsibility that falls on the Labour party. Much of the devolution project is a legacy of its Government in 1997. This Bill is a direct attack on that legacy. We must collectively oppose the Bill. I am urging the Labour party at every parliamentary stage to take full responsibility and work collectively with us to hold the Government to account. The Welsh Labour Government are advising the same. They have said that
“the UK Government plans to sacrifice the future of the union by stealing powers from devolved administrations”,
and that it is
“an attack on democracy and an affront to the people of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, who have voted in favour of devolution on numerous occasions.”
That statement and its analysis comes to the very core of the argument. Over the course of the last 21 years of devolution, Scotland’s people have benefited from the progressive and divergent priorities that our own governance has given us the freedom to pursue. They have seen it, experienced it and come to fiercely value it. Even with limited powers, Scotland’s Parliament and our Government have always sought to mitigate or reject the Conservative policy paths set out at Westminster. We have forged our own path. If this legislation had been in force previously, it would have prevented many progressive policies and divergent choices.
Over recent months, that conviction and belief in our Parliament has grown. People have seen the exceptional leadership of our First Minister throughout the course of this terrible pandemic. It has reaffirmed their faith and confidence in our institutions, our governance and our nation. Our people have come to a simple but powerful conclusion: decisions about Scotland are best made in Scotland. Right now, poll after poll—the latest one only last Friday—shows that a growing majority have come to the conclusion that all decisions and all powers should now be fully entrusted to the people of Scotland.
The Tories have never been able to reconcile themselves to that truth. As usual, when they are confronted with change, they are in the depths of denial. Instead of accepting the right of Scottish people to choose their own future, they are trying to grab the powers back that were returned to Scotland 21 years ago. That is exactly what this law is designed to do. It is a full-frontal attack on Scotland’s Parliament and on Scotland’s democracy.
It has been stated that power devolved is power retained. This implies that this Tory Government can do anything they like with the powers of our Parliament. That is what this Bill is about. It gives them direct spending in Scotland in devolved areas: in health, education, housing and transport. Just dwell on this. We send parliamentarians to Holyrood so that they can enact the people’s priorities, but Westminster is about to ride roughshod over that. If the Bill passes, this Government in London can interfere directly in all those devolved areas, over the heads of the Scottish Parliament and our people. There is only one way to stop them—only one answer, and only one option.
The only way to defend Scotland’s Parliament and its powers is by becoming independent. Our Parliament will consider a new referendum Bill before the end of 2021. The chance to choose an independent future is now coming. No amount of Tory denial and disruption can stand in the way of Scotland’s people’s democratic right to choose a different and better future, and once it comes, people will have their democratic say. I am more confident than ever that they will choose to be part of a new Scotland back at the heart of Europe. We can choose to leave behind the chaos and instability of Westminster. We can get on by becoming an independent, international, law-abiding nation.
I will endeavour to prove that the best advocacy can be the most concise.
There is a great deal in the Bill that I support and that is necessary, sensible and desirable. However, there is one important part of the Bill that creates very real difficulty for me and many others, and I want to go straight to the rub of that point. Part 5 of the Bill, as it stands, gives me real concern as to its leading the United Kingdom into a breach of our international obligations and the law that stems from them. That is, as many others have observed, not something that any country should do, save in the most extreme and pressing circumstances.
The difficulty arises in relation particularly to clauses 42, 43 and 45. They are different from the rest of the Bill, because they give very wide-ranging powers indeed to Ministers to disapply elements of the withdrawal agreement and the protocol, which have the force of international law, by regulation. These are measures of a very sweeping kind, involving any kind of legislation and any part of the agreement, not just those related to the protocol, and appearing to oust the jurisdiction of the courts in any respect. I question whether their being so wide can be justified.
My other concern is that the way the clauses are phrased at the moment runs the risk of bringing us into breach of our legal obligations before it is necessary. I heard what the Prime Minister said about an insurance policy, and I heard what the Lord Chancellor has said about a “break the glass in emergency” provision. That is fine, but it seems clear from the protocol that there are steps that must be gone through first and exhausted before that can properly be done. The most important part to bear in mind is that if article 45 is brought into force immediately after Royal Assent, we would at that point have disapplied the concept of the direct effect of European law, which is part of the agreement we signed up to and which this House passed less than a year ago. So bringing it into force on Royal Assent is needlessly provocative to our negotiations and needlessly undermines our reputation for sticking to the rule of law.
There are also provisions that bind us to act to resolve disputes only through the arbitration process, which is set out in the withdrawal agreement. Article 168, which we have signed up to, states that
“the Union and the United Kingdom shall only have recourse to the procedures provided for in this Agreement.”
There are detailed procedures and timelines for that.
It seems to me that we should be very careful about moving forward with bringing these clauses into force until every opportunity to resolve any dispute has been carried out through the arbitral mechanisms. Only then, and if it is necessary because the EU has not responded to a result of the arbitral mechanism—
Does my hon. Friend agree that one thing that should give us some optimism about the use of the mechanisms that he is describing is the specific references to the defence of the Good Friday agreement and of Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom in the protocol and the withdrawal agreement themselves?
My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. That is, I think, the best approach for us to take. We should stick to the letter of those provisions, as that gives proper defence of our strategic interests. For example, there is the safeguard provision in article 16, which would enable us to act if, in extremis, the stability of the situation in Northern Ireland and the Union was threatened, but we could do that while maintaining the moral high ground and our intellectual reputation. I see that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is listening. I hope that he will be able to go further than the Prime Minister, either tonight or in the course of debates on the Bill, and assure us that those provisions will not be brought into effect unless and until every one of the legal mechanisms open to us has been exhausted and unless and until there has been a specific vote of this House—not by a statutory instrument, which does not give enough scrutiny for such a constitutionally significant issue, but by a specific resolution. That is why my amendment seeks to give the Government an opportunity to have that “break the glass in emergency” provision, but without our triggering a breach of the international legal obligations before it is absolutely necessary.
Further to that, does my hon. Friend not agree that, while there will be some who are still on the, shall we say, Blair end of the argument, notwithstanding what he says, that position would be seen by the majority of people as being a reasonable one for us to take in this Act before we enact the nuclear button that is so often talked about? Would that not be reasonable?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, and I do hope that the Government will listen carefully to that. I want to be able to support the Bill. I cannot support it with these clauses in it as they are at the moment. I hope that we will take the opportunity to change and improve these clauses and the way in which they might operate so that we do not fall into a means of damaging our reputation. That is why I cannot support the Bill tonight. I hope that we will see amendments to change what I believe are the egregious, needless and potentially damaging elements of part 5 of the Bill. Unless there are those changes, I will have further difficulty in supporting the Bill. None the less, having listened to what the Prime Minister has said, I want to give the Government that chance in a constructive spirit, and I know that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is listening carefully to that.
I do hope that the Government recognise that to act in a way that unilaterally breaches our international obligations is wholly against the spirit of what this country stands for. It is against the spirit, I think, of the party that he and I have always adhered to as a party of the rule of law, and we need to find a constructive means of making sure that we meet our obligations to the Union, but without undermining our obligations to the rule of law. I do not believe that is impossible with good will.
I have to say, from listening to the Prime Minister and watching the growing dissent on the Government Benches and in the Conservative party, that there is a moral here. The first moral is: read stuff before you sign it. The second moral is: do not go around telling the world that the United Kingdom cannot be trusted to keep its word.
On exit summary declarations—the Prime Minister said there were three issues—I have to say that I have some sympathy with the Government’s argument: exit summary declarations should not be required for goods moving from Northern Ireland to GB. When Wrightbus sells one of its wonderful buses to a transport operator in the UK, why is the form needed and what is the EU going to do with the form? But is it really worth ruining our international reputation, running the risk of no trade deal with the European Union, and running the risk of no trade deal with the United States of America for the sake of an electronic form? On goods at risk, surely it is possible to reach a pragmatic solution, because a lorry load of goods destined for a supermarket in Belfast can hardly be described as being at risk of entering the European Union. I would say to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster that it would be helpful for everybody if he was not quite so secretive—and I use that phrase—about what goes on in the Joint Committee. Every time I have asked in the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union, he has said, “Well, that’s a matter for the Joint Committee.” Well, I know it is a matter for the Joint Committee, but we would like to know, as the House of Commons, how things are going.
On the question of east-west trade, the Government knew from the start that there would be checks and controls, and that tariffs might be paid in certain circumstances. The Prime Minister then cranked up the blockade threat, even though, as the House will be aware, the Irish Foreign Minister has described that threat as “totally bogus”. By the way, I think it would help if the EU just said now, “Of course we’re going to give third-country listing to the United Kingdom.”
If the Prime Minister actually believes the threat of blockade, why did he then say that there is nothing in the Bill to do anything about it? Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, in responding to the debate, give us an assurance that the Government do not intend to bring in another bit of legislation breaching international law? If the Government are looking for a remedy, a safeguard or an insurance policy, they should look to the protocol they have already negotiated, and in his brilliant speech, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) drew attention to article 16. I say to Ministers, use the process to resolve these questions, and do not break international law.
The final point I want to make is that this is a terrible diversion from the task at hand. We have less than four months to go, and the livelihoods of many businesses in this country depend on getting a deal with the European Union. For a long time I thought the Government would get one, but in the last few days I have begun to doubt whether they actually want one, because they seem to be acting in a way that undermines the prospect of an agreement.
I say to the Minister that it would be utterly irresponsible to head towards a lack of agreement that would damage sectors of the British economy. The Prime Minister read out the tariffs that he says would be charged on goods moving from GB to Northern Ireland. Those are exactly the same tariffs that would be charged to businesses in Great Britain if we do not get an agreement with the European Union. It is no good everybody on the Conservative Benches saying, “Isn’t that shocking?” if we end up with no agreement at all, and it would be utterly irresponsible to add to the pain caused by covid. For the Prime Minister to describe tariffs as a good outcome, frankly, leaves me perplexed.
Frankly, both sides should stop posturing, both sides should get back to their job and both sides should now negotiate through all of these questions, compromising as they need to, to get an agreement that, ultimately, would benefit the people of the UK and the EU.
In the limited time that, unfortunately, is available to us, I want to focus on the protection of the UK market and on the enhanced powers that this Bill will give to UK Ministers to act in UK nations. Without this Bill, the way in which businesses trade and interact could be at risk. There is a realistic potential that the marketplace could become chaotic. We all recognise—
If the hon. Member gives me a moment, I will continue the argument and he can make an intervention later if he wishes.
We all recognise the status of the EU single market, which is something many of us will have championed and questioned in equal measure over the years. Rarely have we commented, however, on the UK market, yet the single UK market is more important and directly relevant to the businesses in each and every constituency across the country. It gives us the right to trade freely and seamlessly in all parts of the UK. It sets minimum standards for products and services—a common rulebook for tradespeople to work from. It allows for the mobility and flexibility of labour, protects against unfair subsidies and enables the recognition of qualifications, confirming free and fair competition and opportunity wherever people are based in the United Kingdom. It is so important to our prosperity and so obvious that until now many people will have taken it for granted, which is why we need to act in this Bill.
Over the last six months, we have seen that the agendas of each Administration around the UK are not always in line, and therefore the potential to create chaos in the marketplace exists. Protecting the interests of businesses and consumers in all parts of the country must be our priority, and that is exactly what the Bill does. It does so in a way that also respects and supports devolution by enhancing the devolved Administrations by extending their powers still further.
I am particularly encouraged and grateful that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has included clause 46 in part 6. It is particularly welcome: it enhances the powers of UK Ministers to act and to be relevant in UK nations. That is essential for the future of the Union, and to my mind it is the start of the Union fightback. It shows that Whitehall now understands the changing nature of our make-up as a United Kingdom.
Since devolution, UK Ministers have been prevented from acting directly in support of businesses, charities or authorities in UK nations. UK-scale investment projects have always been difficult to achieve since devolution. Every Secretary of State has been frustrated by that, partly because of the devolved settlement and the limitations that it has put in place. After all, for someone who is unemployed and living in one of the poorest communities, which may have substandard education and limited training opportunities, in a run-down town or village, at this point the UK Government’s answer to calls for help would have to be, “You need to contact your Assembly Member or the Welsh Government Minister.”
I am sorry, but I have been asking for money to make good the problems that we have had with flooding in the Rhondda all this year; I have not had a single penny out of the Westminster Government for it. I have been calling for the work that needs to be done in the Rhondda to take away the 60,000 tonnes of material that has fallen into the river from tips, which are a responsibility of the UK Government, to be funded by the UK Government; I have not seen a penny. I am not going to listen to all this nonsense of pretending that they are going to send us money—it is a whole load of tosh.
The hon. Member has made my point. He recognises that the areas of policy that he is talking about are devolved: the capacity of the UK Government to act in those spaces does not exist, as it stands. He recognises that the devolved settlement already gives Wales, or the Welsh Government, £120 for every £100 spent in England, so the answer that I might suggest is: I am sorry, but the hon. Member will have to contact the Welsh Government Minister to act in his constituency.
When people live in the circumstances that I have described, they do not care where the help comes from; they just want the Government to give hope and opportunity, and to play a part in bringing about change. The Bill allows for exactly that. I have long argued that the future of any nation would come under pressure if a wide wealth gap continued to persist between nations and regions. The Prime Minister’s levelling up agenda recognises that, and this Bill empowers that levelling up agenda in Scotland, in Northern Ireland and in Wales.
The warnings that my party gave about the withdrawal agreement when it was discussed at the end of last year are now coming home to the Government. They are beginning to realise the impact that it had; indeed, they are beginning to admit what their own assessment said: that the withdrawal agreement would reduce trade and business investment in Northern Ireland, affect consumer spending and have a disproportionate impact on small businesses. If the Bill is an attempt to undo some of the damage done by the withdrawal agreement and respond to the points that Arlene Foster and other Ministers have pressed the Government to address, we welcome it. However, I have to say that it does not go the whole way or address all the issues that need to be addressed. Indeed, those who are criticising the Government about the non-implementation of the withdrawal agreement ought to know that only on Friday the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs overrode the Northern Ireland Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister and instructed civil servants in Northern Ireland to put up border posts and put in a proposal for border posts, even though all the information about what would be necessary had not been accepted.
Two arguments have been made against the Bill. The first is that it goes against the Good Friday agreement. For the life of me, I cannot understand why a Bill that prevents businesses in Northern Ireland from being able to sell goods freely in the rest of the UK is going to bring about violence in Northern Ireland. For the life of me, I do not understand why a decision that will enable businesses in Northern Ireland to bring goods from GB without paying unnecessary taxes, which they then have to claim back at some future time, is going to affect peace in Northern Ireland. The argument about the Good Friday agreement and violence in Northern Ireland is always rolled out when the arguments are weak against what the Government are doing.
The second argument is that the Government are reneging on their international obligations. The obligations in the withdrawal agreement are two-sided. There is a requirement for both the EU and the UK Government to act in good faith and with best endeavours to ensure that there is unfettered access and unfettered markets within the UK between Northern Ireland and GB, and to ensure that the Government of the United Kingdom have the ability to rule their own country and to make laws that affect their own country. Even a casual observer would see that the tactics of the EU and the comments that have been made by the negotiators make it quite clear that there has been no good faith and no best endeavours from the EU in these negotiations. In those circumstances, the withdrawal agreement allows the UK Government to act unilaterally.
The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) said that we have obligations to the rule of law and obligations to the EU. What about the obligations to the people of the United Kingdom to ensure the provisions of the Act of Union? The economic basis of the Act of Union makes it quite clear that there shall be no barriers on trade between different parts of the United Kingdom. I believe that the Government are fulfilling, in part, their obligations to the people of Northern Ireland in this Bill, and that is why we will support it tonight.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who served with me on the Brexit Committee in the previous Parliament and had great insight and passion for this cause. He is absolutely right in saying that the Government were warned about the dangers involved in the Irish protocol. Indeed, many members of the Committee pointed that out, but he was foremost among them.
Having listened to the Prime Minister’s cogent analysis of where we are, I can see why we have this Bill before us, because what he really said is that the EU is not complying with its duty under EU law of sincere co-operation, which it still has until the end of December. By not sincerely co-operating, it is forcing the Government to anticipate what ghastly things might happen. They are very wise so to do, because of course the European Union has form in all this. As Charles Moore said in a recent article in The Daily Telegraph:
“The breaking of international law is a sport at which the EU itself often excels.”
I want to remind the House of an episode not referred to in Charles Moore’s article but based on my experience when I was chairman of the Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Members will recall that the European Union agreed under article 6(2) of the treaty of Lisbon that it would accede to the European convention on human rights. Has it done so? No, it has not. It is in breach of international law. It is showing that it does not respect the rule of law. What is its defence? Its defence is its own interpretation of an obscure protocol attached to the Lisbon treaty—protocol No. 8. The European Union’s interpretation is not the interpretation that normal people would put on those words, but it got the support of the European Court of Justice—its own tame Court of Justice—to say that it would be incompatible with the European treaties for the European Union to accede to the European convention on human rights, which it had already decided to do during a prolonged negotiation in the preparation for the treaty.
Where are we now? We are in a situation where the Council of Europe’s parliamentary committee, the Council of Europe itself, and the European Parliament are trying to negotiate a way round this issue. In so doing, they are trying to exercise common sense and good will, because they recognise that the EU argument is essentially one of sovereignty. The EU is saying, “We do not want to subordinate our sovereignty to the European convention on human rights.” The argument in the Bill is that if the EU carries out all its threats, it will destroy the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom and deprive us of the opportunity to administer for the whole United Kingdom with internal trade arrangements. If one is sympathetic to the idea that we should negotiate things with common sense and good will, that applies to the EU accession to the European convention on human rights, as well as to where we go from here to ensure that we get the full Brexit for which the people voted.
The focus of today’s debate ought to have been on the functioning of the internal market, and the legitimate role that the devolved Administrations play in our Union. That is what business needs from us today. Instead, we are having to call out this ludicrous suggestion from the Government that the only way to secure a Brexit deal, which we were told was oven-ready, is to breach international law and damage Britain’s standing in the world. We are told that that is okay because it is merely an insurance policy, but we all know that if the current Bill is passed, we will already have breached our legal obligations and caused damage to our standing and reputation in the world, irrespective of whether or not those powers are used.
When summing up the debate, perhaps the Minister can tell the House why, if those protections are so important, they were not negotiated in the first place and included in the withdrawal agreement, before the Prime Minister signed it. This behaviour does us no favours in our negotiations with the European Union, or with any other country around the world, and such facts mean that we must instead conclude that the Government are merely playing politics with British jobs and British business.
Just as in negotiations to update the North American Free Trade Agreement, where President Trump threatened to walk away without a deal unless he got what he wanted, it seems the Prime Minister has adopted a similar strategy. In playing such a reckless game in these negotiations, we risk failing to secure a trade agreement not only with the EU but with the US, where as we have heard, the Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, has said that Congress would not pass any trade agreement that undermines the Good Friday Agreement, and rightly so.
I am at a loss to understand what the Government are seeking to achieve by acting so irresponsibly. Today we are left merely with the opportunity to appeal to the consciences of Members of the House about the constitutional importance that Parliament plays in such a situation. It is this Parliament that is sovereign, not the Government, and that places a personal obligation on each and every one of us, which we sign up to when we take our parliamentary oath. We are the check and balance on an irresponsible Executive.
Such disregard for the rule of law by the Government is perhaps not surprising in context of their disregard for the institutions of our country, from the courts to the civil service, and indeed this Parliament. This is but an obvious extension to this Prime Minister’s approach to governing, and as a member of the Opposition, I gently say, with the greatest of respect, that such reckless disregard for our institutions, for what it means to be British, for how we expect Britain to be governed, and for our aspirations for Britain’s role in the world, is also not very Conservative.
We have already heard the verdict of three Conservative Prime Ministers. Can Members imagine for one second what Mrs Thatcher would say from that Dispatch Box in these circumstances? [Interruption.] I assure hon. Members that Mrs Thatcher would not have agreed to breaching international obligations and the rule of law, because of the way that it weakens our standing in the world and our negotiations with the European Union. Conservative Members may wish to look to the Republican party to see where that goes if we fail to stand up to it.
On the substance of the Bill, on the constitutional obligations on us all, which we should take seriously and not with humour, in the national interest and—dare I say it—in the interests of Conservative Members regarding their own party’s standing, I hope that they will join Opposition Members in voting down the Bill this evening.
I welcome the Bill as a reasonable and essential step for our Government to take in the light of the EU’s unreasonable position. It has become crystal clear, ever since our country voted to leave, that the EU would not act in a constructive spirit and would not treat the UK as an independent country with equal basis in the negotiations, as it has with other countries such as Canada. Despite this country’s decision to say no to the project of ever closer integration, which was reinforced by last year’s general election result, Brussels has continually attempted to trap us in its orbit. The British people will never accept the status of a vassal state, despite the arrogant efforts of Mr Barnier—just look at his Twitter feed as evidence.
The Bill is a reasonable step for any Government to take to maintain their sovereignty. It upholds the principle of article 4 of the Northern Ireland protocol and without it, trade across the Union of nations would be severely limited. In the light of the EU’s continued resistance to a mutually beneficial free trade agreement, no deal will be our only available option. The Bill makes provision for that. Otherwise, Northern Ireland would remain subject to the EU’s customs laws and large portions of its internal market laws, all enforced by the EU’s Court of Justice.
The hon. Lady has put her finger right on the issue that affects Northern Ireland: under the protocol, Northern Ireland goods will be subject to import declarations, entry summary declarations, safety and security certificates, export health certificates, phytosanitary certificates and certificates of origin. The Bill, thankfully at last, clears up that we will have a Union without paperwork.
I thank the hon. Gentleman—a true patriot, putting our country’s interest above the EU’s.
EU rules on state aid would allow the EU to impose its state aid regime on any UK domestic policy. That is not reasonable. We chose to say no to further integration in 2016. Four years on, our friends in Brussels have not understood that. While we are happy to trade freely with them, we do not want to be ruled by the ECJ, we want our fishermen to have full access to our waters, and we do not want our future to still be determined by unelected EU bureaucrats.
The Bill is reasonable in solving those problems and it is essential in upholding the international obligation of the Good Friday agreement. It is essential that great effort is made to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the mainland of Britain. We have seen time and again the naked political considerations—most of the EU’s desire is to see our country fail. That is hardly an example of negotiating in good faith, and it is that that has determined and dictated the EU’s negotiating position. The Government had no option but to introduce this Bill.
In a “specific and limited way” is how the Prime Minister uses the words integrity and good faith. When the Bill was launched, an establishment newspaper in Scotland called it a day of national shame and infamy. It was right. With malice aforethought, the UK Government are breaking international law and breaking devolution. We reject the Bill and will never support legislation that breaks international law.
The Bill clearly threatens food and environmental standards, and opens up a race to the bottom in all aspects of life in Scotland, from the water we drink to education and health. It leaves our businesses uncertain and wary. It is no wonder that in Scotland, poll after poll shows that it is now the majority view that independence is not only the way to ensure the needs of the people of Scotland are delivered, but the only way to protect the Scottish Parliament. The Bill is emblematic of a Government with no regard for, or will to work with, devolution. It is a bare-faced power grab. The Scottish Tory leader has boasted that he will vote for the Bill tonight. In his other job, he runs the line; in this job, he crosses the line.
Clause 46 completely undermines the devolution settlement by stripping spending powers away undemocratically from the Scottish Parliament, jeopardising the current Barnett funding levels. We know only too well, as was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), the consequences of allowing Tory Governments control of our spending, from when the highlands lost out to shore up votes in the south of England.
Is it not a fact that over a 10-year period the Scottish block grant has been cut by the Conservative Government, and these measures give free rein for the UK Government to make further cuts to the Scottish block grant and to impose their spending in Scotland, such as through this stupid Boris Brexit that nobody wants?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. The people of Scotland are wise to these tricks and can see the utter contempt that this Tory Government have for their needs. Their Parliament will once again be ignored, in spite of that Parliament voting 92 to 31 against the White Paper for this Bill. The response of this Tory Government is as self-defeating as it is petty and harmful. Do not take my word for it. As the House has heard, the National Farmers Union, the General Teaching Council for Scotland, the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, the STUC, the Welsh Government and even the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee have all agreed that this is a power grab.
The threat to environmental standards is palpable. Clauses 2 to 9 contain sweeping powers to compel Scotland to accept lower standards set elsewhere in the UK on animal welfare, food safety protections and a host of other elements with a direct impact on people’s lives. When directly challenged only yesterday, a UK Government Minister refused to rule out that we will have to accept chlorinated chicken in our shops. Imported hormone-injected beef can and will undercut our farmers and their quality production. Building control standards will be affected. Private companies will be able to trade unhindered to weaken and undermine our NHS and publicly owned water company—lowering standards, raising prices and undermining health.
This Tory Government are determined to break international law. This is proof to all looking on that they will break any boundary, concerned only with their own dogma. They do not want to work with others; they are not interested. Any real co-operation and consultation is anathema to them. They are a Government petulantly demanding compliance. Any deal, understanding, commitment, promise or even legally binding treaty is disposable. The common good is of no concern, especially when it gets in the way. Trust, honour and obligation are now words to trade on and be sneered at. What other inconvenient laws are next? Where does this stop?
Finally, what is the Government’s answer to the concerns of the Scottish people, businesses and communities to the poll after poll after poll showing that independence is now the majority view—not more powers or any attempt at understanding, but a pre-meditated move to put devolution to the sword? Madam Deputy Speaker, you bet we will be voting against this affront to Scotland and democracy tonight.
I cannot go all the way with the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), I am afraid, and I do think his remarks were well over the top.
It is important that we have measures in place to run the UK internal market so I support that aspect of the Bill. However, I do have concerns about part 5, because for our country to break its word and breach international law is just not something that we do. I will speak a bit further about that if I have time, but let me just say that I was surprised to see the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland justify this with the alleged precedent of the general anti-abuse rule set out in the Finance Act 2013. I was a Law Officer at the time and Dominic Grieve was Attorney General, and one thing I can say about Dominic Grieve is that he was very correct and extremely painstaking, and he made sure that Government legislation did not offend the rule of law. That Act did not breach Britain’s treaty obligations. That was made clear by Ministers at the time and I cannot recall anyone arguing that it did. It had the support of the OECD and the countries with which Britain had tax treaties. It was written after a review led by our leading tax QC Graham Aaronson to ensure that it was focused properly and was in line with our tax treaties. There was full consultation. Since it was passed, it has not been attacked as being in breach of treaty obligations, and the wording of that Act simply confirms the agreed legal situation. In fact, if it is an example of anything, it is an example of reaching agreement and doing things properly.
Britain stands as a rule of law country that is respected across the world for its stance. It is right that all three Prime Ministers I served under have come out with grave concerns about this Bill and the point I am concerned about. Margaret Thatcher herself—she was a barrister—made clear how important the point is, often saying that democracy is not enough without a love of liberty and respect for the rule of law. I am therefore hoping that the discussions going on at the moment can be successful. I am pressing the Government and the EU, as much as I can, saying, “Come on, let’s get an agreement”, because breaking international law would be the last thing we want to do.
I support the amendment tabled by the Chairman of the Justice Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), which says that if we come to the point where the negotiations have failed, all is lost and this country really must contemplate breaking international law, then so be it, but that day is not today and we should give the negotiations more time.
I have known my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) for many years. He laughed a little when I was talking about international law. I can remember him telling me once that we should leave the EU without any agreement at all. I do not know if he remembers that. He said we should ignore having any agreement, just repudiate everything and off we go. Personally, that is not my approach.
I have been a Member of this House for a good many years, but this is the worst piece of draft legislation that I have ever seen brought before us. It is a shabby and dishonourable piece of legislation, and I say that for two fundamental reasons.
My first objection to the Bill is that, if enacted, Ministers would have the ability to break international law, and the law would prevent there being a legal challenge to the use of those powers. Much of the debate so far has rightly focused on Northern Ireland, and I take seriously the potential threat to the Good Friday agreement but, importantly, the Bill also has far-reaching implications for all international obligations in this context. Those are not my words or those of the Opposition but the considered, objective and carefully expressed view of the House of Commons Library.
My second concern is that the Bill significantly undermines the devolution settlement for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in two important respects. First, the Bill states that the devolved nations will have to allow the sale of imported goods in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as agreed by the UK Government when they act solely for England, even if those imported goods did not meet quality standards, consumer protection levels or appropriate labelling agreed by the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Parliament or the Northern Ireland Assembly. Of course, there should be agreement whenever possible—that should apply right across the UK—but there is a very real danger of standards falling as the UK Government cobble together trade deals. The Bill facilitates that.
My second devolution objection relates to funding and state aid. When Britain was in the European Union, less well-off areas, such as south Wales, benefited substantially from EU structural funds, the European regional development fund and the social fund in particular. My constituency, like many others, benefited enormously. The Government have proposed a shared prosperity fund to replace the structural funds. The Bill gives a legal base for that fund, but significantly, the Bill gives exclusive power to the UK Parliament and the UK Government to decide where and how that money is spent. Previously, the devolved institutions had a real say in how European money was spent in their areas. What I think will happen is that resources will not go to poor areas—the areas of need—but will be allocated according to Tory central Government priorities. That is structurally and morally wrong.
Is the hon. Gentleman fully aware of the frustration among communities in Wales that so much money has been wasted over so many years of the highest level of European funds? That could be the funicular in Blaenau Gwent, which broke down within weeks of being completed and was never used again, or so many other projects elsewhere that I could highlight.
What I am aware of is that many communities across Wales are fed up of Tory cuts. Despite the difficulties that many areas have experienced because of central Government policy, they have seen the European Union offer some help, and the concern is that that help will now not be coming from a Tory Government. The help will go to areas that are already well off, which is morally and economically wrong.
That is why I conclude that this Bill is one of the worst pieces of draft legislation ever to be put before the House. It enshrines the possibility of illegality. It objects to international law as it is widely applicable. It rides roughshod over the devolution settlements. It opens the door for resources to be given to well-off areas, rather than being allocated on the basis of demonstrable need. It also undermines the international standing of this country in the eyes of the world.
All through the Brexit debates and the referendum campaign, we were constantly reminded that we should do nothing at all to damage Northern Ireland, and particularly the economy in Northern Ireland. I entirely agree with that advice, but as soon as the Government try to do something to protect Northern Ireland and the economy of Northern Ireland, we are told that we are wrong.
It has been interesting to listen to the speeches tonight. Members have quite rightly warned that we should not implement the Bill’s provisions before it is absolutely necessary. The logic of that argument is that they accept that it might, under certain circumstances, be necessary. Indeed, if one reads beyond the headlines of what was said by David Cameron, who has been quoted tonight, he goes on to say that these provisions should only be used as a last resort, therefore accepting that they may have to be used. I entirely agree with that—they should only be used as a last resort, and the Prime Minister was clear that that would be the case.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. He was a wonderful Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, and he actually gets the situation in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that what really perturbs us about the opposition to the Bill tonight is people saying that it will somehow attack peace when what it does is remove the impediments to economic progress? It is through economic progress that we have created more jobs in Northern Ireland and helped to create peace in Northern Ireland.
My hon. Friend is wrong—or perhaps premature; I am not quite sure—to elevate me to the Privy Council, but he makes a very good point and leads me on to my next point.
Although north-south trade is extremely important to Northern Ireland and, indeed, to the Republic, east-west trade is far more important for both Northern Ireland and the Republic. That is not to say that the other is not important, of course. We should therefore do nothing to damage that trade.
The right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) referred to the Act of Union. He did not have time to go into detail, but article sixth of the Act of Union 1800—the very Act that created this United Kingdom—states that
“in all treaties”
made by “his Majesty” as it was then, his heirs and successors,
“with foreign powers the subjects of Ireland shall have the same privileges as British subjects.”
It goes on to refer to manufacturing, trade and navigation. That Act should not be breached. It may or may not have the legal status—whatever that is—of a treaty, but surely it is an international Act of Parliament, which brought two sovereign nations together. That should be respected.
Article 184 of the 2019 withdrawal agreement should be respected when it talks about the need for both sides to operate
“in good faith and in full respect of their respective legal orders”.
In other words, the United Kingdom’s legal order should be respected. Clause 38 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 asserts that
“the Parliament of the United Kingdom is sovereign.”
It is wrong for people to say that Ministers will run off with powers and act illegally—they would be given the powers by this Parliament if we pass the Bill. Ministers are therefore not running off and acting illegally at all. It is important that we deliver the Brexit that people voted for. I do not want a spat with the European Union and I have no reason to believe that it will behave so unreasonably as to deny all EU manufacturers and businesses—the people who send more than £90 billion of exports to this country, which is more than we send to them—trading opportunities.
I want a free trade agreement with the European Union because that would benefit businesses and people on the continent and in this country. It would also remove all the arguments that we are having tonight about the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol, so I really do hope that we can make progress. That is the way forward. If there is bad faith, and if we are put to the test of deciding whether we support the United Kingdom or the European Union, then I remember the oaths that I have given on seven separate occasions in this House, and my loyalty will be to the United Kingdom.
“I believe that these arrangements are in the interests of Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole. It is a great deal for our whole country.”—[Official Report, 20 December 2019; Vol. 669, c. 149.]
Not my words, but those of the Prime Minister. How can anybody trust the word of the Prime Minister when he does a deal not even a year ago and he comments on it in those terms, but now he is ripping up that agreement only a few months after he made it? How can any of us believe a word that comes out of his mouth? Last month, we lost Ireland’s greatest son, John Hume, the pathfinder for our peace, the creator of the Good Friday agreement. He understood what that agreement was about. We have been told by Ministers in this House and on the airwaves that we need this Bill to protect the Good Friday agreement. Two key principles of that agreement are that there will be no hard border in Ireland and that local people will make local decisions for local communities. This Bill rips up both those principles.
This is not just about trade. It is much more fundamental than that. We are not going backwards, despite what the Government or anybody else in this House will try to drag us back. We are refusing to go back to a place that caused so much hurt and so much pain, despite what anybody says. This Government knows nothing about the Good Friday agreement. Some prominent Members in this House opposed that very agreement. They have risked nothing for peace. They have not had to live with the violence, intimidation and division. John Hume spilled his sweat so that nobody else would have to spill their blood. This Government know nothing of that.
Of course, the DUP tonight are talking about the Good Friday agreement and interpreting it for us. They were standing outside the gates of Stormont when it was being negotiated, shouting and holding placards. How did that all work out?
The protocol is there to protect us from a hard border. That is why it is there. Without that protocol, the only thing we are being offered to protect us is the word of a man whose word can clearly not be trusted. Openly admitting that he is going to break international law by being prepared to break a deal that he just did with the European Union has consequences. People in this House need to remember that Ireland has very good friends in the United States. I want to thank former Vice-President Joe Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Congressman Richie Neal and Congressman Brendan Boyle for all that they have done to support our peace process and for all that they have said this week. They have been very clear: there will be no trade deal with the United States if this Government do violence to the Good Friday agreement or this protocol—no trade deal at all. It is not me saying that; it is the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, the Speaker of the House of Congress and, potentially, the next President of the United States. That is the reality that we are risking with this Bill.
This may all turn out to be a dead cat, but let me tell the Government very clearly that every single day more and more people—people we would not even expect—are saying to me that this Union is very close to becoming a dead duck.
The Prime Minister has warned us that a threat has been made to interpret the agreement in such a way as to exclude the possibility of the people of Northern Ireland having access to goods from the rest of the United Kingdom—a threat that clearly shows that those who have made it have abandoned any notion of their binding obligation to negotiate in good faith and make best endeavours to secure an agreement. The Government would be utterly negligent if they were not to take precautions to prevent that from arising; it would be outrageous.
The Chairman of the Justice Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), has said that the powers that the Government envisage arming themselves with should be used in only the most extreme circumstances. I put it to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that breaking up the economic integrity of the United Kingdom is just such a circumstance. This Bill is a precaution. It is a deterrent. The best way to prevent ourselves from being in the position of needing these powers is to arm ourselves with them.
There is a principle in international law, which is that no country can be bound by an obligation that it made when that obligation is interpreted in such a way as to undermine the very integrity of that country. That is a principle of international law, and there is only one court that can arbitrate in those circumstances. That is the court of international opinion, and the world can see exactly what is going on. The world has had its own dealings with the European Union and its negotiations. It has seen its infractions of the World Trade Organisation. It has seen what it has done over the European convention on human rights, and it knows what is going on.
There are those who have said that there is somehow a comparison to be made between the powers that we envisage in this Bill and what China is doing in Hong Kong. That is such a grotesque comparison as to undermine any argument that they might have.
I never thought I would ever see a piece of legislation this objectionable put before the House. It is a gigantic act of self-harm masquerading as a negotiating strategy in the EU-UK trade talks, as the flounder and the end of the transition period looms. It unilaterally repudiates the devyolution settlements and centralises power to the UK Government.
As currently drafted, this Bill will give Ministers the powers to disapply or unilaterally reinterpret parts of the Northern Ireland protocol and ignore their legal obligations in both domestic and international law to enact the protocol as it was negotiated. It asserts that these powers will be legally effective even though they break international law, thereby unilaterally repudiating the foundations of the withdrawal agreement, which was only enacted by the House earlier this year. The Bill orders the domestic courts to prioritise this new law over any existing international law we have signed up to and it attempts to preclude any prospect of judicial review.
It has already been admitted on the Floor of the House by a Cabinet Minister that the Bill breaks international law in a very “specific and limited way”. The reality is that this is a shocking repudiation of everything the UK holds dear. It threatens to destroy our hard-won reputation as an upholder of international law and as a country that can be trusted to keep its word. Once lost, that reputation will not be easy to regain. This is not only morally wrong—it is self-defeating and undermines the prospect of reaching a deal at all. It is a sign of just how dangerous the Government’s actions now are that all five living ex-Prime Ministers, both Labour and Conservative, have made public their opposition to this reckless course of action, as have the Brexiteer ex-leaders of the Conservative party, Lords Hague and Howard.
This morning, the Prime Minister’s first Lord Chancellor called the Bill “unconscionable” and revealed that he will not vote for it. Many legal experts argue that both the current Lord Chancellor and the Attorney General are in breach of their oaths of office and should resign. Last week, the head of the Government legal service did resign over the Bill because it breaks international law. Given that we have an unwritten constitution which relies on ministerial restraint and responsibility, the Bill is even more dangerous than it first appears. It unilaterally tears up treaty obligations made just months ago and makes it less likely that any of our future undertakings will be believed or trusted, just as we must renegotiate all our existing trading agreements with the rest of the world.
What are we to make of a Prime Minister who presides over this moral vacuum and this reckless gamble with our international reputation; the man who resigned over his predecessor’s deal, which had no Irish border, pronouncing it a betrayal and using it as his path to power in the Conservative party; the man who, nine short months ago, negotiated and signed the withdrawal agreement, declaring it “fantastic”, and expelled from the Conservative party and Parliament all his own MPs who did not back it; the man who went to the country with this “oven-ready” Brexit deal and won a huge majority; the man who now believes it was rushed and flawed, and must be unilaterally written by him and him alone, the world king acting like a two-year-old having a tantrum because he did not get all he wanted; a Prime Minister who is completely careless of the consequences of his own actions; and the leader of a Government who think they can do what they want, purge who they want and act how they want, a Government who think there is one law for them and another for everyone else, repudiating treaties they have just signed and ignoring the lockdown rules they impose on everyone else?
This will not end well. The Government must step back from the brink, withdraw the lawbreaking clauses in the Bill, and think again.
Rarely can a few words uttered from the Government Dispatch Box have overshadowed a debate like this to such an extent or indeed caused so much instant fury and indignation, but I do not think the House should be in any doubt that the author of those words will have been delighted by the reaction they caused, and that the real purpose and significance of those words will probably prove to be much less than that. The law of this land and international law are both of great importance. I will leave that to the lawyers. The underlying question for the House to address is about where this nation now finds itself.
I support the Bill, because it will be necessary to address at least the worst aspects of the withdrawal agreement and protocol. We cannot be bound by it indefinitely or continue to accept laws imposed on our country by the EU court. At least there was a means of leaving the EU, but there is no obvious means of leaving this withdrawal agreement.
Much has been said about the potential to lose the respect of the international community, but what will other nations think if this great and sovereign nation cannot bring itself to accept that we made a mistake ratifying this agreement? [Interruption.] Some of us warned about it at the time. But the key points are these: the UK will gain respect if we extricate ourselves from the worst aspects of this agreement, which have the capacity to impose laws on our country with even less democratic legitimacy than under our previous membership of the EU.
I do not think it is a matter to be done casually and without very great care, but, as many right hon. and hon. Members, even those objecting to this Bill, are now saying, if the worst comes to the worst, we may have to avail ourselves of these powers, because it is the obligation of this House, first and foremost, to stick up for our national interests.
The EU says it will act against the UK through the European Court, but there is something absurd about the EU attempting to impose its laws on a member state after it has left the bloc—when did the voters endorse that? There is something ironic, even bizarre, about MPs in this Parliament demanding that the EU should continue to impose its laws instead of themselves wanting to make the laws for their constituents—they still do not accept Brexit. One wonders whether the Government recognise better than many here how most voters will react to this. Most of those shouting the loudest now showed how little they understood the voters in the 2016 referendum. Voters will support a Government who are determined to resist the unreasonable enforcement of the withdrawal agreement by the EU. Today, the Government have a strong mandate and a secure Commons majority for taking back control of our laws—voters will expect no less than that and they will give little quarter to this Parliament if they are let down again.
We are in a process of constitutional transition, from being subordinated by the EU legal order towards the restoration of full independence. While we are in this penumbra period of mixed constitutional supremacies, it is unsurprising that this kind of controversy should arise. Our other allies and trading partners will have far more respect for the UK if we stand up for our interests in this way than they will if they watch us accepting that we are to remain indefinitely a non-member subsidiary of the EU. The Government must ensure that there will be a clear end to the jurisdiction of the EU Court; that is the test of whether we are taking back control of our own laws, and our democracy demands it.
What a self-made mess this Government find themselves in, and it was beautifully articulated by the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin). For three long years this Government struggled to get their withdrawal agreement through this place. So much time was spent on it that I doubt that there was a dot or comma of that agreement that was not known to the Government. In January, they signed a legally binding international treaty. The Prime Minister signed it and described it then as a “negotiating triumph”. Not only was it a negotiating triumph, but, as he told the electorate in December, it was “oven-ready” and good to go. He told the electorate, “Vote for me and I will get Brexit done”, and for reasons that I will never fathom, the people of England did. So in December, flushed with a huge majority, he led every single Tory MP through the Lobby to support his deal. However, the Government now want unilaterally to move the goalposts and renege on what they signed up to at the start of the year. In so doing, they are wilfully prepared to break international law, take the UK’s already diminished reputation further into the gutter and take a wrecking ball to the devolution settlement. Even for this Government that is quite an achievement.
Are Ministers asking us to believe that, despite three years of intense negotiation, they did not actually understand what they were voting for, and that they did not understand what their confidence and supply partners from the Democratic Unionist party were saying about differential arrangements between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK? Are we to believe that they were unable to grasp the implications of their own Northern Ireland protocol—the one they designed with the EU to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland? It is not credible because it is not true.
My hon. Friend makes a fine point: it is not credible and there has been bluff after bluff. Is it not the case that when the warnings were pointed out, Ministers stood at that Dispatch Box and said, “Don’t worry, we have a magic solution There won’t be any cameras or infrastructure at the border; technology will solve it all.”? We have technology that can control the movement of people and goods and deal with different customs arrangements”? Yet another bluff from an incompetent Government.
My hon. Friend hits the nail squarely on the head. That is absolutely true. They knew exactly what they were signing up to and exactly what they were voting on—a fact acknowledged by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster himself, who said in April that the deal ensures that we can leave the EU, and it is “entirely consistent” with the Belfast agreement and all our other domestic and international obligations.
So, how did we get from the agreement being a negotiating triumph in January, and being entirely consistent with domestic and international obligations in April, to today, with a Government boasting that they will knowingly breach international law if they do not get their own way? I believe that, in short, it is because those at the heart of this Government have decided, in true Trumpian fashion, that the UK will no longer play by the rules. They have cynically done their sums and reckon they have the numbers to push this legislation through. It is the behaviour of a Government who have lost their moral compass—a Government who have been reduced to using the Good Friday agreement as a bargaining chip.
It is little wonder that the United Kingdom is fast becoming regarded as a bad-faith actor among the international community, where adherence to international law and the obligations that come with it are what sets us apart from rogue states and dictatorships. The irony of all this is that it emerged against the backdrop of the faux outrage about the last night of the proms and whether it was appropriate to play “Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!”; we know it is a case of Britannia waives the rules. It is not just now; it was ever thus. Ask the Irish and the people of India. Go to large swaths of Africa. Go anywhere that is still recovering from the wreckage of British colonialism and the people there will give chapter and verse about Britannia bending, breaking, inventing and waiving the rules all day long to suit its own ends. The world had hoped and probably half expected that those days were gone; sadly, they clearly are not.
For Scotland, it does not have to be this way: we have an escape route available to us—an escape route with independence that will take us back to the family of nations of the European Union, as a law-abiding European country on an equal footing with every other independent country. It is little wonder that opinion poll after opinion poll has shown a majority for independence. I confidently predict that tonight’s shenanigans will bring that independence closer and Scotland will become an equal member of the European Union, because that is the fast-approaching settled will of the Scottish people.
Just like the overwhelming majority of Members, I was returned to this House on the promise of getting Brexit done. I am an ardent supporter of Brexit and look forward eagerly to the opportunity to bolster the United Kingdom’s position by becoming an independent, self-governing nation, possessed of the confidence that flows from our vision and principled values.
Although I stand four-square behind the Government’s policies and objectives, including those advanced by the Bill, I cannot vote for legislation that a Cabinet Minister stated from the Dispatch Box will break international law. Before I was returned to this House, I spent many years in distant, sometimes dangerous places on behalf of our country, our closest friend, the United States, NATO and the UN, where I was committed to upholding the international rules-based system, which is the only shield we have against the law of the jungle. The rules-based system is, of course, one that the United Kingdom was proud to play a central role in building.
I have every sympathy with Her Majesty’s Government and place the responsibility for the impending denouement firmly with the EU, as it haughtily refuses to deal with the UK as a sovereign equal, like our sibling Canada. The Northern Ireland protocol was agreed on the assumption that Brussels would provide an off-the-shelf trade deal with no bells and whistles, as Monsieur Barnier himself offered. That would have involved no more than a light-touch border between Britain and Ulster. The EU has moved the goalposts. The prospect of a no-deal rupture and intra-UK trade tariffs has constitutional implications for the United Kingdom, creating a much harder trade border in the Irish sea than Unionists supposed. It therefore intrudes ineluctably on the Belfast agreement.
I appreciate the points that the hon. Gentleman is making; they are important to the debate. Is he appalled by the suggestion that was made tonight from the Opposition Benches that we would invoke America to stop doing a trade deal with the United Kingdom just because of this? Is he appalled that someone in this Parliament would invoke America to do that? Is he appalled that someone would do it just to save little bits of paper between Northern Ireland and GB when doing trade? Is he not appalled by that? Because I am.
I am mildly surprised. I worked for some time for the Pentagon and the State Department, and I know the Americans very well. Like the United Kingdom, it is a nation built upon laws and it has representatives. The Americans know their national interest exceptionally well, and of course it is in the American national interest to have an expansive and ambitious free trade agreement with the United Kingdom, given our size and wealth.
It is not only certain Members of this House who make peculiar statements. I have no sympathy with the hysterical, hypocritical and hyperbolic statements from the EU, declaring that the UK uniquely will be in breach of its international commitments. Half the countries of the EU are in breach of their various treaty obligations. Germany and France both choose to deliberately breach their EU treaty commitments relating to budget deficit limits, and others are famous for being selective in deciding which rules to follow. However, the UK has always held itself to a higher standard. Our principles of fair play and freedom, underpinned by the rule of law, are who we are. They are part of our DNA, and must be protected. Our position of global leadership and permanent membership of the Security Council is derived not from being a victorious power but from our moral authority. Moral authority is hard earned and easily lost. Once damaged, it is difficult to repair.
Having consulted highly respected experts in international law, some of us have concluded that if the EU, in breach of its obligations to act in good faith and with best endeavours, were to employ the withdrawal agreement as a Trojan horse, this Bill, if enacted and employed, would not necessarily constitute a breach of our commitments, under either UK or international law. Rather, the Bill would then serve as a protection against the abuse of our good nature and a reminder to the Commission of its obligations.
There have also been other legal opinions sought, one of which was from Martin Howe QC. He refers to the alteration of the “constitutional status” of Northern Ireland that across-the-board tariffs on GB-to-Northern Ireland exports would entail, saying that this would be a breach of the core principle of the Good Friday agreement. He goes on to say:
“International law does not justify a later treaty to which these community representatives are not parties being used to over-ride the rights they enjoy under the earlier treaty”.
That is another legal opinion, and it might be very different from those sought by the hon. Gentleman.
My great problem with the Government’s position is the predicament in which they have placed people who share my view—I think the hon. Gentleman probably shares it too—because that view has been undermined, I am sad to say, by the assertion of a Government Minister that the Bill would represent a specific and limited breach of international law.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government have been put in this situation only because the EU has not been playing with a straight bat? If the European Union played this straight and treated us as equals, we would not been in this situation. In fact, the fault for all this lies with the European Union for not treating us fairly.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend in as much as the EU has not been playing with a straight bat, but I find it difficult to understand the statement, the motivation behind it or, indeed, the credibility of the comment, because I simply reject the notion that we would be in breach of our international obligations.
We have been placed in a predicament because of that statement that the Bill would represent a “specific and limited” breach of international law. Only if my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, in his response to the debate, can provide assurances to the House that Her Majesty’s Government share my interpretation—our interpretation—that such powers, if enacted and employed, would not automatically constitute a breach of our legal obligations will I support the Bill.
If any of my constituents are watching this afternoon, I think they will be wondering what on earth is going on. “Why,” they will ask, “are MPs banging on about Brexit again? Isn’t that what the general election last December was meant to end? Didn’t we leave the EU in January? Wasn’t there meant to be an oven-ready deal?” They will ask, “Is this really what you should be focused on today?”
Right now, some of those constituents will be sitting at home feeling ill, anxious that they might have coronavirus but unable to get a test. Or they will be trying to work from home while looking after their son or daughter, who cannot go to school because they have a cold—or maybe it is coronavirus, but they do not now because they cannot get a test. Or perhaps they are on furlough because the business they work for has not yet fully reopened, or has not got everyone back yet, and they are anxious about whether they will have a job when the coronavirus job retention scheme ends next month.
People who work for one of our east midlands manufacturing businesses will be especially worried about the Prime Minister’s bluff and bluster earlier today; they, more than anybody else, require us to secure a deal, because their jobs depend on it. All those people will be asking why we are arguing about Brexit again when the top priority should be tackling the pandemic that threatens lives and tackling the resulting economic crisis that threatens their livelihoods.
Agreeing a trade deal with the EU is vital, but the Government need to get on with it rather than making it more difficult with the sort of posturing that we have heard today. The protocol contains a mechanism for dealing with disputes. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster himself said that
“the effective working of the protocol is a matter for the Joint Committee to resolve.”
Surely they need to get back round the negotiating table, stop posturing and reach an agreement on how the protocol should operate.
I am sorry that it is really politically inconvenient for Brexit to come back to this Chamber because it reminds people that it was the Labour party that turned its back on the verdict of the British people three or four years ago, but surely it is not surprising: when the transition period is about to come to an end, these debates will come back to the House. Does the hon. Lady not agree with me that it is good that we finally have a Prime Minister who is fighting for British interests?
I think my constituents will expect a little bit better than that. They will expect the Government to get on with the job that they promised to do. The Government said they were going to deliver a Brexit deal, they said they had it ready, and my constituents do not expect them now to say that they made a mistake—that somehow it was not what they expected.
At the heart of it, is not the issue that this whole thing comes across as a giant piece of bluff and bluster by a failing Prime Minister? As my hon. Friend rightly hints at, this is a means to distract the public from other immediate pressures. To make matters worse, it damages our reputation in the eyes of the world at a time, as Members have correctly pointed out, when we need to seek a trade agreement not only with the EU but with a number of other countries.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The timing is very interesting. We are at a point when many people are looking at the Government and are extremely worried about their incompetence and the way they are dealing with the current health crisis. With today’s debate and the Prime Minister’s position, well, people will wonder what is going on.
People will be baffled because every time they have listened to the news, watched politics on TV or opened a paper in recent days, they will have seen a senior Conservative MP, or a former Tory Attorney General, Prime Minister or Chancellor of the Exchequer, expressing grave concerns about the content of this Bill. Those concerns are not just from those who might be called “the usual suspects”—those who were remainers—because this is not about whether we leave the European Union. We have left. That argument is over. Their concern is that the Bill deliberately breaks international law, will prevent us from completing a deal with the EU in the very short time available to do so, and will have much wider ramifications for the future of our country. They are risking the UK’s reputation across the globe.
Many hon. Members have already asked how other countries, with whom we want and need to make trade deals, will trust a Prime Minister who, just a few short months after he negotiated and signed an agreement, now says that he intends to break its terms. We do not have to guess what they will think; we can see for ourselves the reaction from our friends and allies, including, as has already been said, from the Speaker of the US House of Representatives. If the Prime Minister really considers that this deal contains serious problems that could break up our country, why did he sign it? Why did he claim it was a great success? Had he not read it, or did he not understand it?
Of course, the dangers of the Bill are not just about the UK’s ability to negotiate trade deals; they are about the UK’s reputation and its moral authority. How can our Government seek to uphold the rule of law if we break it ourselves? How can we hold other nations to account on their treaty obligations on international standards when we disregard our own?
I will not, because we are very short of time. Speaking to the House earlier, the Prime Minister claimed that the provisions of the Bill will be used only as a last resort, and sought to play down the problems that it poses but, as the House of Commons Library briefing states,
“the existence of the power to override a number of the UK’s international obligations may itself constitute a violation of international law.”
The very fact that it has been tabled is already undermining the reputation of this country, and damaging our relationships with those we need to reach deals with.
There are other concerns about this Bill: that it runs contrary to the devolution settlement; that it will enable a race to the bottom on standards; and that it undermines the rights of the devolved nations to set their own spending priorities. The Government should ensure free trade access across the UK. We need a strong internal market, but this Bill is not the way to do it. Unless it is amended, I cannot, and this Parliament should not, support it.
The majority of the Bill is sensible and necessary for an effective United Kingdom single market when we are no longer subject to EU rules. My issue, as for others, is clauses 42, 43 and 45, which take what was agreed less than a year ago about the primacy of the withdrawal agreement over domestic law and reverse it. They are not a clarification but a contradiction of that agreement, and the Government are very clear about this: doing that would be breaking international law.
I agree that it is possible to break international law without automatically breaking domestic law. It is also true that Parliament is sovereign, and it can choose to break international law if it wants to, but the fact that an international law breach is not a domestic law breach and is not unconstitutional does not make it a good idea. The blatant and unilateral breach of a treaty commitment could be justified only in the most extreme and persuasive circumstances. The Government say that such circumstances are those in which no ongoing trade arrangement is made with the EU and where the Joint Committee established under the withdrawal agreement to resolve problems of interpretation is unable to do so, leaving the UK in an impossible position.
That is the nub of the argument, is it not? These are exceptional circumstances. We are about to negotiate by far the most important agreement that this country has reached for the last 40 years. In those highly dynamic circumstances it is right that this Parliament should give the Government sufficient flexibility to get the best possible deal for Britain. That is what this is about, and that is why we should support the Bill.
If my right hon. Friend will allow me, I will address exactly that point and what the Government could be doing instead of what they are proposing to do. Let me say first that the possibility of reaching no trade agreement and of deadlock in the Joint Committee was foreseeable yet when the withdrawal agreement was signed, and again when it was legislated for, the Government did not say that the risk of the outcomes they rely upon now undermined the deal on offer; they said then and they say now that this was a good deal. So what has changed?
That leads to the argument to which my right hon. Friend refers: that, unexpectedly, the European Union is now adopting an interpretation of the Northern Ireland protocol so outrageous and so far from a rational reading of that protocol that we could not have seen it coming and we could not possibly accept it, leaving no option but to abrogate ourselves the relevant parts of the protocol. But the withdrawal agreement sets out a mechanism for resolving disputes about interpretation, involving binding independent arbitration and penalties including the suspension of obligations under the agreement. If the EU’s new approach is so far from what the agreement intended, why would the Government not succeed in using that mechanism?
The answer is that any question in European law, under article 174 of the withdrawal agreement, has to be referred to the European Court of Justice, and the Court is acting not on behalf of the 28 as before, but on behalf of the 27. We know it is a political court.
My right hon. Friend might be right to be sceptical about the Court of Justice of the European Union, but the issue likely to arise here is not a question of European Union law; it is a question whether there is compliance with the withdrawal agreement signed by both sides. That does not necessarily raise a question of European law; nor, in my view, is it likely to. It raises a question of treaty law and whether or not this is being abided by in good faith.
I accept that the Government have a problem, but I cannot accept that the proposed solution is either necessary or right. International law matters. The rules that bind nations underpin what the United Kingdom says on the world stage on a variety of subjects, from the Skripal poisonings to the treatment of the Uyghur people to the detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. We speak often, and rightly so, of the rules-based international order as the foundation of freedom and justice in the world and of our security. The rules referred to are, of course, rules of international law. If we break them ourselves, we weaken our authority to make the arguments that the world’s most vulnerable need us to make. Nor is it in our long-term diplomatic or commercial interests to erode the reputation we have earned for the strength of our word and our respect for the rule of law—a reputation that, ironically, we will rely on more than ever when the Brexit process is complete.
I do not believe that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister or his Ministers wish to undermine that reputation, but I do believe that if Parliament were to give Ministers the powers they are asking for, and if they were to be exercised, we would all come to regret it. That is why I cannot vote for the clauses as they stand, or for a Bill that contains them.
Sometimes a piece of legislation comes along that is just so audacious, pernicious and chaotic that it is difficult to comprehend the scale of the carnage it will deliver in its wake. This single market Bill is a prime example of that type of legislation. It is almost unbelievable. It is a Bill that only this Government, with their weird assortment of Brexiteer oddballs, would consider going anywhere near. In fact, it is almost perfect for them, given their penchant for governance by chaos and disorder.
Breaking international law? For this Govt, that is a trifling detail. They just do not care. For them, being a rogue state is as natural as leaving the EU without a deal, or illegally proroguing Parliament. They are even starting to tell us now that being a pariah state somehow enhances the UK’s international standing. We can imagine, in a few years’ time, the Foreign Secretary of rogue state UK turning up to the United Nations during an international crisis that threatens the world order involving, say, Iran or North Korea, or an international convention or treaty. What authority and credibility would rogue state UK have in that situation? Kim Jong-un would turn around and say, “I’m firing these missiles, but only in a limited and specific way.”
I want to confine my remarks to what this rotten Bill will do to my nation. If the Government want their rogue state, that is up to them. If they want their no-deal Brexit, go ahead, have it, we will wish you all the best, but do not bring down our beautiful nation in the process. Never before has there been such a sustained attack on our Parliament or our democracy. The invention and development of the idea of a UK single market has been one of the most spectacular and dishonest pieces of political chicanery we have witnessed in recent times. The barefaced nonsense of this being a power surge is contradicted by practically every detail of the Bill.
There are two areas I particularly want to touch on. One is what is included in clause 46—the one that allows the UK Government to legislate directly in devolved responsibilities. This mechanism is designed to bypass the Scottish Government. The Scottish Tories know that they will never come anywhere near governing Scotland, so what they will do is just get around the process. Even under the new leadership of the ever charming ray of sunshine that is the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), they are still going down in the polls, so what they need to do is circumvent Scottish democracy and ensure that they get direct control and access to specific interests when it comes to Scotland. That is what they are doing with this particular Bill.
The other thing is the Competition and Markets Authority. I remember listening to all those Brexiteer colleagues over there, when they used to rage against all the unelected bureaucrats—remember these mythical creatures of yore? Well, I found them—they are not sitting in an office in Brussels; they are sitting in the Cabinet Office. They are not called the European Commission; they are called the Competition and Markets Authority, and it is them that will arbitrate on everything to do with devolution and what the Scottish Government can and cannot do.
Did the hon. Member not oppose the Northern Ireland protocol because it discriminated against the needs of the people of Scotland? Now for some reason he seems to be taking to his hind feet, wanting to support the protocol and oppose the Bill that removes those pernicious aspects of the protocol. Why has he changed?
I think the hon. Gentleman may be confusing me with somebody else. I say ever so candidly to him that I did not oppose just parts of the Government’s EU Brexit—I opposed it in its totality, as did the people of Scotland. We opposed overwhelmingly the idea that we have to be taken out against our will.
This is what it is coming down to. In the next few months, the Scottish people have a critical decision to make about the type of future they want for their country. They could decide to remain part of rogue-state UK, with the Government’s no-deal Brexit and all the other things that they want to do, or they could simply decide that they want to become an independent country of their own, making their own decisions and their own way in the world, deciding things in good faith, negotiating as a nation, and coming together with other nations in the world to ensure that we get the best possible future for us and our allies.
We have only a few short months when it comes to this, and I think we are beginning to see just where we are going. Independence now sits at 55%—the highest it has ever secured. There is sustained majority support for independence in Scotland. My nation is making up its mind about the type of future that it wants, and it is not this future as a pariah state, taking us out of the EU against our national collective will. We have only six months to get this debate properly focused and determined. I am pretty sure, when I am looking at opinion polls and seeing where independence is, that Scotland is making up its mind. Scotland is deciding that it is going to be a nation of its own.
Following the speech of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), I simply say that Scotland is my nation as well. The SNP does not speak for Scotland. The SNP is not Scotland. I am proud to be Scottish and British, and when the SNP stands up and claims that it speaks for the whole of Scotland, it does not. The hon. Gentleman would be advised to stop making out as if it does.
I want to make the point that this Bill at its heart, at its core, at its centre, is about jobs and businesses. Is it not telling that in all the SNP speeches that I have listened to tonight, jobs and businesses have not been mentioned once? The SNP was opposed to this internal market Bill long before the events of the past few days, because it is opposed to what it means for Scotland and to what the UK Government can do for Scotland and for the 545,000 jobs that the Fraser of Allander Institute says rely on the internal market of the United Kingdom. In 2018, that internal market ensured £51.5 billion of trade between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom—three times more than the trade that Scotland does with the whole European Union put together.
This Bill’s protecting and enshrining our internal market in the United Kingdom is about protecting those jobs and those businesses. It is about ensuring that businesses in Forres and Fort William can do the same trade across all four nations of the United Kingdom as those in Felixstowe and Farnborough. That is what is important about this legislation. That is why we have to ensure that it is there, and that it is capable of delivering for individuals, for businesses, for their jobs and for the communities that they serve. That is why I believe that at the heart of this legislation we should be speaking about what it means for our communities, our businesses and our jobs the length and breadth of the country.
I want to focus on remarks by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), and by the SNP the whole time, about how this is somehow a power grab. It cannot be a power grab when more than 100 extra powers are going to Holyrood, to the Scottish Parliament and to the Scottish Government, and not one is being taken away. That cannot be explained as a power grab.
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman; I like debating with him and he has tried to get in plenty of times, but I must say to Members on both sides that debating time is about to be constrained by a further minute for each speaker and there are more than 100 Members on today’s call list, so I will not take interventions.
There is no power grab; 100 extra powers are going to the Scottish Parliament, and not a single one is being taken away. For some reason, SNP Members are now against the UK Government investing in Scotland. This is the same SNP and Scottish Government who are saying, “We don’t want your money in Scotland.” Well, I do. In my nation of Scotland, I want to see our two Governments working together as they do on city and growth deals the length and breadth of the country. Every part of Scotland is now covered by a city and growth deal, which shows our two Governments working together and investing together. That is what people want: not a rehash of the division of the past, which the SNP continually wants to drag us to, but looking to the future of Scotland—looking to the future of what we can achieve together as a United Kingdom, with our UK internal market delivering for jobs, communities, the economy and businesses. That is what we want to focus on.
I understand the concerns of Members across the House, but by voting for this legislation at stage 2—Second Reading—tonight, we will allow it to go into Committee and allow the democratically elected Parliament of the United Kingdom to scrutinise, debate and, potentially, amend it. That is what we should be doing.
It has been a pleasure to hear the erudite legal arguments tonight from Members including the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright) and the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill). I am not an erudite international lawyer, so I see it as it is, and perhaps I will put it in simpler terms. It is an utter shambles. It is chaotic.
We have a history of cheap slogans that are now coming home to roost. When people boil down major international issues into three-word slogans and believe that they are true, this is what happens. We had “Take back control”, when we already decided the vast majority of our laws. We had “Get Brexit done”, when it is not as simple as that at all, as we can see from our being here today discussing it. Then we had the “oven-ready deal”—the deal that was then delivered by the current Prime Minister but is now being undermined by his very own Bill. It threw up squarely and clearly the problems between Brexit and the hard-fought Good Friday agreement, and it is now being ripped up and is causing huge problems, playing fast and loose with devolution.
The impact on the independent decision making of the Welsh Government, the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive is frankly shocking, especially for a party that describes itself as the Conservative and Unionist party, but that is not entirely surprising. This is a Government who think that the law can be applied differentially. We saw it with the shutting down of Parliament illegally before the last general election. We have seen it with the breaking of lockdown rules for some favoured few. Shockingly, we see it now with the breaking of international law. The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) says that, if we break international law, it should not be done casually. Well, this seems rushed and casual to me. Less than a week ago, none of us knew that this was coming—perhaps not even the Prime Minister—but it has huge long-term impacts.
This afternoon, I chaired the Public Accounts Committee. We were looking seriously at the Government’s proposals around export strategy; the Government have a target to boost exports, which we would all expect. We were challenging the Department about how it was going to achieve that. There is a real will to deliver it, but what country will trust us now if we pass this Bill, which says that we will legislate our way out of any international deal?
In short, this Government are not competent. They have been cavalier, they are undermining the Union and they are damaging the UK’s international reputation irrevocably.
It is always a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). I have a lot of respect for her opinions, but I fundamentally disagree with her on this.
I look around the Chamber at so many dear colleagues with whom I have debated at quite some length over the past four years—nearly four and a half years. This has been so frustrating. Leaving the EU has been the most divisive subject since June 2016. We now have to get to the end of the transition period. We really want a free trade deal as an independent sovereign nation with our EU friends and neighbours that works in the interests of every part of our United Kingdom, and also works in the interests of our EU friends and neighbours and protects their single market. On that, surely, we can agree—apart from perhaps a few of those who still wish we were having a second referendum, but let us not go there.
We negotiated the withdrawal agreement in good faith, as, I think, did the EU member states. The problem is that the Joint Committee, which was set up by that withdrawal agreement, was designed to provide the definitions. It was designed to give us clarity around what “goods at risk” meant, how the Northern Irish protocol would work, and all the details that, as yet, have not been ironed out. What we have discovered—
I can say this, having been part of Cabinet Sub-Committee meetings that discussed some of the EU’s proposals—is that the EU has not acted in good faith. I am very sorry to say that, because EU leaders do, as a rule, want to have good relationships with the United Kingdom, but the Commission has sought to reach into our sovereign United Kingdom and force us, as a member state that has left the EU, to abide by its rules on an ongoing basis, and that is utterly unacceptable.
I will be supporting the Bill today. The reason for that is that we, as the United Kingdom Government, must always be able to hold our heads up high to say that we have acted with integrity in the interests of our United Kingdom, that we are protecting the Belfast Good Friday agreement, and that we are giving the essential clarity and certainty to businesses that they desperately need. I urge all colleagues to please support the Bill tonight.
I am appalled by this Bill, and I have been trying to think why. The conclusion that I have reached is that we have two genuinely opposing world views conflicting tonight. From the perspective of the SNP, on behalf of Scotland’s interests, we have a fundamentally different view from the Members on the Government Benches—not illegitimate but different. We are two nations going in two different directions with different ambitions, and this Bill cuts across deep visceral principles of my party. We believe in the rule of law. We are a constitutional party. We believe in a multilateral, rules-based order. We have a clear vision of how we want Scotland to fit into that organised, binding international solidarity. We believe that agreements should be honoured. I would not have thought that that was a controversial statement, but it is in the face of this Bill, and it shames this House that we are even considering it.
We believe that the people best placed to make decisions for Scotland are the people who live in Scotland. In 1997, by 74%, the people of Scotland endorsed that principle, and endorsed the model of devolution that said that, unless specifically reserved to this place, decisions should be made in Scotland by our democratic authority. It is that principle that this Bill undermines.
Members should be in no doubt: the operation of this Bill is a wholesale, calculated, deliberate reversal of the devolution principle. There is no amount of bluster that will distract from that—not that we have heard much of it; they have all gone quiet. It is there in the Bill for all to see. In clause 46, there is an explicit assumption of budgets in Scotland, without Scotland’s consent. In clause 48, a power of subsidy is explicitly assumed, again without Scotland’s consent. In part 1, on the mutual recognition rules, it is clear that the operation of the UK internal market will undermine out of existence the competence and capacity of the Scottish authorities to make different decisions.
The most egregious part for me is part 4, on the role of the Competition and Markets Authority. For people who talked about unelected bureaucrats, here are unelected bureaucrats on steroids: people who will sit above each and every public organisation and authority in Scotland and gainsay every budget and every decision going forward—a politically appointed death panel that will sit above every democratic decision of every organisation in Scotland. We reject it. It is not in Scotland’s name.
This is a bad Bill. It undermines devolution. It actually strengthens the case for independence, if Conservative Members really want to have some pause. This House should reject this appalling piece of legislation.
The withdrawal agreement is a profoundly self-contradictory document, and never more so than in respect of Northern Ireland. It declares ringingly, for example, that Northern Ireland is part of the customs territory of the United Kingdom, whereas the substance of it is that it is part of the customs territory of the European Union. Similarly, it provides that Northern Ireland should have unfettered access to the mainland British market, but at the same time it sets up arrangements to frustrate that. These provisions can potentially have the most serious adverse consequences on the integrity of the UK market.
The position is that unless provisions to the contrary are agreed in the joint committee or in the future relationship negotiations, trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK will be severely impeded. Checks will apply to goods passing between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and the EU customs code will apply to Northern Ireland, potentially meaning tariffs applied on goods passing between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Part 5 of the Bill amounts to a safeguard against the potential consequences of this state of affairs. Of course, if a free trade agreement can be concluded, there will very probably be nothing to worry about. An acceptable free trade agreement could subsume the withdrawal agreement and thus the problem, and put relations between the UK and the EU on a more regular footing.
The EU is crying foul at the publication of this Bill, but the fact is that the EU’s own conduct in the negotiations has simply not adhered to the provisions of the withdrawal agreement. As the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) pointed out, these obligations move in both directions. The agreement provides that both parties should attempt to negotiate a free trade agreement acting in good faith and using best endeavours. The political declaration provides that the negotiations should respect UK sovereignty and the integrity of the United Kingdom market. However, the EU’s conduct has not reflected the obligations it has under the withdrawal agreement. It has refused to discuss anything apart from its own red lines of fisheries and the so-called level playing field. It is therefore essential that we should put in place measures that will protect us and our internal market in the event that the negotiations do not result in the sort of free trade agreement we are seeking.
It would be contrary to the national interest of this country if this Bill were not passed. The consequences for our constituencies and the livelihoods of their residents would be very serious if the Bill were not enacted, and it therefore has my full support.
This law is a scoundrel’s charter. I was taught as a child that it was the quintessence of Britishness and the quintessence of honour that my word was my bond—that what I had signed up to I was pledged to and I would stand by. We, the United Kingdom, Her Majesty’s Ministers on behalf of the whole nation, and this Parliament—the newly elected Parliament—signed this into law. We signed on the dotted line. The Prime Minister called it a “fantastic moment”. He said it was a great, great deal. The Tory manifesto was absolutely clear that it was a wonderful ready-made deal for the United Kingdom. Now the Government intend to trail our honour through the mud, and I will do everything I possibly can to prevent that.
If this goes through in the way that it is drafted at the moment, we will become the scoundrels of international law. The Government have even put their bad faith into the Bill. With the single word, “notwithstanding”, they have made Government Ministers do contortions. Who ever thought that we would hear a Government Minister say that the Bill breaks international law in a “specific and limited way” as if that is fine—some kind of Cummings get-out clause? Even worse, the Justice Secretary said, “I’ll quit if the rule of law is broken in an unacceptable way.” So now, according to the Justice Secretary, there is an acceptable way for somebody to break the law—again, the Cummings rule.
Clause 45 actually uses the word “notwithstanding”. I thought I might hear Vladimir Putin say, “notwithstanding the Budapest accord, which guarantees the territorial integrity of Ukraine”, or President Xi say, “notwithstanding the Sino-British joint declaration”. I never thought that I would see in a British Bill signed off by British Government Ministers, who are meant to respect the rule of law, a line that says:
“notwithstanding any relevant international or domestic law with which they may be incompatible or inconsistent”.
The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) said, “It’s just a mistake; we should say it’s a mistake.” Well, why did everybody vote for it? What honour can you possibly have if you think that this is just a mistake?
There is another fib at the heart of the Bill, which is that it purports to say that there is going to be lots of extra money for constituents like mine in the devolved areas of the country. I do not think we will get a single extra penny, because we have been waiting for the shared prosperity fund for weeks and months and years, and not a single word has yet been published about it.
The truth is that we need the rule of law in this country; we rely on international treaties. It guarantees contracts. It makes us honest and protects us from overbearing government. I say to the Government: if you try to sack members of your own party because they have a conscience, you are on the route to dictatorship.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant).
This is of course an essential Bill for the good order of the internal market. It is essential for our economic success, wellbeing, jobs and employment, and I support it. I am very surprised at the EU’s negotiating strategy and purpose, particularly in offering my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), in effect, the Canada deal, and then declining, to date, to offer the same terms to the Prime Minister. I therefore have no hesitation in supporting the Bill’s Second Reading, and I give the Government my strong support for reaching a deal.
But I am not going to vote to breach international law, and I want to explain why. As International Development Secretary in the coalition Government, I consistently spoke up for the rule of law. Britain has been a beacon, in some very difficult places in the world, for support for the rule of law. Our support is relied on in that respect, and it matters, whether we are dealing with the rights of gay people in Uganda or ensuring the last vestiges of law in Zimbabwe, never quite snuffed out by dint of Britain’s strong support for the rule of law. Many in this House have rightly spoken up for the rights of Hong Kong citizens when China has sought to resile from international agreements it had signed. We are one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. We have a duty to uphold international law. The rule of law is incredibly important for our basic liberties and human rights, and failing to do so will do incalculable damage to our reputation all around the world.
I have two further points to make. The first is that Members of the House should read with the greatest care what John Major and Tony Blair have said about the dangers of all this for the Good Friday agreement and peace across Northern Ireland. I have been here long enough to remember the awful statements about violence in Northern Ireland, with innocent civilians maimed and worse. Secondly, we have one of the largest national debts of any country in the world, and confidence in our debt depends on an absolute understanding that Britain will always stand by its word.
In the past, I have voted in this House in ways that I have regretted. I voted for section 28, I voted for the poll tax and I voted with the then Prime Minister on Iraq. But I do not believe I have ever gone into a Lobby to vote in a way that I knew was wrong, and I will not be doing it on this occasion either.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell): this Bill breaks the rule of law. It is against the national interests, and my party will oppose it. That might not surprise people. We have argued for Britain to work with our European partners at the heart of Europe, but in our opposition to the Bill, I am determined that we represent the views of leave voters as well as remain voters.
From the Prime Minister’s promise that he had an oven-ready deal to his promise that he wanted a global Britain, this Bill breaks those promises made to leave voters. If the Government were to carry out their threat and breach the international treaty that the Prime Minister himself signed, it is clear that there would be no deal. The oven would not even be opened. If the Government deliberately and intentionally break international law, global Britain’s ability to exercise influence in the world would be weaker than at any time since the first half of the 18th century.
As the arch Brexiteer and former Conservative party leader Michael Howard said, what message does this send to China, Russia or Iran? What credibility will Britain have in urging other countries to uphold international law if our great Parliament votes for this Bill? What about the future trade deals that Britain so desperately needs as we leave the world’s largest single market while trying to recover from covid and this deep recession?
Our Prime Minister likes to portray himself as a modern-day Churchill, but Churchill said that the rule of law is part of the “title deeds of freedom”. Churchill will turn in his grave if this Bill passes tonight. Let us remember what we teach our children in every school across this country. We teach them about British values of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law. This Bill is against the very values that we teach our children about the importance of obeying the law.
For a Government to send this law-breaking signal would be appalling at any time, but we are in the middle of a pandemic, and if we are to beat this dreadful virus, people need to obey the law, even when the emergency covid laws were among the most draconian that the British people have faced for centuries. The rule of law has never been more precious to the health of our nation, and yet the Prime Minister has chosen this moment to trash the rule of law. This House must stop him tonight.
In the short time available to me, I want to focus on the aspects most relevant to Scotland. This Bill is about protecting those who work or do business across the four nations of our United Kingdom. That single internal UK market has served us well for centuries, creating a barrier-free internal market that was one of the core purposes of the Acts of Union. Until we joined the European Communities in 1973, that internal market was regulated by this Parliament. From the point that we joined the European Economic Community, the crucial aspect of market control passed to the European level. Europe took those powers for pragmatic reasons, because they were simply needed to operate its single market. That is the spirit behind this Bill too.
We have heard a lot about devolution in the context of the Bill, including from a number of Members during the debate. The devolution settlements were made in the late 1990s, when there was virtually no thought that the UK would leave the EU. EU law was binding on the devolved Assemblies, and the UK Government, acting on behalf of the whole UK, represented all four nations at the Council of Ministers, including in devolved areas.
I am grateful for that point and completely agree with my hon. Friend. The Bill not only protects jobs but strengthens the bonds of the Union that ties the United Kingdom together. As well as remembering the history, we must understand what devolution is in the United Kingdom. It is a means of giving people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland the freedom to craft policies and take decisions on matters that affect them, while continuing to derive all the benefits of membership of a unitary United Kingdom. Right from the very beginning, it has been a central assumption of devolution that matters essential to the operation of the United Kingdom would be decided at UK level.
This Parliament is the democratic embodiment of the United Kingdom, and it contains Members who have been elected on an equal basis and who represent every square inch of the United Kingdom. It is here that decisions affecting the UK as a whole should be taken, just as those that affect the whole of the European Union are taken in Brussels—a fact with which very few Opposition Members had any problems at the time. That inconsistency speaks volumes, especially when the net effect of Brexit will be a massive increase in devolved powers, including those on air quality, energy efficiency and elements of employment law. It is a further irony that SNP policy is to hand those new powers straight back to Brussels at the first available opportunity.
As my hon. Friend knows, this Parliament is the guarantor of people’s freedoms. That is not about international arrangements or foreign Governments; this sovereign Parliament guarantees people’s freedoms in this country, and guarantees that the will of the people is expressed here and honoured. That seems to be lost on many critics of the Bill, and I hope that, like me, my hon. Friend will support it with enthusiasm.
I absolutely will support the Bill with enthusiasm. It protects the 500,000 jobs in Scotland that my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) mentioned earlier. This is about protecting the Union, and we should not forget that this Parliament is sovereign and a protector of the rule of law.
The Bill is about making the UK work as a fully integrated, seamless internal market. It is in the interests of every business trading across the United Kingdom, and of everyone who wants to make devolution work. It should be of no surprise that it is so hated by those whose sole political purpose is to destroy devolution by ripping Scotland out of this most important single United Kingdom market.
It is a pleasure to follow my fellow Unionist from Scotland, and I agree with him. The first question I ask myself about the Bill is this: will it strengthen the Union? In as far as it goes, I believe it will. We would like more to be done, but let me briefly mention the points raised about the Good Friday agreement. I grew up in a Northern Ireland that was deeply troubled. I lost members of my family, who were murdered during those troubles. I do not want to go back to those dark days.
Who is it that threatens the peace process in Northern Ireland? It is not Her Majesty’s Government who threaten that peace process; it is these men and women in the shadows. Who is playing fast and loose with the peace process? Who is using it as a political football in this situation? I do not believe the UK Government are using the Northern Ireland peace process as some kind of political football or a negotiating point.
Clause 47 ensures that as a sovereign nation, the UK will set the rules on state aid for Northern Ireland. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a vital means of fending off predatory behaviour from our nearest competitor, and EU threats regarding the supply of food without an agreement and without this Bill? The Bill is necessary to ensure that Northern Ireland has basic food importation from the rest of the UK, if those threats are carried through by the EU in the event of a no deal.
I simply pose the question: how does it threaten the Good Friday agreement to ensure that people in my constituency can go to their local Tesco, Asda or Sainsbury’s and buy the same food that people can buy in any other constituency in the rest of the United Kingdom? How does that threaten the peace process? How does it threaten the peace process to ensure that businesses in my constituency do not have the burden of added paperwork, or the cost of export declarations?
I very much agree with the right hon. Gentleman and shall be supporting the Bill tonight, because we must keep the United Kingdom together and we must not have a barrier down the Irish sea. Is it not the case that the European Union wants to keep us in the same rules, so that it can integrate the food systems on the island of Ireland? It needs to be much more practical and to come up with a solution whereby we can trade across the border but do not have to comply exactly with its rules.
At the heart of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is the principle that every signatory to that agreement accepts that Northern Ireland remains an integral part of this United Kingdom. Sadly, what the EU proposes breaches that core principle of the agreement. It is that breach that threatens the stability of Northern Ireland, because peace and prosperity go hand in hand. What kind of peace is it in Northern Ireland if we do not have prosperity—if our businesses are failing because of the added burden that the EU wants to impose? How does that bring prosperity, stability and peace to Northern Ireland?
The Bill is fundamental to delivering what we need, but we need even more than this. That is why we will seek to amend the Bill, specifically to address the point my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made about state aid. It is not enough just to address the state aid issue in the context of Great Britain; it must also be addressed in respect of Northern Ireland. The UK must set the rules on state aid in Northern Ireland, not the European Union. Such a tool is vital to help Northern Ireland businesses fend off predatory behaviour from our nearest competitors, and in Northern Ireland our nearest competitors are in the European Union.
I welcome the progress that is marked by this Bill in dealing with export declarations on goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, but 65% of the goods that Northern Ireland purchases come from Great Britain. Therefore, we need the Government to go further and guarantee that we will not have export declarations on goods moving from one part of the United Kingdom to another part of the United Kingdom, be that from Great Britain to Northern Ireland or from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. That is what unfettered access actually means, and the European Union signed up to unfettered access and to the United Kingdom Government having the power to ensure that Northern Ireland has unfettered access. The Bill before us will deliver that, subject of course to some amendments that we would like to make.
In conclusion, as someone who represents a Northern Ireland constituency, I do not accept the contention that the Bill threatens the Belfast or Good Friday agreement. I do not accept the contention that the Bill threatens the peace process. Prosperity is essential to building peace in Northern Ireland. The arrangements proposed by the EU threaten the prosperity of Northern Ireland, and in threatening the prosperity of Northern Ireland they threaten the peace.
As ever, it is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson).
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), I think there is much in the Bill to admire. The general aims of the Bill and much of its content are absolutely necessary to ensure that the competences that return to the UK from the EU are put into UK law. However, like many people across the House, I have serious concerns about part 5 and the effect of those provisions on our international reputation, the rule of law and Northern Ireland.
Many people seem to be justifying part 5 as necessary to avoid an impact on GB-to-Northern Ireland trade. It is one thing to reject a draft treaty on those grounds; it is an entirely different premise to consider breaching existing treaty obligations, freely entered into by the Government. Some level of bureaucracy for trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain was and is the foreseeable and obvious consequence of the withdrawal agreement that we signed. That point was highlighted at the time, but it was justified as a way to move on to the next phase. Moreover, many of us were reassured at the time that technology would ensure that those checks would be simple and quick.
The withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol, and the consequent effects on trade, were negotiated by this Government and were part of our election manifesto. If the Government believe that the EU is acting in bad faith, making threats to food supplies or critically affecting the integrity of the UK, there are already agreed mechanisms in the withdrawal agreement to deal with that. For example, if the Government believed that we could not import food into Northern Ireland, article 16 of the protocol specifically allows the UK to act at that point to remedy the problem however it wants to.
The UK has a proud reputation of upholding the rule of law, as many hon. Members have said, and has been a trusted international partner. This country cannot and does not break international law just because it does not like the compromise that it has signed up to. I was interested in my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s remarks about regulations being made under these powers and the possibility of the House having a further vote. I would be interested to hear later from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), whether the Government intend to table an amendment to that effect, because I think that doing so would reassure many people. Nevertheless, clause 45(2)(b), if passed, at the moment of Royal Assent would lead to a breach of international law and the withdrawal agreement. I say to my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench that there is still plenty of time for those of us who have concerns about part 5 to be reassured, and I look to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to give us those reassurances later this evening.
It seems to me that some arguments we are hearing this evening are broadly about international law and those sorts of obligations, despite France and Germany being in the premier league of infractions of their EU obligations, and many other instances raised by hon. and right hon. Members about other global infractions by various nations. Let us be clear: the provisions of this Bill are fully allowed for within the Northern Ireland protocol. The right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), who opened for the Opposition, made reference to the exact appropriate article—paragraph 1 of article 16—which says:
“If the application of this Protocol leads to serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade, the Union or the United Kingdom may unilaterally take appropriate safeguard measures.”
That is a matter for the Government to answer; I do not believe that we are breaking international law in any way.
What we are proposing in the Bill is also allowed for under section 38 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, which was passed by this House in quick time and by broad measure. There are no surprises in this Bill. Surely any Member could appreciate that these provisions stand to reason, with negotiations going nowhere; best endeavours, as required in the withdrawal agreement, seemingly ignored by the other side; demands that we become the only independent coastal state on this planet that would have its fisheries resource controlled by a foreign power, and that state aid and level playing field rules continue, leaving us as a supplicant nation; and, the latest we hear, a threat to the food supply and supply of goods from GB to NI.
I am going to talk about fists. We all have them and they are potential weapons for illegal acts if we use them wantonly or recklessly, but we do not so they are not. The law gives us the absolute right of self-defence using those physical assets to protect ourselves and/or our family. Northern Ireland is part of our family of this Union of nations. The provisions in this Bill are for self-defence only—defence of our Union, and particularly in defence of the businesses and people of Northern Ireland.
We are elected to this House to stand up to bullies, and I will do everything that is necessary and within my power to deliver Brexit properly and cleanly. If the EU will not discuss future arrangements fairly and with best endeavours, we must take any measure that is necessary to ensure the continuance of normality and trade across our Union. I will be supporting the Bill wholeheartedly this evening.
For over 20 years now, the people of Scotland have had a Parliament to call their own. Since the Scottish Parliament was reconvened in 1999, it has become an established part of Scotland’s political life, delivering on the priorities of the people of Scotland. More importantly, it has demonstrated what a modern Parliament, close to the people it serves, can look like, in contrast to the remote and often stuffy atmosphere in this place.
With the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, the mask has well and truly slipped. The Tories have revealed their anti-devolution instincts. This Bill is nothing less than a brazen attack on established norms and institutions, setting dangerous precedents for the rule of law and Scotland’s Parliament. A Government Minister admitting that this Bill has been drafted with the intention of breaking international law is a clear sign of just how far the Tory party has been captured by this Dominic Cummings Government.
Since breaching solemn agreements is now a cornerstone of Tory party policy, I will remind Government Members of the agreement they entered into with voters in 2014. They said that the people of Scotland would get the “best of both worlds”—that the Scottish Parliament would be strengthened within the Union. The promises of 2014 could not be further from the reality of what this Bill will do to undermine the devolution settlement. It sticks in the mind when someone breaks an agreement, engendering feelings of anger and betrayal. It is perhaps no surprise that there is a genuine shift towards majority support now for independence for Scotland, as we are seeing the multitude of broken promises made by the Better Together parties mount up throughout the Brexit process.
This Bill is the worst of all worlds. It kicks off a race to the bottom between the four UK nations on food and environmental standards. It re-reserves subsidies in areas previously covered by EU state aid, even if those subsidies relate to devolved areas such as agriculture, infrastructure and culture. To top off this shameless power grab, the Bill will, if it completes its passage unaltered through this place, become a protected enactment under the Scotland Act 1998. As a result, the Scottish Parliament will not be allowed to legislate in a way that is incompatible with the rules laid down in the Bill, even if the proposed legislation falls within the devolved powers of the Scottish Parliament. That is a clear breach of the principle of the Scotland Act 1998 that power devolved is power retained. That is why I and my colleagues on the SNP Benches this evening will be defending devolution by voting against the Bill tonight.
I hope I will not be too foul tempered tonight, Mr Deputy Speaker; it is not a disposition I warm to.
There is a worrying trend—a worrying narrative—emerging, and this debate is a good opportunity to get a lot of things on the record, as I build an argument in the next 2 minutes and 45 seconds. First, I am extremely concerned that we are placing severe restrictions on people’s liberties without any recourse to Parliament. I would actually vote, in certain circumstances, to take people’s liberties away if I thought it was in the national interest, but I would like to have the chance to debate it on the Floor of the House and represent the concerns of my constituents.
I am also concerned that we go around arresting old men in Trafalgar Square for having a peaceful protest and fining them £10,000. I never thought I would ever be defending Mr Corbyn in the Chamber, but I am—I am defending a Corbyn. We have to be allowed to protest without fear of arrest and being fined, and today we hear that the public will be urged to inform on their friends and neighbours, because granny has followed grandad into a family home of five. This is a profoundly un-conservative thing.
All these things are un-conservative, and I do think that we are being asked here to put this country—this House, Members of this House, our constituents—on the wrong side of the law before we have exhausted all other options. I am no fan of the EU—I was in every single Division Lobby for Brexit and I think the EU is a pain in the neck—but surely we have to exhaust all other options before we press the nuclear button.
I will not be voting for the Bill’s Second Reading, because if you keep whacking a dog, you shouldn’t be surprised when it bites you back. We are all Members of Parliament and we deserve to be taken seriously. I accept that there is a pandemic and a national crisis, but surely that is the time when our voices should be heard on behalf of our constituents. It is the most important time, so I hope—I see the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in his place—the Government go away tonight and the Prime Minister reflects on what is going on, listens to the concerns of this House and comes back with a solution that allows me to skip through the Lobby on Third Reading and support him on this important Bill. I do believe, colleagues, that the Conservative party is the greatest political party ever, and we have to have the courage to live up to that greatness.
The Prime Minister said that the Northern Ireland protocol was a very, very ingenuous scheme—sorry, a “very, very ingenious scheme”. I will say it one more time, because it is worthy of repetition. He said it is
“a very, very ingenious scheme”.—[Official Report, 19 October 2019; Vol. 666, c. 594.]
It is almost Trump-esque in its rhetoric, and as we find so often with populists around the world, it is very easy to make far-fetched promises, but it is much harder to deliver them in practice. Reality is biting the Prime Minister and it is biting him hard.
As we have seen this afternoon, things have not exactly gone to script. The Prime Minister has been turning up at Prime Minister’s questions in recent weeks wishing he was facing a former leader of the Labour party. This afternoon, he got one and my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) wiped the floor with the Prime Minister, so much so that he had to scurry away back to his office, so badly battered and bruised was he. He was not even able to defend the Bill. He probably had not read it, because it is certainly clear from what he has said in recent days that he had not read the withdrawal agreement or the Northern Ireland protocol. Even this afternoon, he still did not understand the content that he has signed up to.
Contrary to there being a remainer plot, the script simply does not work. We have left the European Union. We are no longer members of the European Union. We are not going back. The only question now is whether we have a trade deal with the European Union that puts to bed so many of the difficult, thorny, challenging, but not insurmountable issues that many of us warned and argued over recent years would arise. The Prime Minister can hardly be surprised.
What I am surprised by is the scale of their misjudgments and their incompetence, even by this Government’s standards. With one decision, they have shaken the foundations of the Good Friday agreement, threatened the prospects of a trade deal with the European Union, and risked the prospects of a trade deal with the United States of America. With that, they have jeopardised future prosperity, jobs and the economy when we are facing the worst recession in hundreds of years. They have given further cause for grievance to the nationalists and threatened the Union. The irony is that a Bill that is supposed to strengthen the Union actually threatens its future. Perhaps worst of all, it threatens the standing and reputation of our country around the world, not only in the eyes of our allies, but in the eyes of our enemies, too.
I ask Members on the Government Benches: what has happened to the Conservative and Unionist party of Disraeli, Churchill, Macmillan and Thatcher? I cannot think of a single former Conservative Prime Minister who would behave in this way. I just say to them that, from experience, it is hard standing up to your own side when they are doing something wrong, but you will be doing the right thing by opposing this Bill and will sleep more soundly for it.
We need to come back to some reality about what this Bill is actually about. This Bill is about safeguarding the future of the United Kingdom, because it is about safeguarding the ability of nations to be able to trade with each other. I am sure many of our constituents would be flabbergasted that we even have to pass a Bill to do that. They would think that would come as a matter of course. In doing so, we will be giving businesses the certainty they need during this very difficult period. So many of the details that should have been ironed out by now are still left hanging, so we should be unsurprised that we are discussing this Bill tonight.
When the withdrawal agreement was put to the House of Commons and we voted on it, we did so based on the notion that it would be dealt with in negotiations in good faith and using best endeavours, because that is the way negotiations proceed, but all of us who remember the way that our country has been treated throughout this process perhaps should not be surprised that we find ourselves here today and that the Government feel that this Bill is an essential safety net that needs to be put in place.
I will not give way, as a lot of people need to speak today. This is a safety net to stop the EU being able to determine UK trade policy, not overseas, but within our own countries. Despite a referendum result, votes in this Parliament and the clear will of the British people at the last general election, we still find ourselves in this period of uncertainty with the EU. So I believe the debate tonight is as much about British sovereignty as it is about the rule of law, and Members need to reflect on that.
The Government are in an invidious position. They are negotiating with an organisation that is renowned for and thrives on its love of last-minute agreements and all-night negotiations. The truth is that the EU still wants to make this country’s exit from its trading bloc as difficult as possible, and its behaviour, in delay upon delay, has to come to an end. If this Bill is part of that process, it gets my full support. The British people can see the tactics being deployed by the EU for what they are. Many Opposition Members know this and sit uneasy when listening to their Front Benchers’ rationale for not supporting the Bill tonight, because they know that their electorate are as fed up as everybody else that we are here today again, with the EU attempting to stifle the will of the British people. I speak as somebody who voted to remain in the EU but who has been appalled by the way we have been treated ever since, with the EU using its treatment of the UK as a strong message to other member states. I listened carefully to what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), and I hope that the Minister will deal directly with the issues he raised.
The Prime Minister won the last election based on the promise to “get Brexit done”. That was his mandate, given to him by the British people—to move on. He said there would be
“no more dither and delay”.
He said, “Let’s get our oven-ready deal through.” He won an 80-seat majority based on that withdrawal agreement, and this Parliament ratified it. We are calling on him to deliver the deal he promised, one that would work for Britain in terms of protecting jobs and the Union, and then we can get on with tackling the coronavirus crisis. So why is he dithering and delaying? Why is he introducing legislation designed to reopen old Brexit wounds? He called the withdrawal agreement a “fantastic” deal for the country, but now he says it never made sense. Was he deliberately misleading the British people then, or is he doing so now?
Not only has the Prime Minister undermined trust here at home, but he is trashing his Government’s reputation as a trustworthy and reliable member of the international community, because it is absolutely clear that this legislation breaks international law. The Brexiteer who signed off this deal as Attorney General described the Bill as “unconscionable” and all five living former Prime Ministers are united in agreement.
Our greatness as a country is built upon our values and the fact that we have long stood up for the rule of law. This Prime Minister wants to throw all that away. The UK needs to be standing up to the Chinese communist party’s breaches of international law and Russia’s foul play, but how can we do that with credibility if we are advocating breaking international law? With one stroke of his pen, this Prime Minister has torpedoed the painstaking work that our diplomats do every day.
This is not just a question of trust or morality; it is also about our commercial and economic interests. We are going out into the world to negotiate new trade deals post Brexit, but how can any other country trust us to keep to those agreements? If this Bill passes into statute, the Prime Minister will be sending his trade negotiators naked into the conference chambers. This Bill is not only dismantling the manifesto pledge and our international reputation, but it is creating a constitutional crisis, trashing the common frameworks that are the basis for our devolved constitutional settlement and creating the conditions for a race to the bottom on standards, opening the door to chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef becoming the norm. Trade negotiations are never a walk in the park. Both sides will always defend their interests, and that is fair enough, but the rules are the rules. A commitment is a commitment. Our word is our bond. I therefore urge hon. Members to behave with honour and to join us in the No Lobby this evening.
I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. This is an important debate for me, considering that I represent Bridgend, a constituency in Wales, which stands to benefit greatly from ensuring that our internal market within the UK remains intact, as it has for hundreds of years. I am proud to say that if the pollsters are to be believed, Wales is now the most Unionist part of the UK, and my constituents voted leave in 2016 and, of course, backed the “get Brexit done” party at the last election. On those bases, and as a staunch Unionist myself, I will support the passage of the Bill through this place.
On the issue of one single internal market, I just cannot imagine a scenario where a Bridgend-based business is unable to export its goods or services, or faces difficulty in exporting its goods or services, to England, Scotland or Northern Ireland. The internal market is vital to the whole of the Welsh economy, and illustrative figures from the White Paper show that any contraction to the GDP of Wales will be five times greater than that of the UK average. I pledged to my constituents to help to make a success of Brexit, and allowing economic barriers between any parts of the UK clearly runs contrary to that.
The people of Bridgend have two Governments: the Welsh Government and the UK Government, and I am particularly pleased that the Bill will facilitate the latter to invest in businesses and communities across Wales as we recover from covid-19, and I look forward to meeting Ministers to talk about my ideas on how that could be done. To those who argue that somehow the Bill undermines devolution, I remind them that many of the powers ceded to the EU, many of which were ceded before devolution existed, will be transferred to the devolved Administration. Around 60 to 70 new policy areas will now be decided in Cardiff Bay, making the Welsh Government more powerful than it has ever been. For those reasons, I will support the Government tonight, and do so wholeheartedly.
The Bill is a very grave mistake, and there are numerous reasons to oppose it. Any one of them by itself would be enough, but taken together they make this quite possibly the worst piece of legislation brought before this House by this Government, and that is saying something. The legal consequences of passing the Bill are largely negative. It drives a coach and horses through the withdrawal agreement. Ministers should not need reminding that the withdrawal agreement is part of a solemn and binding international treaty, and that breaching a treaty breaches international law.
The passage of this Bill has wider international legal consequences. It undermines the basis of the Good Friday agreement, another solemn, agreed international treaty, which has laid the basis for peace in Ireland. It is absolutely not the case that the withdrawal agreement undermines the Good Friday agreement, as some Ministers now wish to claim. None of the main political parties in Ireland agrees with Ministers on that point.
While I am on the theme of undermining different parts of these isles, I point out that this legislation risks the integrity of our Union by undermining the devolution settlement. Any Government who claim to be truly Unionist would not develop legislation without the co-operation, collaboration and, above all, consent of the devolved Administrations. That is not what this legislation does.
The Bill also calls into question the good faith of this Government in their entire dealings with international partners. Must they now factor the integrity of Her Majesty’s Government into discussions and agreements? Do the Government really want to make us that country, known for reneging on its agreements because we later find them inconvenient?
I will focus my remaining remarks on the wider impact on this country of what the Government propose. It is now clear that the Government are aiming for an enormously damaging no-deal outcome to the Brexit negotiations. Let me be clear: a no-deal outcome will be disastrous for the living standards of people in this country.
As if the shocking revelations of the Operation Yellowhammer leak were not bad enough, forecasts by the Cabinet Office’s EU transition taskforce go considerably further and combine the potential issue of no deal with a second wave of coronavirus. The forecasts include shortages of fresh food, medicine and fuel, and even of chemicals for water purification, as well as price hikes on everyday items. Worst-case scenario, yes, but would a Government who cared even risk it?
I simply cannot get my head around the fact that the Government are attempting to push through a project that the Treasury’s own analysis says will lower GDP by 6.9% and destroy jobs. That analysis was made even before the effects of the pandemic. It is a far cry from the Conservative party posters we saw that said, “We are taking back control to protect jobs and businesses”. The Bill is an enormous act of self-harm. It damages us legally, reputationally and economically and, as Government Ministers admit, it is literally criminal to pass it.
As Conservatives, we believe that this family of nations bound together by the Union forms the bedrock of our prosperity. Central to that prosperity is the freedom to trade unhindered across these islands—an internal market without barriers knitted together over 300 years. For the past 40 of those years, the framework underpinning our single market was EU membership but, now that we have left, it is vital that we set our own framework as we forge our future as an independent nation state.
In 1707, the Act of Union brought England and Scotland together. Of its 25 articles, 15 were economic in nature, including the creation of a customs and monetary union. The reasons that spurred us on 300 years ago still exist today: to unlock our full financial power by pooling and sharing our resources; to defend the security of our nations; to provide access across the four nations to our international trading opportunities; and to create an integrated economic internal market. Those four goals are just as valuable to the British people today as they were then, and the Bill will help to us achieve them. It will ensure that Scottish and Welsh businesses can continue to export their goods and services to their main trade destination—the rest of the UK— unhindered. That destination accounts for a greater proportion of their trade than the rest of the world combined.
The Bill also allows the UK Government’s spending powers to benefit all UK citizens—to join up and level-up infrastructure spending with UK-wide strategies to create a stronger economy for Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland—and it protects Northern Ireland’s position in our Union by ensuring that the Good Friday agreement is protected and that east-west economic relations are maintained.
I sincerely hope that the negotiations with the EU will, as intended, find a way to de-dramatise checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, either through the protocol or through a new free trade agreement. I was glad to hear the Prime Minister say earlier that we will continue to use the mechanisms—such as the Joint Committee—set out in the withdrawal agreement to resolve disputes. However, given the EU’s reluctance to uphold the withdrawal agreement’s clear and stated aim of ensuring that Northern Ireland businesses can have unfettered access to Great British markets, I support our holding the new powers in reserve.
Despite what those on the Opposition Benches might say, the Bill will give more control, which will flow to Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh. From fishing to farming to the environment, the devolved Parliaments will gain 74 powers across the different policy areas in the Bill. In fact, the Bill will be the greatest power-up of the devolved Parliaments since their formation.
The Bill started out as quite a sensible measure to protect the internal market, but it has become a monster that threatens devolution and our standing in the world. I listened carefully to the Prime Minister, but all I heard were the same old distortions, prevarications and half-truths. It is not good enough. I will vote for the reasoned amendment, and if that fails, I will vote against the Bill, because I am clear that lawmakers cannot be lawbreakers.
Conservative Members won their seats by telling the electorate that they had secured a deal. The Prime Minister toured the country and TV studios telling us that it was a great deal; now he claims that it is full of flaws and holes. What is becoming all too clear is that it is our Prime Minister who is full of flaws and holes. Did he not know what he was signing when he toured those studios? Was he simply talking tosh?
We are being asked to risk our country’s reputation and our ability to negotiate or seek to enforce any future treaty or trade deal. International treaties are either binding or not; we cannot have limited non-compliance. A lifetime ago, I worked with young offenders. I came across plenty who had broken the law in a specific and limited way; it did not make any difference. No one present should countenance the idea that what we are being asked to agree is anything other than lawbreaking.
People who remember the troubles know that we cannot take chances with Northern Ireland. We should not risk the security provided by the Good Friday agreement. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) told us that the protocol was about ensuring continued peace and preserving the agreement. Surely we have enough on our plate trying to combat the pandemic. Maybe the Prime Minister should apply himself a bit more thoroughly to that task. We risk a return to mass unemployment, with all the suffering and societal tensions that will bring. He should apply himself to that. We do not need juvenile brinkmanship; we need mature leadership and responsible behaviour. We need the Government to knuckle down and fulfil their obligations under the agreement they signed and get us the deal they promised. Anything else is a betrayal of the British people.
I rise to support the Bill. Our internal market of the United Kingdom, which has been established and has flourished for hundreds of years despite what Opposition Members claim, supports millions of jobs and livelihoods across all four nations of the United Kingdom. It is right that we act to preserve the status quo of the internal market. It is what businesses are crying out for and is what the Bill sets out. The Bill ensures that goods can move freely throughout these isles to benefit our numerous sectors, from Scotch whisky and Welsh farming to manufacturing in the north-west of England. In 2016, and again last December, the UK voted to take back control. We must do just that and the Bill intends to do just that.
The Scottish National party claims that the Bill takes powers away from Scotland. That could not be further away from reality. Scotland sells more to the UK than to the rest of the world combined and we on the Government Benches wish for that to continue. Those on the SNP Benches wanted to revoke article 50. If they had succeeded, they would have received no new powers whatsoever. The Bill sees one of the biggest transfers of power to the devolved nations in the history of devolution, but, alas, that transfer of power does not fit with their narrative.
Like most Members, I have received a full mailbox about this Bill, with correspondence from both sides of the argument. It has been mainly from those with hashtags such as #FBPE and #rejoin on Twitter, or from those urging me to back my promise to the British people by getting Brexit done and delivering on the withdrawal agreement. Having signed up to the “Stand up 4 Brexit” pledge, I intend to do just that and back my promise to the British people.
For a successful negotiation, we need both parties to act in good faith. Hearing from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and reading what the UK’s chief negotiator has said, it is clear that that is no longer the case. The Bill addresses the lack of good faith from the European Union and maintains tariff-free, border-free trade within the internal market. Government Members want the internal market to prosper as a truly global Britain, as my right hon. Friend the International Trade Secretary highlighted today with the Great Britain-Japan trade deal.
I am happy to see that the Opposition have finally come out of hiding with regard to anything Brexit related for the first time in months. However, Opposition Members seek to hold back our opportunities, as they have over the past four years, in a bid to reduce the great ship Britannia to nothing more than a sluggish canal barge.
We now have a different range of voices from Northern Ireland in this Parliament and I want to make a few things clear at the outset. The majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain. They also supported the wrongly maligned backstop and they now pragmatically recognise the need for the protocol, despite its challenges. To be very clear, the majority of people and businesses in Northern Ireland do not want the Government to break international law on their behalf.
Northern Ireland only works on the basis of sharing and interdependence. The problem with any form of hard Brexit is that it requires some form of interface between the UK and the single market and customs union. The protocol is the inevitable consequence of a hard Brexit, in order to address the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland and to protect the Good Friday agreement. We are working off decisions taken here in the UK, not something that the European Union has foisted upon us.
Indeed, I am deeply concerned that the Prime Minister and the Government are twisting and distorting the meaning of the Good Friday agreement for their own political ends. The principle of consent is certainly one major component of the Good Friday agreement, and it is entrenched in the withdrawal agreement, so the Union is not up for grabs in this situation. That is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland to determine in due course. The Good Friday agreement is, in fact, a broad range of relationships across our islands.
The protocol is, in effect, the bare minimum to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. If we default on that, we risk a return of some form of border in that context. The European Union is entitled to protect the integrity of the single market and customs union, and that will create a fresh form of tension.
It is pragmatically easier to manage an interface down the Irish sea than across the land border. We are talking about seven air and sea crossings versus 270 land crossings, and the number of daily movements on the island far outweighs the number across the Irish sea. However, we must do all we can to reduce that interface to a minimum—to make it a dotted line. The way to achieve that is through building trust and good faith with the European Union and by working through the mechanisms of the withdrawal agreement—the Joint Committee and, if necessary, the arbitration mechanism—rather than circumventing it. We need to define what flexibilities and modalities we can.
Through their action, the Government are risking having no future relationship with the European Union. That brings huge consequences for the UK economy and makes the impact of the Northern Ireland protocol down the Irish sea even more stark. I support a trade deal with the United States, which is the dream of many Brexiteers who are forgoing the relationship with the European Union. I am not sure that they are picking up that that is a complete dead end if the Good Friday agreement is compromised by this Parliament.
This evening there has been much criticism of the Prime Minister, and I think he was at fault. He was at fault for believing the EU when it said that it would negotiate in good faith. He was at fault for believing it when it said it would respect the integrity of the UK and of our internal market. But he is not at fault for trying to remedy the situation with this legislation.
I think it is quite simple: if we do not get a deal that we like, we really have three options. First, we can accept the EU’s idea of a deal by accepting a rule-taking role in relation to Europe. That would breach our manifesto and would fail to deliver Brexit in a form that the people would recognise. That is option one. Option two is to get no free trade agreement but to accept a border within the UK. That would breach the Act of Union and threaten the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. Option three is to make a reasonable and legal change to the withdrawal agreement, on terms that were understood and acceptable when that agreement was first framed, in order to safeguard the Union and deliver Brexit. I suggest that those changes would be legal, on the simple grounds that when laws conflict, as they do at this sort of transition phase, domestic law takes precedence.
I pay tribute—I wish he were in his place—to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), who has done more than any Member of this House, past or present, to deliver the sovereignty of this nation. In the negotiations this time last year, he stood up more than anybody for the sovereignty of the UK, and it is because of him that we have enshrined in the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 the commitment to UK sovereignty that we rely on now.
There is a fourth option, of course. There are those three unpalatable options—the third, which I hope we are legislating into force now, is an unpalatable one—but there is a fourth option. It is to get a deal that we can all accept—a deal that the EU itself accepted in principle in the negotiations last year and said at the outset of our trade negotiations would be possible: an agreement based on the deal that it has with Canada. That is the deal that would be acceptable, and it would mean that we did not have to do any of the unpalatable options I mentioned. The way to do that is to pass this Bill to give the Government the negotiating hand they need.
It is clear from the Bill and from many of the contributions from Government Members, bar some notable exceptions, that there appears to be little or no respect for democracy, devolution or international diplomacy on the Government Benches. I have heard from many people in Newport West in the past few days and, like them, I believe that the Bill represents the starting gun of a crude and unacceptable race to the bottom. If approved, it will ultimately lead to the undermining of our high food standards, our animal welfare rights and the environmental standards that have helped to save lives and clean our air.
The principle of mutual recognition in the Bill will mean that if, say, the Welsh Government legislate to ban the sale of chlorinated chicken, a company based in England could add chemicals to its poultry, sell it across the border and face no penalties. In fact, if any attempt were made to prevent the sale of its produce, the company could sue for loss of profits. To quote my colleague the Welsh Counsel General, Jeremy Miles, the UK Government plan to
“sacrifice the future of the union by stealing powers from the devolved administrations”.
The Bill is an attack on democracy and an affront to the people of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, who have all voted in favour of devolution on numerous occasions. This is nothing but a shameless power grab, and it must be stopped.
The First Minister of Wales, my right honourable friend Mark Drakeford, has said that he is willing to negotiate in good faith with the UK Government on the content, scope and structure of the frameworks that regulate the internal market, but he wishes to do so on a genuine national approach. I want to see the Welsh Government, the Scottish Government, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Westminster Government working together to agree common frameworks. Anything forced on Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland by Westminster is simply unacceptable.
Our Prime Minister, who has developed a taste for breaking international law, now claims that the Bill is necessary because the withdrawal agreement was rushed through. I have not been here as long as some Members, but I have never heard such claptrap. The withdrawal agreement was negotiated by this Prime Minister, agreed by his Cabinet and taken to the country in a general election. I say to Members on the Treasury Bench: “Don’t try to take the people of Newport West or any other part of our country for fools, because you won’t get away with it.”
We have heard from two former Conservative Prime Ministers, including the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May); we have heard from former Conservative party leaders; we have heard from many senior Tory Back Benchers in this House and in the other place. They all raised caution, all recognised the importance of our international leadership, and all made it clear that we can never sanction law-breaking. I urge Ministers to heed their calls. Sir John Major said:
“If we lose our reputation for honouring the promises we make, we will have lost something beyond price that may never be regained.”
It is 2020, and my constituents in Newport West and millions across the country have a Government who seek to undermine treaty obligations, who openly admit to breaking international law, and who have failed miserably at giving the country the leadership that it needs. Britain deserves better than this.
Great consternation is felt in Scotland about the way in which part 5 of the Bill seeks to flout international law by breaking a treaty into which the Prime Minister entered freely barely a year ago. There is a long tradition in Scotland, going back to the declaration of Arbroath, that neither the monarch nor the Government are above the law. The Prime Minister should really remember that, because it was Scotland’s Supreme Court that led the way last year in ruling his Prorogation of Parliament unlawful, but it seems that he has learned nothing from that debacle.
Nor has the Prime Minister learned anything from the revulsion that was felt when he allowed his adviser Cummings to flout the lockdown restrictions that the rest of us had to obey. Over the past few days, we have watched a succession of Tory Government lawyers make mealy-mouthed excuses for what the Bill seeks to do. The Lord Chancellor says that he will resign only if the Government break the rule of law in a way that is “unacceptable”. What—pray tell, Lord Chancellor—is an acceptable way to break the law? I am sure that the thousands of ordinary men and women who have been fined for breaking lockdown restrictions will be very interested to know the answer to that question.
The Attorney General tells us that the English doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty means that she is happy to support the Bill; she cites the case of Miller I. Seemingly, she is in ignorance of the fact that at paragraph 55 of its judgment on that case, the UK Supreme Court affirmed that
“treaties between sovereign states have effect in international law and are not governed by…domestic law”.
If she were capable of applying the most rudimentary legal analysis, she would realise that that means that, so far as international law is concerned, the English doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty cannot supersede the UK’s freely given agreement and obligations in the withdrawal agreement.
I am ashamed to say, as a member of the Scottish Bar, that my fellow Scottish advocate, the Tories’ man in Scotland, the Advocate General, also seems to think it is okay to defend the Bill. I can only assume he is happy to ignore the fact that, in seeking to oust the jurisdiction of the Court of Session in respect of judicial review, clause 45 breaches another treaty—the treaty of Union, of which we have heard much this evening, article 19 of which protects the supervisory jurisdiction of the Court of Session.
The Prime Minister and others have described the Bill as a necessary safety net to protect the Union, but if he looks at the opinion polls in Scotland, including the one commissioned by his own Government, or reads the newspapers over the weekend, he will realise that far from protecting the Union, the Bill will put a final nail in the Union’s coffin.
The Bill is necessary to secure free trade and prosperity throughout the United Kingdom, but the focus of much of the debate has not been on that; rather, it has been on the legality or otherwise of the Bill and the proposals before us. In response, it must be noted that Parliament is sovereign. Parliament is supreme. Parliamentary sovereignty is one of the cornerstones of our constitution and always has been. Legislation and the content of legislation, whether to pass it or otherwise, is for Parliament and Parliament alone.
The withdrawal agreement signed by the EU and the UK acknowledged that there might be difficulties with the Northern Ireland protocol. That was acknowledged earlier by the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband). The agreement states that if the application of the protocol leads to
“serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade”,
the European Union or the United Kingdom may unilaterally take appropriate safeguard measures. Provision was made for exactly this contingency in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2020, section 38 of which states:
“It is recognised that the Parliament of the United Kingdom is sovereign… Accordingly, nothing in this Act derogates from the sovereignty of the Parliament of the United Kingdom.”
That was done because of the ambiguities of the withdrawal agreement relating to Northern Ireland. The agreement holds simultaneously that there will be unfettered access between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain after the transition period and that the EU’s customs code will have direct effect in the territory of Northern Ireland. At best, and at the very least, that is ambiguous; at worst, it is a direct contradiction, because it means that access would be fettered to one place but not to another. This was always going to have to be dealt with in subsequent negotiations.
The main clauses in contention this evening—clauses 42, 43 and 45—will come into effect only if the Joint Committee cannot reach agreement. We know that the Joint Committee negotiations have been going badly, particularly in relation to third country listings. It has become apparent that the EU is taking a direction that we cannot possibly support. We also know that the EU is fearful. Why would it not be? A strong, independent Britain prospering on its doorstep is not something the EU would necessarily welcome.
In saying that, I am sure that both sides in the negotiation want to secure a free trade deal, and I wholeheartedly support that outcome. A free trade agreement would be a win-win for both sides, but it must not be at the expense either of our independent sovereignty or of the Union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We must be honest: the EU is negotiating with its members’ best interests at heart, not Britain’s. It has always sought to use Northern Ireland as a weapon to gain leverage in free trade talks. We must give the Government the tools to push the EU in the direction of agreeing a strong free trade agreement. The Bill seeks to do just that, and I will support it unamended.
I am a Unionist. I believe that we are stronger together and I want a functioning UK internal market, but it must be one that is based on respect, on partnership and on consent—the very principles that underpinned the devolution settlement that I and my party have proudly supported for the past few decades. That settlement respects our different histories, cultures, languages and perspectives, but couples those with the pooled benefits of working together. To undermine and disrespect that settlement, which is underpinned by multiple referendums and the Good Friday agreement, is both a breach of trust and deeply dangerous.
On Northern Ireland specifically, let us not forget that it was this Prime Minister who personally negotiated with the Taoiseach on the Wirral and gave his word to the Taoiseach and all the communities of Northern Ireland, so to renege on those commitments now is both dangerous and devoid of moral principle, quite apart from the fact that it also imperils the Government’s stated wider goals for so-called global Britain such as a US trade deal. As Nancy Pelosi said, “What were they thinking?” All the chumminess of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster with President Trump will not circumvent the United States Congress.
The other fundamental issue at stake is international law and the rule of law. I commend what the former Attorney General, the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), said. Clauses 42, 43 and 45 are, in his words, not a clarification, but a contradiction, not only of our commitment to international law, but of the very principle of the rule of law, for which Britain has stood as a beacon for many centuries. That saw us being instrumental in the founding of the United Nations, which has its 75th anniversary this year. The first General Assembly took place across the square from here. We stood for the rule of law in the establishment of the global human rights regime, the International Criminal Court and a rules-based financial and trading system, let alone the defence of our own interests from the Falklands to Gibraltar. We ask Iran to abide by its nuclear commitments, the Communist party of China to adhere to the Sino-British joint declaration and Russia to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine or take responsibility for poisoning its citizens or using chemical weapons on the soil of this country, or when we rightly support the prosecution of those who committed genocide in Bosnia, Rwanda and now in the case of the Rohingya or the Uyghurs.
This goes well beyond Brexit. We all have our views on Brexit and the Prime Minister’s failure to produce an oven-ready deal. It is about Britain and the type of country we want to be: whether we want to be one that upholds the rule of law and standards, and stands as a beacon for democracy and rule of law in the world, or whether we want to become a pariah. I know that there are many Conservative women and men of courage who say things in the corridors of this place. The question is whether they will stand by their consciences in the vote tonight.
We should not be here today debating the Bill, not because it is wrong but because it should not be necessary. We entered into an agreement with the European Union in good faith and it is a shame that that has not been reciprocated. Using third country listings, which should be a formality, as leverage on state aid and fisheries policy is not negotiating in good faith. Does the EU believe that its own rules and standards are not good enough now? Those are the rules and standards that we currently operate under. The EU knows them well, although it should be said that it is not always the best at following them.
We must now be explicit: Northern Ireland is not on the table, nor are the people who live there. They never have been. We will not accept the blockading of agriculture within our own country. The Bill is about making the choice very clear: Canada or Australia. The EU told us that the Canada deal was on the table, so what has suddenly changed?
The Bill gives us the option of protecting our internal markets and the status of Northern Ireland as an equal partner in this United Kingdom, not as a bargaining chip or an afterthought. I hope we never have to use it, but we owe it to the people of this country to make the provisions. We must stand in solidarity with the people of Northern Ireland and our hon. Friends in the Chamber from Northern Ireland to protect the status of the Union and the Belfast agreement. We will not allow the EU to divide us.
If the Opposition want us chained to EU rules and to make concessions on fisheries and state aid, they should say that. There is an old saying that starts with the phrase, “Give a man a fish”. Unfortunately, some would give a man as many fish as he wants. We should not run the risk of a blockade on agriculture between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Perhaps the EU wants to cut off its nose to spite its face, whatever the cost to itself and its economies at this difficult time. Perhaps it wants huge tariffs on our lamb, our pork and our beef, though I doubt it. It knows the risks and that, if my hon. Friends will excuse the term, the “steaks” are too high. That is why the Bill is so vital.
The European Union needs to learn that Northern Ireland and our precious Union are off the table. Our Opposition now need to come off the fence. I wholeheartedly support the Bill and urge others in the Chamber to do the same.
Diolch yn fawr, Mr Dirprwy Lefarydd. It is difficult to know where to start with the Bill, so numerous are the egregious assumptions, the pitfalls and the Trojan horses lurking within it, so I will be brief and specific.
For Wales, the Bill is damaging without precedent, emerging fully fledged as the single biggest sustained assault yet to threaten devolution and our powers. It scorns two referenda and seeks to overturn the reiterated will of the Welsh people, not only weakening the powers of the Senedd, but explicitly reserving new powers to this place.
This Bill would render Wales powerless to stop low-quality produce, such as chlorinated chicken, flooding our supermarkets and undercutting Welsh farmers by being cheaper. This Bill would permit a 21st-century Tryweryn by giving Westminster more spending powers directly over water infrastructure. It would invalidate “buy local” policies in Wales by making it illegal to place goods from another part of the UK at a disadvantage compared with local goods in Wales.
The Conservative party would hold the whip hand over our Senedd’s attempts to protect our NHS against privatisation through damaging trade deals. The Bill holds up the spectre of no trade deal with the UK due to the Prime Minister breaking international law, which would wreak havoc on businesses already suffering the effects of covid-19. It could force Wales to accept abuses of animal welfare and food production, with the Senedd powerless to block such produce from entering our markets if they were to be tolerated in other parts of the UK, and who is even speaking for the future of the port of Holyhead?
Whatever some Conservative Members like to say, devolution is no experiment; it lives and breathes in Wales. Our democracy has been growing in the last two decades and more, in confidence and in power, and our wings will not be clipped. Plaid Cymru will stand up for our powers and our Senedd every step of the way, and we will not be supporting this Bill.
I would like to start by saying that the Government are right to bring this Bill forward. It protects the Union of the United Kingdom, safeguards Northern Ireland and paves the way for the return of many of our laws from Brussels. There has been a lot of talk in the media and from the Opposition about the supposed illegal nature of this Bill if it becomes law, but this Bill does not itself break international law. Many commentators seem to think that passing the Bill means that we are immediately breaching the withdrawal agreement, but the Bill is simply a safeguard in case no trade agreement is reached with the EU. Should Ministers end up using the powers made available to them under this Bill, the withdrawal agreement could indeed be broken, but it is clear that this is very much the last resort.
Let us face it: most EU member states are not squeaky clean on these issues. On Thursday 10 September, the European Court of Auditors reported that 15 EU states had breached EU rules in agreeing bilateral commercial deals with China that it has identified as having both political and economic risks, as well as having violated EU rules by bypassing the European Commission before they completed those trade deals. It is this level of hypocrisy and double standards that I and the people of West Bromwich East recognised prior to casting our votes in 2016, and it is what spurred 68% of my constituents to vote to leave. As has been made obvious throughout these negotiations, it is the EU that is not for turning.
I have spoken before about this level of hypocrisy, both in this Chamber and to Mr Barnier himself when he appeared before the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union. On 5 May, the German Federal Constitutional Court ruled that the European Central Bank’s 2015 policy to buy bonds as part of its quantitative easing stimulus package was not covered by its mandate. The German courts ruled that they had the ability to determine when and if Germany is subordinate to EU law. Mr Barnier dismissed my points. He said it was unfortunate, but not relevant to Brexit, but it most certainly is because, for the first time in history, a national court refused to submit to the European Court of Justice as a member state. So why, as an independent state, should the UK be subject to EU law in our future relationship, while Germany seems to believe its domestic courts can supersede ECJ rulings on monetary policy?
The EU does not recognise this hypocrisy, but my constituents do, so if the EU does not like this Bill, there is a very simple solution. It should drop its arbitrary red lines, get around the table in a good spirit and do a trade deal that we can accept. The fact that we have to go to these lengths to protect the Union of the UK further highlights the absurdity of the situation and why we voted to leave. I would urge all Members in this place to put the Union of the United Kingdom above the European Union and pass this Bill tonight.
By rushing through this legislation, this Government are treating the people of Leicester and the entire British public with utter contempt. Perhaps more than any election in recent memory, the 2019 general election was decided by a single issue. The Prime Minister promised to get Brexit done, and his party boasted time and again about an oven-ready deal that would settle the divisive issue of Brexit for good. “Very good”, “great”, “wonderful”, “fantastic” —those were just some of the words that the Prime Minister used during the general election campaign to describe the Brexit deal, which he is now openly willing to break international law in order to rewrite.
This is an agreement that the Prime Minister negotiated and signed himself, yet he now says that it contains grave problems that could break up our country. I do not know of any instance in which a Government have openly admitted to flouting their central election promise less than a year into their Administration. This is an unprecedented failure that raises serious questions about the Government’s entire mandate. Sadly, it comes as no real surprise. This Government are the embodiment of elitist double standards, where it is one rule for them and another for everyone else.
The Prime Minister is apparently not satisfied with misleading the public once by claiming that his half-baked deal was oven-ready. In addition, his Government are now being dishonest about the reasons why the deal must be changed. The issues of state aid and customs declarations are not a revelation but were repeatedly and explicitly spelled out to the Government last year, not least by their confidence and supply partners, the DUP. In this House, we cannot risk the sanctity of the Good Friday agreement or threaten peace on the island of Ireland, yet that is what this legislation proposes to do.
Why? This self-inflicted crisis is either a counterproductive negotiating tactic or a pathetic attempt to distract from this Government’s calamitous record over the last few months. After all, this Government have overseen the worst coronavirus death rate of any European country. Boris Johnson and his Ministers are used to U-turning—[Interruption.] The Prime Minister and his Ministers are used to U-turning, but tearing up their own international—
I agree with the people of Ashfield who tell me that British Members of Parliament should act in the best interests of the UK and not the EU. Let us face it: the EU has negotiated in bad faith throughout, and we need to protect ourselves by showing strong leadership when dealing with the EU. We have a proud tradition of standing up for ourselves in Europe, and be in no doubt: there are other European countries looking at us right now for leadership.
This time last year, I was just a normal member of the public watching this place on the telly, shouting and screaming at these green Benches because of the deadlock and the daily nonsense we had to put up with. Well, I am here now, and the people of Ashfield will be listened to. On 31 December, we will lose rules that have regulated the home nations for the past 45 years, and this legislation will ensure that we retain internal trade, which hundreds of jobs in Ashfield depend on. Business leaders in Ashfield and Eastwood tell me that they cannot go into next year with unnecessary barriers for business and additional costs for consumers. They need certainty, and this oven-ready Bill provides certainty.
We are at a critical moment in ensuring that we have a prosperous future post Brexit, and we need a system in place that allows a free market in goods and services for all four nations in the UK. This Bill allows that. This Bill will protect jobs and encourage growth across the whole of the United Kingdom, while allowing Northern Ireland unfettered access to the rest of the UK. I cannot understand why anyone would not be in favour of it.
Our Prime Minister is right to put our country first, and he is right to try to secure trade for the UK. I strongly believe that he has our best interests at heart and I back him 100%. We voted to leave and he is making sure that we do so on our terms while putting the whole of the UK first. Once again, it is disappointing to see the Opposition oppose what the British people want. Perhaps they need to speak to some real people, not their mates in the Tea Room reading The Guardian. By real people I mean people like those in Ashfield, which is now a safe Tory seat.
There is nothing illegal about bringing this Bill to Parliament. We voted to leave to take back control and to make our own laws, which is what we are doing right now. Members of this House need to decide where their loyalties lie. Is it with the EU or with the United Kingdom? On behalf of the people of Ashfield and Eastwood, my loyalties are with the UK.
I first raised the issue of the Northern Ireland border on the Monday after the referendum—I have skin in the game, with family on both sides of the border. I have watched every twist and turn of events since. I despair at the language, at the deep ignorance, at the disregard for fragile settlements and for the 1.9 million people who live there who, frankly, deserve better.
The Tories got themselves caught up in a toxic triangle of the ERG Brexit, the differential rules across the Union and their obligations under the Belfast Good Friday agreement, and the Prime Minister chose his party. He did so through the protocol and now we need to make it work, because he agreed the differential rules across his precious Union.
I take a lot of interest in the constitutional settlement across these islands. I am vice-chair of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, and I have visited many of those legislatures: in Edinburgh; Cardiff; Belfast; Dublin; Jersey; Guernsey; Sark and the Falklands. Those places reflect their history as part of the United Kingdom family. They take great pride in it and in what we do, and they are watching.
I read the White Paper in July with some dismay. In the past two decades in particular our constitution has changed, but after reading that White Paper it felt as if nothing had changed in 200 years. The Acts of Union that got us to this place did not just happen: they were violent; they were disputed; and they involved an awful lot of money and land passing hands. There are different readings of our history, which has resulted in many years of debate across these islands. It is an evolving dynamic situation and one that is actually very precious and it is something of which we need to be mindful.
I am also a member of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. This summer, we expressed our great reservations about the Bill, particularly with regard to the speed of the consultation and the constitutional aspects. It is primarily an economic Bill, but it is also deeply constitutional. We have asked for an independent monitoring body to report directly to the House of Commons, as we are concerned about the provisions in the Bill and the need to take account of the intergovernmental relations that are coming.
Last week, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster appeared before the Committee and we were told that the Dunlop review would be published before the Bill hits the statute book at the end of this year. It is a case of putting the cart before the horse. It would have been much better to have these discussions and a respect for the common frameworks before bringing this Bill forward. The Government need to dial down the rhetoric. They need to get back to the negotiating table, and they need to treat this Parliament and the devolved legislatures with much greater respect.