[Relevant Documents: First Report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Unfettered Access: Customs Arrangements in Northern Ireland after Brexit, HC 161, and the Government response, HC 783; and Oral evidence taken before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on 16 September 2020, on Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol, HC 767.]
3rd Allocated Day
Further considered in Committee
Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair
I should explain that, in these exceptional circumstances, although the Chair of the Committee would normally sit in the Clerk’s chair during Committee stage, in order to comply with social distancing requirements, I will remain in the Speaker’s Chair, although I will be carrying out the role not of Deputy Speaker but of Chairman of the Committee. We should be addressed as Chairs of the Committee, rather than as Deputy Speakers.
Modifications in connection with the Northern Ireland Protocol
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
With this it be convenient to take the following:
Amendment 45, in clause 40, page 31, line 16, at end insert—
“(d) the need to maintain the necessary conditions for continued North-South cooperation in—
(i) the areas of environment, health, agriculture, transport, education and tourism, energy, telecommunications, broadcasting, inland fisheries, justice and security, trade and business development, higher education and sport, and
(ii) any other area that may be agreed by a body established under the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement.”
This amendment would aim to build into the Bill the need for ministers to maintain the conditions necessary for North-South co-operation in areas specified under the Good Friday Agreement.
Amendment 48, page 31, line 16, at end insert—
“(d) the need to ensure that there would be no new checks on goods moving from Northern Ireland to Ireland, and
(e) the need to ensure that there would be no new checks on goods moving from Ireland to Northern Ireland.”
This amendment would aim to require Ministers to have special regard to ensuring that there are no new checks on goods moving from Northern Ireland to Ireland or vice versa
Amendment 41, page 31, line 16, at end insert—
“(1A) When exercising any functions covered by this Part, any appropriate authority has a paramount duty—
(a) to act without prejudice to all international and domestic law, including the Withdrawal Agreement;
(b) to address the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland;
(c) to maintain the necessary conditions for continued North-South cooperation;
(d) to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland;
(e) to protect the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in all its dimensions.”
This amendment is intended to provide a safeguard so that any actions with respect to Part 5 of the Bill must be consistent with relevant existing international and domestic law commitments, including the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement and its Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol.
Amendment 68, page 31, line 16, at end insert—
‘(1A) Regulations that would introduce new requirements for goods traded from Great Britain to Northern Ireland may not come into force without the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
(1B) No additional official or administrative costs consequent on any regulations of the kind mentioned in subsection (1A) may be recouped from the private sector.
The intention of this amendment is to require the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly before trade frictions are imposed on goods traded from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, and to protect Northern Ireland businesses from paying for any new administrative costs.
Amendment 67, page 31, line 26, at end insert—
‘(2A) On or after IP completion day, an appropriate authority must not exercise any function in a way that would—
(a) result in an existing kind of GB-NI check, control or administrative process being used—
(i) for the first time, or
(ii) for a new purpose or to a new extent; or
(b) result in a new kind of GB-NI check, control or administrative process—
(i) being introduced, or
(ii) being used.
(2B) For the purposes of this section—
(a) a “GB-NI” check, control or administrative process is one applicable to the direct movement of goods produced in a part of the United Kingdom from Great Britain to Northern Ireland;
(b) goods are to be regarded as “produced in” a part of the United Kingdom (if not wholly produced there) if the most recent significant regulated step in their production has occurred there.”
(c) an “existing kind” of GB-NI check, control or administrative process is one that—
(i) was in use or available for use immediately before IP completion day, or
(ii) is the same as, or substantially similar to, one that was in use or available for use immediately before IP completion day (the “predecessor”);
(d) a “new kind of” GB-NI check, control or administrative process is one that is not of an existing kind;
(e) where an GB-NI check, control or administrative process is of an existing kind because of paragraph (b)(ii), that check, control or administrative process and the predecessor are to be treated as a single function for the purpose of determining whether subsection (1)(a) prevents its exercise;
(f) the purpose for which, or extent to which, a function would be used is “new” if the function has not been used for that purpose, or to that extent, before IP completion day.
(2C) A Minister of the Crown may by regulations amend this section so that it applies to a type of movement instead of, or in addition to, a type of movement to which it already applies (whether that type of movement is direct movement or another type of movement provided for by regulations under this subsection).”
The intention of this amendment is to mirror in Clause 40, in relation to the movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, the unfettered access NI-GB provisions in Clause 41.
Clause 40 stand part.
Amendment 69, in clause 41, page 32, line 4, at end insert—
“(c) result in a new cost on an Northern Ireland business in accessing the market or in meeting conditions of sale on the market that would not exist for Great Britain businesses.”
The intention of this amendment is to make unlawful both direct costs and administrative processes and indirect costs such as labelling etc being imposed on Northern Ireland businesses after IP completion day.
Amendment 52, page 32, line 4, at end insert—
‘(1A) An appropriate authority exercising any function to which this section applies must have regard to the obligations of the United Kingdom under the Withdrawal Agreement, including in particular the duty to seek resolution of disputes through the Joint Committee.”
The intention of this amendment is to confirm the process agreed in the Withdrawal Agreement as the mechanism for dispute resolution.
Government amendment 61.
Amendment 53, page 32, line 19, leave out paragraph (b).
The intention of this amendment is to omit the disapplication of international domestic law under Clause 45.
Government amendment 62.
Amendment 70, page 32, line 25, after “direct” insert “or indirect”
The intention of this amendment is to include within the definition of “NI-GB check” goods which travel indirectly (via Dublin, for example) from Northern Ireland to Great Britain.
Amendment 71, page 32, line 48, at end insert—
‘(5A) Before making regulations under this section, a Minister of the Crown must consult and have regard to the views of the Northern Ireland Executive on the proposed regulations.”
The intention of this amendment is to require the Minister to consult the Northern Ireland Executive before making amending the Clause on unfettered access.
Government amendment 63.
Clause 41 stand part.
Amendment 54, in clause 42, page 33, line 40, at end insert “, and
(c) the need to respect the rule of law.”
This amendment would require Ministers to take into account the rule of law when making regulations about exit procedures for goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain.
Amendment 55, page 33, line 44, leave out subsection (5).
This amendment would remove the provision allowing international and domestic law to be disregarded when regulating exit procedures.
Clause 42 stand part.
Amendment 56, in clause 43, page 34, line 21, after “provision” insert
“while having due regard to the rule of law and human rights”
This amendment would require the Secretary of State to respect the rule of law and human rights while making provisions under this Clause.
Amendment 57, page 34, line 23, leave out line 23.
This amendment would prevent the disapplication or modification of NI Protocol Article 10 under this Clause.
Amendment 58, page 34, line 26, leave out lines 26 to 28.
This amendment would protect, under this section about Article 10 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, persons having a right of action in respect of aid.
Amendment 59, page 34, leave out lines 41 to 44.
This amendment would stop regulations under this section about NI Protocol Article 10 having the effect that making rights, powers, liabilities, obligations, restrictions, remedies and procedures that would otherwise apply in relation to aid, would not be recognised because they are derived from international or domestic law.
Clause 43 stand part.
Amendment 60, in clause 44, page 35, line 20, at end insert—
‘(1A) The Secretary of State must take into account the need to respect the rule of law in considering whether and how to comply with the requirements mentioned in subsection (1).”
This amendment would require the Secretary of State to respect the rule of law in complying with the duty to notify state aid in accordance with Article 10 of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Clause 44 stand part.
Government amendment 64.
Amendment 31, in clause 45, page 36, line 17, at end insert—
‘(3A) The meaning of “incompatible”, “inconsistent”, “incompatibility” and “inconsistency” in this Part shall be determined by regulations made by statutory instrument by the Secretary of State.
(3B) Regulations under subsection (3A) may not be made unless a draft of the regulations has been laid before Parliament and approved by resolution of the House of Commons.
(3C) Any draft of regulations laid before Parliament under subsection (3B) must be accompanied by an impact assessment of Her Majesty’s Government’s obligations under international law on Part 5 of this Act.”
This amendment would require the definition of incompatible, inconsistent, incompatibility and inconsistency to be determined only after an impact assessment of the UK Government’s obligations under international law has been carried out (see Amendment 32).
Amendment 42, page 36, line 17, at end insert—
‘(3A) If no agreement has been reached before IP completion day between the EU and the United Kingdom on the free movement of goods in both directions between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, a Minister of the Crown may lay before each House of Parliament a unilateral interpretative declaration, applicable to the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, setting out how interruption of the free movement of goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom would not be in accord with the Protocol.”
The purpose of this amendment would be for the Government to utilise a unilateral interpretative declaration in order to preserve free movement of goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK without tariffs or controls in the event of no deal.
Amendment 32, page 36, line 18, at end insert—
““incompatible”, “inconsistent”, “incompatibility” and “inconsistency” have the meaning given in accordance with subsection (3A);”
This amendment would require the definition of incompatible, inconsistent, incompatibility and inconsistency to be determined only after an impact assessment of the UK Government’s obligations under international law has been carried out (see Amendment 31).
Government amendment 65.
Amendment 46, page 36, leave out line 20.
This amendment would aim to put in place an understanding that each section of the Act should be compatible or consistent with the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Amendment 43, page 36, line 27, leave out “whatsoever” and insert
“other than the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European Convention on Human Rights”
This amendment excepts the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European Convention on Human Rights from the definition of “relevant domestic and international law.”
Amendment 44, page 36, line 28, at end insert
“other than the High Court, Upper Tribunal or Court of Session when considering an application for judicial review.”
This amendment seeks to make it clear that nothing in Clause 45 ousts the jurisdiction of domestic courts in respect of judicial review of regulations made under Clauses 42 and 43.
Amendment 47, page 36, line 28, insert —
‘(none) “but excludes any provision of—
(a) the European Convention on Human Rights,
(b) the Human Rights Act 1998,
(c) the Northern Ireland Act 1998, or
(d) the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006.”
This amendment would aim to put in place an understanding that each section of the Act should be compatible or consistent with the legislation specified.
Clause 45 stand part.
Clause 50 stand part.
New clause 6—Duty to seek free movement of goods from Northern Ireland to Great Britain—
Ministers of the Crown must use their best endeavours to seek through the Joint Committee (established in the Withdrawal Agreement) the disapplication of export declarations and other exit procedures for goods of Northern Ireland moving to Great Britain, in a manner consistent with the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement and other international obligations.”
This new clause, while recognising that under the Withdrawal Agreement export declarations and exit procedures fall under the ambit of the EU Customs Code, would mandate the UK Government to use its endeavours to achieve a waiver for Northern Ireland origin goods moving to Great Britain.
New clause 7—Compatibility—
No power under this Act may be exercised by an appropriate authority unless the exercise (or purpose of the exercise) would be compatible and consistent with—
(a) the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement of 10 April 1998 between the Government of the United Kingdom and the Government of Ireland and the other participants in the multi-party negotiations, which is annexed to the British-Irish Agreement of the same date, or
(b) any domestic legislation or subsequent agreement implementing the Agreement.”
This new clause would aim to ensure that powers could not be used under the Bill if they were incompatible or inconsistent with the Good Friday Agreement or its associated documents.
Amendment 78, in clause 10, page 7, line 17, at end, insert—
‘(2A) In making these regulations, the Secretary of State must have special regard to the need to maintain the integral place of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom internal market.
The intention of this amendment is to ensure that further exclusions from the application of the access principles have regard to safeguarding unfettered access of NI businesses to the UK Internal Market.
Amendment 79, in schedule 1, page 44, line 40, at end, insert—
‘(6A) In the case that there is one REACH authorisation process for Great Britain, an authorisation that is lawful for the Northern Ireland market will be valid for the Great Britain market.”
The intention of this amendment is to apply the non-discrimination principle to the REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) regime.
Amendment 4, in clause 54, page 41, line 24,at end insert—
‘(2A) The relevant sections of this Act come into force in accordance only if—
(a) a Minister of the Crown has moved a motion in the House of Commons specifying on which date a relevant section comes into force, and
(b) that motion is approved by resolution of the House of Commons.
(2B) The relevant sections for the purposes of subsection (2A) are sections 42, 43 and 45.”
This amendment would prevent any of sections 42 (Power to disapply or modify export declarations and other exit procedures), 43 (Regulations about Article 10 of the Northern Ireland Protocol) and 45 (Further provision related to sections 42 and 43 etc) coming into force before the House of Commons had approved by resolution the date from which they would take effect.
Government amendment 66.
Everyone will know that the call list is very well subscribed, so may I ask at this stage that those taking part show some self-discipline as to the length of contributions made, so that as many MPs as possible may be able to participate in this part of the Committee?
Thank you, Mr Evans. I am pleased to be opening this detailed consideration of part 5 of the Bill, which deals with matters relating to the Northern Ireland Protocol. I welcome this opportunity to discuss these provisions and the important issues they raise in depth today. Before I turn to the specific clauses and amendments in this group, let me begin by making it clear that the Northern Ireland protocol to the withdrawal agreement is designed to recognise and protect the needs and unique circumstances of Northern Ireland. Central to that is ensuring that the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, its successor agreements, and the gains of the peace process are protected. But, above all, we must ensure that the delicate balance between all communities in Northern Ireland is maintained and that the UK Government pursue policies for sustained growth and stability in Northern Ireland. Those have always been and will remain this Government’s priorities.
Through this Bill, we are acting to uphold those priorities and deliver the commitments we made in our election manifesto that we would provide unfettered access between Northern Ireland and Great Britain and
“maintain and strengthen the integrity and smooth operation of our internal market.”
The protocol also explicitly depends on the consent of the people of Northern Ireland for its continued existence. As we implement the protocol, that must be kept in mind. Those commitments are, of course, entirely in accord with the protocol itself, which makes it clear that, among other things, Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom’s customs territory, that nothing in the protocol prevents unfettered access from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK market, and that in its application the protocol should impact as little as possible on the everyday life of communities in both Ireland and Northern Ireland.
My right hon. Friend is of course right about that, and we still hope to strike a free trade agreement with the EU. I also point out that these issues can and should be resolved through the Joint Committee—I will come back to that.
Both the UK and the EU signed up to the protocol on the basis I just outlined. We are committed to implementing the protocol and we have been working hard to ensure that it is done in a way that delivers the promises that have been made. That includes working with the EU to reach agreement through the Joint Committee process in a number of areas that the protocol left unresolved, and we very much hope that agreement can be reached shortly. But if it is not, the harmful legal defaults contained in some interpretations of the protocol, which were never intended to be used, would be activated. The consequences for Northern Ireland in that scenario would be very damaging. We cannot and will not run that risk.
The provisions we are considering today will therefore ensure that in any scenario, we will protect Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom; ensure that businesses based in Northern Ireland have unfettered access to the rest of the United Kingdom; and ensure that there is no legal confusion or ambiguity in UK law about the interpretation of the state aid elements of the Northern Ireland protocol.
I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman in a moment, because I do intend to refer to some of his comments in my speech, and I will happily take his intervention shortly.
Further measures will be set out in the Finance Bill. These will have the same effect as those already proposed in the UKIM Bill, and will make it clear that no tariffs will be payable on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland unless those goods are destined for the EU market, or there is a genuine and substantial risk of them ending up there. We will take the necessary powers in the Finance Bill to ensure that this is defined in a reasonable and proportionate way, which ensures that legitimate traders are not penalised, while also resolving the outstanding issues relating to the payment of VAT and excise duty. So we are taking limited and reasonable steps through the legislation to create a legal safety net by taking powers in reserve, whereby Ministers can guarantee the integrity of our United Kingdom and ensure that the Government are always able to deliver on their commitments to the people of Northern Ireland in line with the three-stranded approach of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
I declare an interest as a member of the Ulster Farmers Union, which has contacted me, and it says:
“there will be a total amount under the NI protocol that will be a maximum we can give to agriculture in the form of support and there will be a certain percentage that we could give as coupled support.”
It clearly sees that less state aid will be available for Northern Ireland and we will be treated differently from Scotland, Wales and the rest of England. Does the Minister of State agree with that?
I will come in detail to the amendment tabled by the hon. Gentleman’s party later in my speech, but I do recognise that when it comes to state aid, we have made specific agreements under the protocol on goods traded between Northern Ireland and the EU, and we should stick to those in order to ensure the effective functioning of trade north, south, east and west. We are taking steps in the Bill to clarify the state aid elements, and some of those will be to the benefit of businesses in Northern Ireland. I will come back to that point in more detail.
If I may, I will come to the right hon. Gentleman’s point very shortly, and then I will happily give way to him.
We would not take these steps lightly. We hope it will never be necessary to use these powers, and we would do so only if, in our view, the EU was engaged in a material breach of its duties of good faith or other obligations. We would, of course, always activate appropriate formal dispute resolution mechanisms with the aim of finding a solution through this route in parallel to any domestic legislation. I draw the Committee’s attention to the statement that the Government made on 17 September .
Can I ask my hon. Friend to go just a little further than he has just gone? He has explained already that the Government may end up in a position where entirely outrageous behaviour on the part of the EU might lead to a conclusion that no Government could possibly accept. Can I ask him to confirm that in those circumstances the Government would explore to the fullest all the options available to them within the withdrawal agreement before resorting to any breach of international law outside the withdrawal agreement—accepting, of course, that there would come a time when if the Government did not act unilaterally it would then be too late to do so?
I absolutely hear what my right hon. and learned Friend has said, and I draw his attention to the words of the Prime Minister, who said that we would simultaneously pursue every possible redress under international law, including those provided by the protocol. In those circumstances, in addition to our steps under domestic law, we would—if we had to—make it clear that we believed that the EU was engaged in a material breach of its duties in good faith as required and provided for under the withdrawal agreement and the Vienna convention on the law of treaties.
This is a very important issue. If it is the case that, before the Government introduced the measures contained in this Bill, or those the Minister has promised will be contained in the Finance Bill, he would first pursue the avenues that are open through the withdrawal agreement—the Joint Committee, adjudication and finally the European Court of Justice—does he not recognise that that process itself could be so elongated that the economic damage done by the requirements of the EU could be very severe in Northern Ireland?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. That is why we are taking the powers in this Bill, and we would seek the consent of the House before those powers were exercised—it is to ensure that there is a legal default different from the one that he suggests. It is about taking these steps in parallel.
I want to recognise the significant concerns that many Members have raised, which is why we have agreed that a “break glass” provision should be included, requiring the House of Commons to give its approval before these measures are commenced. I will return to the detail of that shortly, but the Committee should be in no doubt that this Government will always seek to ensure that the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is protected and that the political and economic integrity of our United Kingdom is maintained. That is what the Government amendments in this group seek to achieve.
Clauses 11, 40 and 41 of the Bill give effect to the Government’s commitment to give unfettered access to Northern Ireland goods to the whole UK internal market, in line with the protocol. They will ensure that we protect the vast majority of the £8.1 billion of goods sales from Northern Ireland to Great Britain and guarantee Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s internal market. That will provide vital legal certainty for businesses in Northern Ireland, whose largest market is the rest of the United Kingdom—56% of Northern Ireland’s goods trade is with Great Britain—and deliver on a promise that has been repeatedly made throughout the process of our exit from the European Union.
Clause 11 sets out that qualifying Northern Ireland goods will benefit from mutual recognition and are not discriminated against. It ensures that the mutual recognition principle will apply to all such goods that will also benefit from unfettered access under clause 40. Clause 40 ensures that, in implementing the protocol, authorities must have special regard to the fundamental need to maintain Northern Ireland’s integral place in the UK’s internal market and customs territory and to facilitate the free flow of goods between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. That, of course, applies to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in both directions.
Clause 41 ensures that there will be no new checks, controls or administrative processes on goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. This clause is in keeping with what the Government have constantly said, including in our manifesto, and in line with our commitments to businesses in the “New Decade, New Approach” agreement.
Clauses 42, 43 and 45 set out the safety net that I have described. Clause 42 ensures that full unfettered access is guaranteed in any scenario by providing a power to disapply or modify the requirement for export declarations or other exit procedures when goods move from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. As the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) rightly said on Second Reading, there is no real justification for such declarations being needed to protect the EU’s single market or customs union. It is a wholly reasonable suggestion from the UK that this issue can and should be resolved through the Joint Committee, but if it is not—and this is perhaps where he and I disagree—there needs to be a safety net in place.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way on that point. I want to press him on the safeguard measures that are provided in article 16 of the protocol and the extent to which they enable the Government to take action if they think the EU is being unreasonable. There is a one-month waiting period, but after that, the Government are able to take safeguard measures. Annex 7(5) goes on to say:
“The safeguard measures taken shall be the subject of consultations in the Joint Committee every 3 months”.
Could he clarify what would cause those safeguard measures to come to an end? Would it be a decision of the arbitration mechanism that the Government lost? Could it then go to the European Court of Justice? In other words, could he explain why what the Government negotiated to protect the country from bad faith action by the EU is insufficient? We have not had an answer to that question.
We are talking about the question of legal default. The UK Government are responsible for their implementation of the protocol, and we want to ensure that we have the necessary powers in UK law to avoid those legal defaults. As I have said, we would initiate all necessary proceedings in international law, including those under the protocol, if necessary, at that stage. It is not a stage that any of us want to get to, and we still hope to resolve these issues through the Joint Committee.
There is a way of reconciling the points made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright) and the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn). Under the amendment that the Government have tabled, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) paved the way for, is it not the case that Ministers would have to come to this House and make a case that it found compelling before they could use these powers? As the Bill was formerly drafted—this is why so many of us had concerns about it—Ministers could have made those resolutions under the affirmative procedure, and the powers would have come into force before any of us had a say. Under the amended Bill, Ministers would have to come to the House in advance, make the case and win not only the argument but the support of this House. That should reassure us all that these powers will only be used when absolutely necessary.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was going to come in more detail to the amendment tabled by our hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), the Chair of the Justice Committee, and the Government’s amendment in response, but my right hon. Friend is absolutely right in what he says, and that should provide significant reassurance to Members across the House.
I will make a little progress.
Clause 42 is in keeping with what the Government have constantly said, including public commitments from the Prime Minister, our manifesto commitments and commitments to the people of Northern Ireland. It is clear from the protocol that it is for the UK to implement unfettered access. Declarations of the sort that would be disapplied through this clause would be contrary to the recognition in the protocol that Northern Ireland is part of the customs territory of the United Kingdom.
Clauses 43 and 44 provide a similar safety net in the case of EU state aid rules that will apply in the UK by virtue of the protocol. Clause 43 gives the Secretary of State the ability to ensure there is no ambiguity in UK law about the interpretation of article 10 of the protocol, which provides that EU state aid rules will apply in respect of goods and electricity traded between Northern Ireland and the EU. A clear interpretation of how they will apply may be needed in the interests of legal certainty for both public authorities granting subsidies and companies throughout the UK receiving support. There is a risk that a maximalist interpretation of article 10 of protocol by the EU, which was never intended but is none the less a risk we must protect against, could give the European Commission extensive jurisdiction over subsidies granted in the rest of the UK, known as reach-back. All the subsidies granted to the services sector in Northern Ireland could be caught even if there is no link, or only a trivial one, to a goods provider.
Absolute clarity and certainty is required on this state aid issue. For example, will traders in Northern Ireland be able to benefit from subsidy paid by the EU, will they be able to benefit only from subsidy paid by the UK, or will they be able to benefit from both? If it is both, that would certainly address the issue of the best of both worlds, but I think it is an absolute nonsense, because it will not be allowed to happen. Can the Minister clear up that matter immediately? Will the European Union, or our predatory neighbour to the south of Ireland, be able to stop Northern Ireland benefiting from free ports that could be given to Northern Ireland? Would they be able to block that? Clarity on those issues is absolutely essential.
The hon. Gentleman raises some important points. It is for the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to use the powers in the Bill to take further steps in setting out the UK’s state aid policy. As the hon. Gentleman will recognise, the UK also has a policy on free ports, which we absolutely want Northern Ireland to be part of, so perhaps that is for future debates.
Let me be clear: the Government’s position is that EU state aid rules will apply in Northern Ireland as long as the protocol is in place in respect of goods and electricity, as agreed, but we have to give businesses the certainty that they will not face the destabilising prospect of the European Commission applying its state aid rules to companies in Great Britain with no link, or only a trivial link, to Northern Ireland. The power in the Bill allows the Business Secretary to make provision for how article 10 is to be interpreted for domestic purposes.
My hon. Friend has been setting out throughout his speech that the Government want clauses 41 to 45 because of the bad consequences that could come from an interpretation of the withdrawal agreement. If the potential consequences of the withdrawal agreement were so bad, why did the Government sign it?
As my right hon. Friend knows well, the withdrawal agreement was negotiated by the UK and the EU and agreed with a view that certain elements would be resolved by the Joint Committee. I think there was a reasonable expectation on both sides that the Joint Committee would have made more progress on those issues, but unfortunately we have heard some harmful interpretations over the past few months. The point of these Government clauses is to ensure that we can rule those out and put in place the appropriate legal default.
Surely the Government’s approach is self-defeating in the following respect? Ministers rightly outline that a range of issues are still to be resolved through the Joint Committee. For that, we need to prove to the European Union that the UK can be trusted if various derogations are granted to the UK, but if we pass legislation that still contains even the merest threat of breaching the existing agreement, why would the EU be flexible and give us that trust as we will not have shown the ability to follow through with other previous agreements?
I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that we have consistently followed through with our agreement. We have done that with the delivery of protocol requirements when it comes to the legislation for the dedicated mechanism and to citizens’ rights, and we will do so regarding EU state aid rules applying in Northern Ireland in respect of goods and electricity as agreed.
I will make a bit of progress and take an intervention from my hon. Friend later.
Clause 44 establishes a statutory requirement that no one besides the Secretary of State may notify the European Commission of state aid where the UK is required to do so as a consequence of article 10. That codifies in legislation the existing practice where aid is notified by the Foreign Secretary via the UK mission in Brussels and will ensure that a uniform approach to the state aid elements of the protocol is taken across the UK.
The objection seems to be that we may have to act in this way, but we do not want to break international law. Has my hon. Friend noted my amendment 45, which shows a way through? Under the Vienna convention, which is already mentioned through the conditional interpretative declaration, if another party is acting in bad faith, we can use the declaration to escape from an impossible situation. Will the Minister at least look at that amendment?
I will look at my hon. Friend’s amendment. I will come to amendments shortly—I realise that I need to make some more progress in addressing the many amendments we face. We do not consider necessarily that a unilateral interpretative declaration would be required, although as I said, we will use all the tools at our disposal to resolve the issue within the terms of the protocol before using the powers in the Bill. If that is one that we considered would help, we would not hesitate to use it, but we do not see the need for the amendment in that respect.
For the avoidance of doubt, let me confirm again that we are of course committed to implementing the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol, and have already taken many practical steps to do that. However, as a responsible Government, we cannot allow the gains of the peace process or the economic integrity of the UK’s internal market to be compromised inadvertently by unintended consequences and harmful legal defaults suggested by some interpretations of the protocol.
Finally, clause 50 disapplies certain provisions of the UK Internal Market Bill in the scenario that Northern Ireland’s representatives resolve, under the protocol’s consent mechanism, that articles 5 to 10 of the protocol should cease to apply. This is a practical step to account for and respect the principle of consent enshrined in the protocol. The protocol itself is not codified as a permanent solution for Northern Ireland, and neither should it be in the domestic legislation that implements it. Taken together, these clauses deliver on our commitments to Northern Ireland.
I want to address the amendments as briefly as I can, so I will have to be limited in the number of interventions I will take.
I thank the Minister for giving way. If we go back to the legal defaults that he says were never envisaged to be enacted, will he explain why plenty of people in the House pointed out that these were the very scenarios that could come about because the agreement was signed? Will he also explain why the EU is acting in bad faith by upholding an agreement that the Prime Minister himself said was a fantastic deal for Northern Ireland? Finally, can he explain what happened to this magical technological solution that the Government said they were working on that would prevent all this?
I take no lectures from the SNP on this issue. It is clear that the reason why the SNP opposes the withdrawal agreement is that it opposed our leaving the EU in the first place. With regard to the development of technological solutions, I agreed with Michel Barnier when he said that it is important that both sides look at innovative and flexible solutions. When it comes to the future debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly on consent, it may be that technological progress can help with delivery, so I think that many of these arguments stand. We are committed to the protocol and to all our commitments to Northern Ireland, including the unfettered access as part of our United Kingdom.
I turn to two amendments regarding the commencement of these provisions that have been subject to much debate and attention, including a number of powerful and persuasive speeches on Second Reading. Amendment 4, which is in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, the Chair of the Justice Committee, and is signed by my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, seeks to provide in essence that break-glass mechanism on the key safety net provisions in relation to the protocol by stating that clauses 42, 43 and 45 of the Bill may not come into force until a motion in this House is passed. Since that amendment was tabled, I am pleased that there have been constructive talks between my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and Ministers, and the Government have tabled amendment 66, which provides for substantially the same break-glass mechanism, with the additional requirement for a take-note debate in the other place. I hope that that amendment will demonstrate to hon. Members, including the Chair of the Justice Committee, that we are committed to ensuring that any decision to use the powers is explicitly approved by Parliament.
I thank my hon. Friend for the constructive tone that he and members of the Government have adopted in these matters. It enables some of us who otherwise would not have been able to support these clauses to proceed, on the understanding that there is a specific parliamentary lock that bad faith on the counter-party’s side must be proven to the House before these powers are brought into operation, which of course all of us hope will never be the case. I welcome that, and it enables us to support the Government’s amendment.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. A fundamental principle of our constitution, and one that lies at the very heart of our exit from the EU, is that this Parliament is sovereign. As set out in clause 38 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, that means that it can choose to legislate to deliver an interpretation of the protocol consistent with our understanding, while recognising that to do so is a significant step. The parliamentary procedure set out in amendment 66 recognises that, and provides a clearer, more explicit democratic mandate for the use of the powers. I therefore commend amendment 66 to the Committee, and urge my hon. Friend and all Members to support it and not to press amendment 4.
Not right now—I will come back to the right hon. Gentleman.
Amendments 64 and 65, in the name of my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary, make it clear that any regulations made under clauses 42 or 43 would, of course, be subject to judicial review, contrary to some of the claims that have been made over recent weeks, while ensuring that any claims must be brought within a three-month period. That ensures that any challenge to the regulations will be subject to a timely resolution before the courts, which is essential to ensure that Northern Ireland businesses and investors in Northern Ireland have the certainty that they need, which is at the heart of the Bill. I commend those amendments to the House. As they clarify the position on judicial review, amendment 44 is not necessary.
Amendments 61 to 63, in the name of my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary, are targeted technical amendments to ensure that the Government are able to maintain the integrity of the UK’s VAT and excise systems and can deal with any threats to biosecurity in Great Britain in response to changes required in Northern Ireland under the protocol.
In particular, the amendments ensure that the Government can act to address cases of double taxation and non-taxation created by the Northern Ireland protocol, as well as to close down opportunities for tax evasion.
The amendments will also ensure that both the UK Government and the devolved Administrations can continue, as they do now, to respond to specific biosecurity threats arising from the movement of animals and high-risk plants. The principle of facilitating actions to protect biosecurity on an ongoing basis between England, Scotland and Wales is already reflected in schedule 1 to the Bill. The amendments simply clarify that similar processes can also apply with regard to Northern Ireland where there is a genuine risk of a biosecurity threat that poses a serious threat to the health of humans, animals or plants.
I commend those amendments to the Committee.
May I take the Minister back to the undertaking that he gave to his hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill)? Some of us have some misgivings about that undertaking, because this Government have shown an exceptional fondness for withdrawing the Whip from those in their own party who disagree with them. In the circumstances of the parliamentary lock being necessary, can we get an assurance from the Treasury Bench at some point in this debate that any such vote will be a free vote?
I will perhaps give way on a point of substance later, but not on that point.
Amendment 41 seeks, among other things, to add a paramount duty to clause 40, requiring authorities to act without prejudice to international and domestic law. Amendment 53 similarly seeks to prevent authorities from exercising functions in a way that is incompatible or inconsistent with relevant domestic or international law. Amendment 52 appears to require the Government to follow the process agreed in the withdrawal agreement as the only mechanism for dispute resolution. Amendments 54 and 55 seek to prevent regulations made under clause 42 from having effect, notwithstanding international and domestic law. Amendment 46 would remove the Northern Ireland protocol from the list of international law that may be set aside, undermining the intent of clauses 42 and 43.
Amendments 57 and 59 would prevent regulations under clause 43 from interpreting, disapplying or modifying the effect of article 10 of the protocol. Clause 43 is a necessary provision that will ensure that the Secretary of State’s interpretation will achieve the correct effect in domestic law.
I repeat that the Government are committed to implementing the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol; however, as a responsible Government we cannot accept any amendments that would undermine the provisions in the Bill and render them no kind of safety net at all, thereby risking the compromising of the UK internal market’s economic integrity by unintended consequences or harmful defaults contained in some interpretations of the protocol, or creating confusion or uncertainty about the position in domestic law. I therefore urge right hon. and hon. Members to withdraw the amendments.
I recognise the spirit behind amendments 67 and 68. The Government have been clear that, as we set out in the Command Paper, we will ensure that there are no tariffs on any goods that remain within the UK customs territory. I hope Members will welcome the further relevant measures that will be set out in the Finance Bill.
There will not be any new customs infrastructure in Northern Ireland. We have always accepted that there will be some limited, streamlined processes for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, building on what already happens at existing points of entry and limited to electronic declarations for businesses in Great Britain to confirm that their products are for the Northern Ireland market.
We have outlined our commitment to providing extensive support for businesses, including through the new trader support service, which will provide an end-to-end service and guide traders through all import processes at no additional cost. This is a unique intervention, backed by £200 million in Government funding to ensure that businesses of all sizes can draw on the support that it provides. Given those assurances, I hope that Members will feel able to withdraw the amendments.
The Minister invites us to withdraw the amendments. This is the second occasion in the past week on which a Minister has stood at the Dispatch Box and held up an olive branch of potential amendments or provisions that will be brought forth in the Finance Bill. We have not seen the text of those potential provisions and we do not know their content. I invite the Minister to go a little further and explain why we should withdraw the amendment at this time, given the verbal assurances he has offered.
I absolutely hear the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. I have made the point about what we have said in the Command Paper and what the Prime Minister has referred to in respect of the Finance Bill.
Amendment 69 seeks to ensure that there would be no new costs for a Northern Ireland business to access or sell in the market. The UK Government have already committed in legislation to delivering unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses, including through the Bill, which will apply the principles of mutual recognition and non-discrimination to qualifying Northern Ireland goods, thereby ensuring that they can continue to be sold in the Great Britain market in the same way as now. The amendment is therefore unnecessary.
Amendment 70 seeks to ensure that goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain through Ireland will benefit from unfettered access. I reassure Members that we recognise the importance of trade from Northern Ireland to Great Britain that moves via Dublin to Holyhead. We are currently engaging with businesses and the Northern Ireland Executive on the long-term means for delivering qualifying status for unfettered access. It would be wrong to pre-empt the outcome of that consultation, so the Government cannot accept the amendment.
On amendment 71, the Government have been working and will continue to work closely with the Northern Ireland Executive on the implementation of the protocol, including on unfettered access, but we do not agree that a restriction on the Government’s powers to make regulations effectively would be justified.
We resist amendment 72 on the basis that it is legally unnecessary. The current wording already encompasses distortions of competition between persons supplying goods or services in the course of a business within the UK internal market. Such wording is already sufficient to cover the regulation of subsidies that would have the effect of making Northern Ireland businesses less competitive in the Great Britain market.
Although the Government agree with the spirit of amendment 78, the whole Government are acutely aware of the need to maintain Northern Ireland’s integral place in the UK internal market, which is already referenced many times elsewhere in the Bill, so we do not believe the amendment is necessary.
On amendment 79, I understand Members’ concerns and support mutual recognition and the non-discrimination principle, but the exception to mutual recognition that we have introduced for chemicals is there to allow the relevant authorities to respond to local factors. Authorisations granted by the EU after the end of the transition period will not take local conditions into consideration. I emphasise that the authorisations relate to the use of substances of very high concern. It is important that the Government and devolved Administrations can take local factors into account when they decide how to protect human health or the environment from the significant risks posed by such chemicals. I therefore urge Members to withdraw or vote against the amendment.
On new clause 7 and amendment 45, I want to reassure Members that the Bill includes provisions that are there precisely to protect the essential basis of the peace process, by ensuring that, regardless of whether further agreement is reached in the negotiations, there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and that Northern Ireland businesses will continue to benefit from unfettered access to the rest of the UK market when the transition period ends.
I can also reassure hon. Members that our commitment to protecting the Belfast/ Good Friday agreement of course includes protecting north-south co-operation in areas specified under that agreement, and the protocol is clear on that. That commitment is already enshrined in UK legislation: in section 10 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, and through our continued support for this strand of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement throughout the process of exiting the European Union.
Can the Minister explain how people in Northern Ireland can have any confidence that this Government, who said only the week before last that they would break international law, will not break or undermine the Good Friday agreement, which of course is an international treaty?
As I have said repeatedly, we are absolutely committed to the Good Friday agreement, and I can give the hon. Gentleman an illustration of that in UK law on the very next clause. I can assure him that amendment 48 is simply unnecessary. The protocol guarantees that there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland under any circumstances. We are fully committed to delivering on that and no power in the Bill makes any change to that. We have already included in law our commitment not to
“create or facilitate border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after exit day which feature physical infrastructure, including border posts, or checks and controls, that did not exist before exit day and are not in accordance with an agreement between the United Kingdom and the EU.”
That is set out in section 10(2)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, which I was pleased to take through the House. For those reasons, the hon. Gentleman’s amendments are unnecessary and I urge him not to press them.
On amendments 43 and 47, I can offer hon. Members an assurance that the recognition and protection of rights are fundamental values of the UK. Our human rights framework offers comprehensive, well-established and effective protections within a clear constitutional and legal system. The Bill is compatible with the European convention on human rights, and the Minister who presented the Bill has given a certificate of compatibility, pursuant to section 19(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act 1998, in the usual way. We remain committed to the ECHR, as we have made clear time and again.
Further on amendment 47, the Government do not envisage any circumstances in which the powers set out in clauses 42 and 43 could be used to amend the Northern Ireland Acts of 1998 and 2006. That renders the amendment unnecessary. For this reason, the Government are not willing to accept the amendment. I hope that hon. Members will be reassured by our commitment on this very serious matter and will not press them.
New clause 6 would require the Government to
“use their best endeavours to seek through the Joint Committee…the disapplication of export declarations and other exit procedures”.
I appreciate the thought and sentiment behind the new clause, but I am happy to say that there is no need for it because, as I have already set out, the Government are committed to implementing the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol. We are continuing to work with the EU in the Joint Committee to resolve outstanding issues with the protocol, including export declarations. Although well intentioned, the new clause is unnecessary and I urge hon. Members to reject it.
I will now turn to the other amendments on our safety net clauses pertaining to subsidy control. Now that we have left the EU, we have the opportunity to design our own subsidy control regime in a way that works for the UK economy. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy set out the Government’s plans in this regard in a written statement to the House on 9 September. Clauses 43 and 44 seek to mitigate the risks that stem from the European Commission imposing a broad interpretation of article 10. Ministers will still have respect for the rule of law and human rights when making regulations using these provisions, which is why amendment 56 is unnecessary. I remind the Committee that the purpose of the provisions in clause 43 is to strengthen our legal safety net and ensure that it is the Government’s interpretation of article 10 that UK public authorities must follow. That is why we must reject amendment 58.
Amendment 60 would amend clause 44 by limiting the scope of the Secretary of State’s interpretation of article 10 when notifying possible state aid to the European Commission. Given the complex and novel nature of the application of EU state aid law through the Northern Ireland protocol, it is the Secretary of State who is best placed to interpret and then make any possible state aid notification to the European Commission. The amendment would require the Secretary of State to ignore the safety net that the Government have proposed when making such a notification.
I will deal briefly with amendments 31 and 32. I recognise the spirit of the amendments, but I have to say that they are simply not necessary. An assessment of the legal implications of the clauses has already been provided in the Government’s statements of 10 and 17 September. Nor is there any need to make regulations defining “incompatible” or “inconsistent”, because these are self-explanatory terms. There can be no serious doubt what they mean and no further definition is required. The true intention of the amendments may be to seek to provide another point for parliamentary debate. If that is the case, I trust that the hon. Members who have tabled them will support Government amendment 66. On that basis, I urge them not to press the amendments.
I respectfully remind the Minister that the SNP has 48 Members in the House, not just one MP. I am grateful to him for giving way, because he has dealt with amendment 43, which I tabled, but not with amendment 44. Does he understand that insofar as clause 45 seeks to oust the inherent supervisory jurisdiction of the Court of Session, it not only interferes in devolved matters but it is in breach of article 19 of the treaty of Union between Scotland and England? I know that he does not have a Scottish Law Officer to advise him, but can he take that on board and address it now?
I am happy to look into the specific issue that hon. and learned Lady raises, but if she looks at the text in Hansard she will see that I addressed the point that she made about amendment 44. I mentioned a Government amendment that had been introduced on separate issues, but I am certainly happy to take that point away for consideration.
In conclusion, the clauses are a necessary protection to deliver our promises on unfettered access and to deliver what the protocol acknowledges on Northern Ireland’s place in the internal market and customs territory of the United Kingdom, and to respect the principle of parliamentary sovereignty.
I rise to speak to amendments 52 to 60, which I tabled with my hon. and right hon. Friends. Together, these amendments seek to provide a solution to the mess that the Government have got themselves into by removing the provisions in the Bill that put our country in conflict with international law. We do so, because we want to maintain our reputation as a country that respects the rule of law; because we want to see a successful internal market for the whole UK when we leave the transitional arrangements on 31 December; and because we want the Prime Minister to deliver the “oven-ready” deal with the EU that he promised the British people last December—a deal that pledged tariff and barrier-free trade for services as well as goods, along with safeguarding workers’ rights, consumer and environmental protection, and which offered a broad, comprehensive and balanced security partnership underpinned by continued adherence and giving effect to the European convention on human rights.
The Bill makes that less likely. Our talks with the European Union have been damaged, our reputation in the world appears trashed, and it is a mess that was completely unnecessary and is not resolved by the amendment tabled by the Government. This so-called compromise may calm some Government Members, but it does not resolve the issue: the breach of international law that has led to the resignations of the head of the Government legal service, Jonathan Jones, and of the Advocate General, Lord Keen, who said in his letter to the Prime Minister that he could not reconcile his obligations as a Law Officer with the Bill, as he could find no
“respectable argument for the provisions at clauses 42 to 45”.
In an interview on Radio 4 last week, the Lord Chancellor was uneasy in his defence of the Bill, as he might well be, having sworn an oath when taking office to
“respect the rule of law”.
The situation could not be more serious, and we accept that the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), which has been seized on by the Government, was introduced with good intention, arising from real, genuine concern among many Government Members, but it does not solve the problem.
In providing for a vote subsequently, the Government have offered a sticking plaster to salve consciences, but we would still be acting in contravention of international law—not when we enact the Bill’s provisions, but when it goes on to the statute book. The Government amendment does not change that fact. Let us look at the withdrawal agreement—as the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) did in her intervention—which was negotiated by the Prime Minister, signed by him and commended to the electorate as the reason to vote for the Conservative party in December’s election. Now, apparently, it is so flawed that we have been asked to break the law.
I saw the argument advanced by the Attorney General that it is okay to breach international law if the decision is taken constitutionally. That clearly flies in the face of the Vienna convention, to which we are a signatory. Article 27 makes that clear:
“A party may not invoke the provisions of its internal law as justification for its failure to perform a treaty.”
My hon. Friend is making some absolutely crucial points, particularly about the Vienna convention. Does he accept that there is an issue here that goes well beyond the provisions in the Bill and the process we are discussing regarding the internal market? That is that it has damaged Britain’s reputation on the world stage when we have the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) talking about breaking the law, when we have an Attorney General who regularly attacks human rights, which the Minister has just told us the Government want to protect, and when we have a Lord Chancellor who talks about fudging the law. That is fundamentally damaging Britain on the world stage and our ability to influence and work with others.
Why does the hon. Gentleman not see that this Bill has been brought about by the EU’s wish to break the agreement and what he would call international law by not respecting the sovereignty of the UK, which is fundamental in the agreement, and not going ahead with the free trade agreement, which was meant to be at the core of the future relationship?
I thank the right hon. Member for that intervention. I would be interested to know his views on article 184 of the withdrawal agreement, which embraces the political declaration as the basis for securing our future relationship. On the intentions of both parties, I simply cite the Government’s response to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s report on unfettered access, in which they said:
“These talks began in March and continued throughout the summer in a spirit of good faith and mutual respect”.
On page 7, they state:
“The Government is extremely confident that the EU is working in good faith.”
That is the Government’s view.
I am actually going to look briefly at a simple point, which is that, apart from our own judges, the German federal constitutional court in December 2015 clearly stated that international law leaves it to each state to give precedence to national law. International law gives effect in that way. How does the hon. Gentleman answer that?
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. I think the answer was provided by the Northern Ireland Secretary when he spoke to the House on the issue and he said that—let us all think on these words—
“yes, this does break international law in a very specific and limited way. We are taking the power to disapply the EU law concept of direct effect, required by article 4”.—[Official Report, 8 September 2020; Vol. 679, c. 509.]
On that, he was right. Article 4 does require that the UK ensures compliance with paragraph 1 of the withdrawal agreement, including our courts, disapplying
“inconsistent or incompatible domestic provisions”.
Article 5 makes it absolutely clear that we have an obligation to
“refrain from any measures which could jeopardise the attainment of the objectives of this Agreement”,
which, as the Northern Ireland Secretary made clear, is the purpose of clauses 41 to 45. In adopting them, we are in breach of international law and unsettling the situation in Northern Ireland, to which the Minister rightly referred. Indeed, the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, Sir Declan Morgan, who is a widely respected voice, said that the Government’s actions “may well undermine trust”.
Does the answer to the question raised by the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) about the German constitutional court not lie in what our own United Kingdom Supreme Court said at paragraph 55 in the case of Miller v. Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union? Our own Supreme Court said that
“treaties between sovereign states have effect in international law and are not governed by the domestic law of any state.”
Is that not the answer under the domestic law of the United Kingdom?
The hon. Gentleman says that this is about a collapse in trust. The collapse in trust in that description is one way; that is to say with the UK Government, because they are apparently breaching treaty law. However, if he were to go to the case Kadi v. Commission, he would see that the Advocate General at the time of the case made it very clear. I want to quote this, as it is quite important:
“first and foremost, to preserve the constitutional framework created by the Treaty…it would be wrong to conclude that, once the Community is bound by a rule of international law…The relationship between international law and the Community legal order”—
that is their constitution—
“is governed by the Community legal order itself, and international law can permeate that legal order only under the conditions set by the constitutional principles of the Community.”
So the EU itself has the principle that it will vet its obligations and not necessarily implement them, as it requires.
The right hon. Gentleman came back at me on the quote I gave about trust. That quote was from the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, and it was about trust in relation to the Government’s actions. In terms of how we deal with the issues that the right hon. Gentleman refers to, I will come on to those subsequently.
The Government’s cavalier disregard for the rule of law has been condemned by the Law Society and by the Bar Council. It has shocked people across the country, and it has disturbed our friends and allies around the world. Part of the tragedy of the Government’s actions is that they never needed to do this. Instead of throwing their toys out of the pram, there was a grown-up solution there in the Northern Ireland protocol itself: the dispute resolution mechanisms agreed by the Prime Minister, to which the Minister has referred at length and which have been utilised already on other issues. However, in recognising those, the Minister failed to explain to the House satisfactorily why the Government have chosen not to exercise that route and have instead put this proposed legislation before the House. Article 16 provides for either the EU or the UK to take unilateral safeguard measures:
“If the application of this Protocol leads to serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”,
and annex 7, to which I think he alluded, sets out the process to which matters can be resolved through the Joint Committee set up to oversee the implementation of the withdrawal agreement.
Do not take my word for it. The former Attorney General, the right hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox), who I seem to recall was once celebrated in the Conservative party, made the case in The Times last week when he said:
“There are clear and lawful responses available to Her Majesty’s Government”,
“include triggering the agreed independent arbitration procedure set out in the withdrawal agreement and, in extremis, these might legitimately extend to taking temporary and proportionate measures, where they are urgently necessary to protect the fundamental interests of the UK”.
That was his conclusion. And the Prime Minister could not answer my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) at the Liaison Committee last week when he asked the simple question why he had not been prepared to use those measures, which he negotiated, to resolve any disagreements, rather than engage in lawbreaking.
So let me ask the Minister a simple question, which I hope he will come back to at the end of this very long debate, on the question of state aid. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), said it was a matter for the Joint Committee. Will the Minister be able to confirm in his winding up whether the Government have actually raised their concerns there for resolution?
Our amendments seek to put the Bill right. They reassert our commitment to the rule of law by removing the notwithstanding clauses, which have been the subject of so much attention, but also the other references to disapplying the protocol and disregarding the law.
No. I have taken one intervention from the hon. Gentleman and, with respect for those wishing to speak, I will follow the injunction of the Chair and make progress.
The Government are sending a worrying message, too, about their attitude to accountability in Government amendments 64 and 65, limiting opportunities for judicial review. Our amendments 58 and 59 would put that right, protecting those rights for the scrutiny and challenge of Ministers. If the Government are, as they say, acting reasonably, they should not be afraid of scrutiny or of challenge. Overall, our amendments 52 to 60 would enable the Bill to achieve its aims, but to stick to the rule of law, the Human Rights Act 1998 and our international obligations. We hope that the Government will accept them, but if they do not, we will vote against clauses 42 to 45 standing part of the Bill.
Many Members on the Government Benches talk about their ambition for global Britain. We share the desire for strong trading partnerships after we leave the transition, but that will be undermined by flouting international law, and the Government know that. The Foreign Secretary was dispatched to Washington last week to calm fears. This visit seemed to make things worse. As he left the United States, the man that the polls indicate will be the country’s next President said:
“We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit. Any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”
He was adding to the views expressed on both sides of the aisle in Congress that there will be no US trade deal if this Bill proceeds unamended. We should remember that the UK and the US are co-guarantors of the Good Friday agreement. It is a responsibility that the future President of the United States seems to be taking more seriously than the Government.
This debate is about our place in the world. It is about our values. It is about the sort of country that we want to be. If we cannot comply with our treaty obligations, how can we ever demand that others do so? We are giving a green light to oppressive Governments, from China to Belarus, who flout the rule of law. This Bill has deeply damaged trust in our country and our place on the global stage. In our votes tonight and tomorrow, we have an opportunity to rebuild our reputation to make it clear that we are a country that can keep its word, a country that can make agreements and stick to them, and a country that believes in the rule of law. Let us not fail in that responsibility.
Order. Let me remind the House one more time that there is a very long call list, so please show time restraint when making contributions.
It is with some regret that I rise to speak on clauses 41 to 45. May I just say to the Minister that the overall intention of the Bill—of ensuring a functioning internal market within the United Kingdom—is absolutely right? I believe passionately in the integrity of the United Kingdom. It is not just a belief; I think it is good for the prosperity of all parts of the United Kingdom.
Today, we are focusing on the parts of the Bill that relate to the Northern Ireland protocol, part of the withdrawal agreement—the withdrawal agreement that was signed by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister less than a year ago. I can say to the Minister that, in my view, clauses 41 to 45 have no place in this Bill. We are told that they are there because the EU either is acting in bad faith, or might act in bad faith. This is because the withdrawal agreement put a border down the Irish sea and the Government cannot accept that—but the Government did accept that when they signed the withdrawal agreement with the European Union, and I assume that, when they did so, the Government signed that in good faith. Yet here we have clauses 41 to 45 saying that the Government should have the ability to renege on parts of the withdrawal agreement to break international law.
There are three reasons why I believe that these clauses have no place in the Bill. The first, which has been referred to in earlier interventions, is that it is unnecessary. There is an arbitration process available. Under article 175, the ruling of the arbitration panel should be binding on the UK and the EU. The Government have acknowledged the existence of the arbitration procedure, but they are saying that they would enter into that in parallel with the operation of the elements of this Bill. The message, it seems to me, is very clear, which is, if we do not like the outcome of the arbitration panel, then we will break international law and we will not accept it. Yet, again, that is breaking the international treaty—an agreement that UK Government signed—because it is breaking article 175, which says that the view of the arbitration panel shall be “binding” on both parties. However, there is not just an arbitration process available. As the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) referred to, article 16 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.”
Clauses 41 to 45 are not necessary.
Beyond that issue, there is the question of the impact of these clauses and the Government’s decision on the operation of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. I believe that the Government’s willingness unilaterally to abandon an international agreement or parts of an international agreement they have signed and their willingness to renege on an agreement they have signed will lead, as has already been made clear in an intervention, to some questioning the willingness of the Government to fully uphold the measures in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. That, in turn, will lead to some communities having less willingness to trust the United Kingdom Government, and that could have a consequence on the willingness of people in Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. So far from acting to reinforce the integrity of the United Kingdom in pursuit of trying to appear to be tough to the European Union, I think the Government are putting the integrity of the United Kingdom at risk.
These reasons alone should I think be sufficient for the Government to abandon these clauses, but perhaps the most compelling reason is my third, which is this Government’s wish to break international law and taking the powers to do so. As the Law Society and the Bar Council have said:
“These provisions enable Ministers to derogate from the obligations of the United Kingdom under international law in broad and comprehensive terms and prohibit public bodies from compliance with such obligations. They represent a direct challenge to the rule of law, which include the country’s obligations under public international law.”
I cannot emphasise enough how concerned I am that a Conservative Government are willing to go back on their word, to break an international agreement signed in good faith and to break international law.
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend. Is she aware that the EU itself and indeed many other states throughout the world, including many democratic countries, have persistently broken international law, and that this applies not only to other countries, but to the United Kingdom? There are many overrides of international treaties by the UK itself.
Let me get this right. My hon. Friend seems to be saying, “If somebody else does something wrong, it’s okay for us to do something wrong.” I am sorry, I do not agree with him on that point.
I recognise that my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) has taken every effort to ameliorate the impact of these clauses, and the Government have accepted and put down their own amendment. But, frankly, my view is that to the outside world, it makes no difference whether a decision to break international law is taken by a Minister or by this Parliament; it is still a decision to break international law. This can only weaken the UK in the eyes of the world. One of the great strengths we have as a country is our commitment to the rule of law, and this will have been damaged. Our reputation as a country that stands by its word will have been tarnished, and the willingness of other countries to trust the United Kingdom and its values will have been reduced. So much for global Britain!
In 2018, when Russian agents used a chemical weapon on the streets of Salisbury to attempt to murder Sergei and Yulia Skripal—a nerve agent that led to the death of Dawn Sturgess and affected her partner, Charlie Rowley—I led the action. I called on our friends and allies to stand alongside the United Kingdom, and I led the action that resulted in 29 countries expelling an unprecedented 153 Russian agents from their borders. We were able to do that because those countries had trust in the United Kingdom. Where will that trust be in the future if they see a United Kingdom willing to break its word and international law?
If we pass this Bill with clauses 41 to 45, and in so doing accede to the Government’s wish to break international law, I believe it will have a detrimental effect on people’s trust in the United Kingdom. As the United Kingdom negotiates trade deals around the rest of the world, why should anybody we are negotiating with believe that we will uphold what we sign up to in those agreements if we have said clearly, “If we don’t like it after we’ve signed up to it, we’ll break it”?
This is a country that upholds the rule of law. That is one of the things that makes us great; it is one of our characteristics. We propound and uphold the rule of law around the world. The Conservative party upholds the rule of law—it is one of our values and characteristics—yet we are being asked to tear up that principle and throw away that value. Why? I can only see, on the face of it, that it is because the Government did not really understand what they were signing up to when they signed the withdrawal agreement.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon described the Government’s action as unconscionable. As has been said, Lord Keen resigned because he said that he found it increasingly difficult to reconcile his obligations as a Law Officer with the Government’s policy intentions. Frankly, I find it difficult to understand how any Minister can go through the Lobby to support these clauses.
I consider that, in introducing clauses 41 to 45, the Government are acting recklessly and irresponsibly, with no thought to the long-term impact on the United Kingdom’s standing in the world. It will lead to untold damage to the United Kingdom’s reputation and puts its future at risk. As a result, with regret I have to tell the Minister that I cannot support this Bill.
It is a privilege to follow such a thoughtful and considered speech.
I rise to speak to amendments 31 and 32, in my name and the names of my colleagues. They require that the definition of terms used in clause 45 be determined only after an impact assessment of the UK Government’s obligations under international law has been carried out. I am also happy to speak in support of the amendments tabled by my hon. Friends from the Alliance and the SDLP, and I look forward to further debate in Committee.
The SNP rejected the Bill on Second Reading because we will never support legislation that breaks international law—I am not actually sure why I have to say that. Our amendments seek to ensure that this Parliament understands the impact on its international obligations of any future decisions that it takes on the matters covered by the Bill. The UK Government have presented a Bill that not only threatens a breach of international law—a position that now seems to satisfy many Conservative Members—but was in itself a monumental act of bad faith that speaks volumes about their view of themselves and the world around them.
Last October, speaking about his withdrawal deal, the Prime Minister said:
“if we do this deal—if we pass this deal and the legislation that enables it—we can turn the page and allow this Parliament and this country to begin to heal and unite.”—[Official Report, 22 October 2019; Vol. 666, c. 826.]
The range of the amendments to this section of the Bill alone make it clear—not that we needed the clarity—that healing and unity can hardly be described as the highlights of his leadership.
In November 2019, the Prime Minister said:
“Northern Ireland has got a great deal. You keep free movement, you keep access to the single market”.
The Minister spoke about the Conservative manifesto, but it and the Conservative campaign boasted of the Prime Minister’s oven-ready deal. The Prime Minister was effusive in his support of the deal, calling it “very good”, “excellent”, “fantastic” and “wonderful”, but here we are, and he has changed his tune: far from his deal being oven-ready, it is now only fit for the cowp.
I thank the hon. Member for that intervention. The short answer is no. Regrettably, I do not believe the Prime Minister, on this or other matters.
The Prime Minister said at that point:
“We have to protect the U.K. from that disaster”:
a disaster—and that is his word, not mine—that was negotiated by him and the same adviser as he has now. The Prime Minister visited Northern Ireland last month and talked of close co-operation between central and devolved Governments, but in the least surprising news of the day, certainly to viewers in Scotland, he did not engage with anyone outside Westminster in the development of his Bill. He excluded all of the devolved Administrations from the process of developing a so-called single market through the United Kingdom—plus ça change. Despite the clear relationship between this Bill and the peace process, as well as not engaging with the Northern Irish Executive, the Prime Minister failed to engage with the Irish Government. Despite the clear importance of doing so, he just breenged on regardless. We know why there was no engagement. It is because this shabby Bill—his shabby Bill—had to be put together out of sight of people that the Prime Minister could not control, people with respect for the rule of law and for accountability.
The SNP amendments would ensure that this Parliament would receive an assessment of the impact of any future action on these matters on the UK Government’s obligations under international law—a proper assessment, not the usual triumph of blustering bombast over good judgment by the Prime Minister. The people of Northern Ireland deserve better from the Conservative party, and our amendments recognise that. How can businesses and communities plan with any confidence when their future depends on the internal battles of a party that shows such scant regard for the rule of law?
There has been a lot of talk in recent weeks about consent. The hon. Member rightly says that the devolved Administrations were not spoken to at all about this Bill. With all the talk about consent, it might be useful for the House to know that the Northern Ireland Assembly has just voted in favour of the withdrawal agreement—in favour of sticking to the agreement that the British Government have made with the European Union, and that includes the Northern Ireland protocol. It is the voice of Northern Ireland and it is saying very clearly that this Bill is wrong.
I thank my hon. Friend that intervention. That is a key point for us. How can anyone trust a Government who do not stand behind the agreements they negotiate—a Government who cannot even agree with themselves?
The Prime Minister’s approach has led to several senior legal figures making a sharp exit. Sir Jonathan Jones, the head of the Government’s legal department; Lord Keen, the UK Government’s most senior adviser on Scots law; and David Melding, Shadow Counsel General in the Welsh Senedd, have all walked away. We have heard about Lord Keen’s letter of resignation, but it was particularly telling in respect of the matters that are before us today. He said:
“I have endeavoured to identify a respectable argument for the provisions at clauses 42 to 45 of the bill, but it is now clear that this will not meet your policy intentions.”
That is a damning condemnation from a former chair of the Conservative party in Scotland. No Member representing a Scottish constituency can defend these clauses—or, in fact, this Bill—and expect to be taken seriously when they claim to stand up for Scotland in this place.
We have also heard that the Sir Declan Morgan, the Lord Chief Justice—Northern Ireland’s top judge—warned that when Governments break international law, that
“might undermine…the administration of justice.”
That should concern us all. Even the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), who is a barrister, felt the need to resign as the Prime Minister’s special envoy on freedom of religion. These are telling actions and words that should give the Prime Minister pause for thought and reflection. This Bill is a grubby power grab that we cannot and will not support, and this part, as it stands, hangs like a badge of dishonour around this Prime Minister’s term of office—however long or short that might be.
Unfortunately, the Prime Minister’s approach is being propped up by those with somewhat flexible standards. The Attorney General’s take could most charitably be described as mince, and the Lord Chancellor says he will resign only if the Government break the rule of law in a way that is “unacceptable”, which obviously, for a Law Officer, prompts the question: what is an acceptable way to break the law?
What of the effect of the Bill on the UK and Northern Ireland? In October last year, when he was still trying to convince us that he had negotiated a great deal, the Prime Minister said of his withdrawal agreement Bill:
“For those who share my belief in the transformative power of free trade…a new deal, enabled by this Bill, will allow us to sign free trade agreements around the world.”—[Official Report, 22 October 2019; Vol. 666, c. 830.]
By using this Bill to trash that deal, the Prime Minister has again exposed the ethical vacuum at the heart of his Government and undermined trust around the world—and all the time he has singularly failed to deliver what is needed by Northern Ireland. As Professor Katy Hayward of Queen’s University Belfast put it,
“the one thing most hoped for from this bill—certainty—has become an even more distant prospect.”
The reaction from the USA has been clear. Presidential candidate Joe Biden warned:
“Any trade deal between the U.S. and U.K. must be contingent upon respect for the”
Good Friday agreement. Similarly, Nancy Pelosi said:
“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.”
Even Trump’s Administration are looking concerned.
The architects of the Good Friday agreement, from both sides of the House, are united in their condemnation of this Bill, and of this part of it in particular. They have called out this Government’s willingness to imperil the peace process and undermine the UK’s standing in trade negotiations.
All these issues would have been foreseeable if the Bill had been accompanied by an impact assessment, as the SNP amendments ask for. But fundamentally, at its heart, this Bill is ill conceived, confused and very damaging—frighteningly like the UK Government. Neither of them deserve our support.
There are many essential reasons, in our national interest and on constitutional and legal grounds, and grounds of practical necessity, for the clear, unambiguous “notwithstanding” clauses in the Bill that have been discussed in the context of clauses 42 to 45.
I mentioned in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) that this was a question not just of whether the Euro pot was calling the British kettle black, but of whether, in the United Kingdom, we had ourselves overridden clear treaties. There are too many—they are far too numerous—to mention in this short debate. Of course, there is also an enormous number of examples of international law breaches by foreign states—not only, in Europe, by member states but by the EU itself, egregiously. Furthermore, there are examples of other countries, every one of them democratically elected, having done so. This question of values and reputation, and the issues that have arisen, has to be weighed against that context.
Of course, there are many international treaties, and there are many aspects—
In a moment. There are many aspects of international law that are sacrosanct—those in respect of torture, genocide and the rest, for example—and it is the fact that international law comes in many shapes, sizes and degrees, as I am sure we all know.
Basically, the point is that where the sovereignty of a nation is involved—the Vienna convention addresses this question—and where we are at the highest end of where the national interest lies, other considerations come into play. It is absolutely clear that in many instances, democratically elected civilisations—countries—have themselves broken these treaties.
This Bill does not, in my view, breach international law, but our rule of law must be based on our Parliament making our laws for our people based on our sovereignty, not judges. Indeed, Parliament itself voted for section 38 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, without a single vote or even a voice raised in opposition, as far as I am aware, in either House on Second Reading. That Bill passed its Second Reading by as many as 124 votes.
The famous Lord Bingham clearly demonstrated this in chapter 12 of his book, “The Rule of Law”. He said clearly, with respect to the fact that it is our Parliament, not judges, that makes laws for our people based on sovereignty, that he had come across a number of judgments that had breached that principle. Wise judges do not want to make political decisions. His unimpeachable principles turn on their head the exaggerated claims with respect to the breaking of international law that has not taken place.
As I said, the German Federal Constitutional Court stated in December 2015:
“International law leaves it to each state…to give precedence to national law”.
Laying a Bill is not a breach of international law and is privileged. If a treaty is entered into on the reasonable assumption that a state of affairs would exist, but that does not transpire, the treaty is voidable. The agreement was written on the basis of the EU recognising our sovereignty, which has not happened.
International law is broken by democratic countries throughout the world and the EU, in their own interests. The list is long, but I will give a few examples. Western Sahara is one case. Another is migrants sent back to north Africa and Turkey. In 2010, when the EU broke the Lisbon treaty, Madame Lagarde said,
“We violated all the rules”
about the Greek and Irish bail-outs. The EU is unilaterally changing the bilateral channel tunnel treaty without our being able to prevent it. The EU threatened to use the WTO’s most favoured nation principle against the UK contrary to state practice, core principles of world trade and requirements negotiated in good faith.
I have another stack of examples, which I mentioned, where UK statute has overridden international treaties. There is no argument about it; it is there in black and white in the treaties and in the sections of various enactments that have overtaken and overridden international law.
It is understandable that some are bothered about this to a degree, but the fact is—
I said, “to a degree”. Within the framework of international law, it is entirely a question of whether the degree to which it is done is commensurate with what is being proposed. The case of sovereignty goes to the heart of the extent to which we are entitled to take the action that we do.
This is less about breaking international law than about breaking the conditions in respect of state aid and in respect of the manner in which the Northern Ireland protocol would operate in the UK with respect to breaking the issues of contract and of the manner in which people work in this country. We are faced with a critical problem, the effect of which is that if we were not to pass these clear and unambiguous clauses, we would find that we were subjected to EU laws—that we were subjugated to them—in a way that would ensure that we would not be able to compete effectively throughout the world or support the workers of this country, particularly in the context of covid.
Section 38 was passed by every single person in this House and by the House of Lords. There is no doubt about that. The notwithstanding provision is inviolate; it is in an Act of Parliament. These enactments do the necessary job to ensure the future prosperity and competitiveness of this country, and the opportunity for its people to move forward in an enterprise society to enable future generations after Brexit to guarantee their jobs, their businesses and their future.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), who has that classic flair of oratory, as when he said that some Members may be somewhat bothered to some degree. Whether we agree or disagree with him, he raises a smile through the Chamber.
I rise to speak in support of the amendments tabled by my party. Before I do, I want to reflect on the comments from the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May). I regret some of the comments she made about the implications for relationships in Northern Ireland and the consequences associated with the Bill. Be it her contribution or many others on Wednesday and no doubt later today, there is an awful lot being said that is not only at cross purposes across the Chamber but completely misses the point. The right hon. Lady embarked on a political strategy that was encapsulated by the phrase “Brexit means Brexit”, and for nine months there was no greater clarity than that. Here we are four years later, and we know that what was outlined as a national aspiration and what was agreed to in a referendum by the people of this country is not being delivered for the people of Northern Ireland.
Members will remember the week in December 2017 when there was a flurry of activity around the formulation of what became the UK-EU joint report. They will also remember the work that had to go into getting provisions placed in that joint report at paragraph 50, which not only represented the principle that it was of no concern for the European Union to impede or impose upon the integrity of a member state, but stated:
“the United Kingdom will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, unless, consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree… In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market.”
That was in paragraph 50 of the joint report, but it was never honoured in the withdrawal agreement.
The hon. Gentleman is making some powerful points. Does he recall that, when the first version of the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 6) Bill was brought forward before the election last year, I and others tabled an amendment that would have put paragraph 50 of the joint report into the Bill, but that was not accepted by the Government?
It was not accepted by the Government, but the right hon. Lady was a member of the Government who brought forward three iterations of a withdrawal agreement that did not honour that provision. That provision was not honoured in the earlier iterations of the withdrawal agreement.
The hon. Gentleman will recall that there was an addendum to the withdrawal agreement that was agreed and would have been lodged in the international court that would have made paragraph 50 part of an international agreement, but that was rejected by this House.
The right hon. Lady may be right on that point, but here we are yet again, seeking to legislate domestically within the United Kingdom to right the wrongs of a negotiation that should never have advanced in the way that it did. Our Government fell into the trap of trying to provide an answer when they did not know what the problem was. They did not know what the future trading relationship was going to be. They did not know what the overarching trade deal was going to be between the United Kingdom Government and the European Union, and yet they set out to solve the problem of the Irish border without knowing what the overarching provisions would be. That made no sense, and it led us to the position we are in today. Here I am this evening, asking Members to consider provisions that should be part of this Bill but are not and saying that there are aspirations associated with this Bill that should equally apply to Northern Ireland—the whole of the United Kingdom internal market, as stated in the joint report—but do not. That is hugely regrettable.
I spoke on Wednesday about clause 46, on the provision of financial aid, and my party’s amendment 22 to clause 47, to ensure that there was no restriction on such aid for Northern Ireland businesses. The response from Government was, “That’s great. Thank you very much. Let’s consider it on Monday.” Here we stand on Monday. I have enormous respect for the Minister, but we are hearing, “Don’t worry about your amendments. We’ll consider them in the Finance Bill.” There remain important concerns about the European Union state aid rules that will apply in Northern Ireland. There is nothing in this Bill, there is nothing in the Government’s approach, and there is nothing in their plan that seeks to amend or fetter the rule of EU state aid rules within Northern Ireland.
Can my hon. Friend explain to the House whether he believes predatory actions from the Republic of Ireland could in fact prevent Northern Ireland from having a free port in his constituency, a free port operational in the constituency of Foyle or a free port operational out of Warrenpoint? Preventing those policies, which would be state aid policies, would have a detrimental impact on trade, jobs and people’s prosperity in Ulster.
I am very grateful for the question, and I know that the Government would respond by saying “Look in the Bill. It is for the Secretary of State and no one else to raise issues or notify the European Union on state aid issues.” I am concerned not just about the operation of that provision, but the chilling effect that the application of state aid rules from the European Union has, when the Government consider the potential support that they could give to businesses in Northern Ireland. Again today, we hear that it applies only to goods and electricity, but I think it applies to services of those manufactured goods as well. I think there is a financial threshold of around half a million pounds, but much more clarity is required from the Government on the application of state aid rules in Northern Ireland, because all I hear is an effort to make sure that the EU does not encroach on GB affairs without any consequential understanding or recognition of—or aspiration to solve—the problems that we will face in Northern Ireland.
While the Bill may state that it is up to the Secretary of State to notify the European Commission of any state aid, there is absolutely nothing to stop the Government of the Irish Republic—or indeed, another manufacturer who feels aggrieved that state aid has been given to firms in Northern Ireland that impinges on its ability to compete with those firms—taking a case to the Commission and going through the European mechanism at that stage. Once that happens, we have no representatives on the Commission or the Court, so it would be a one-way ticket as far as the complainant was concerned.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I mentioned the chilling effect. Arguably, if the UK Government and officialdom in Whitehall had not offered such religious observance to EU regulations over the past 40 years, this country would not have agreed to leave the European Union. We know that of other countries in the European Union, France has, en français, an à la carte approach to which regulations are important and which are not. The religious observance of regulations in this country has caused that chill factor and it is why people built up frustrations and resentment on the application of those regulations over the years. There is a fear that that could happen in this case.
Let us consider the Addison Lee case on state aid application of rules in this country. Addison Lee wanted to use bus lanes in London, but it was told it could not use them. Addison Lee took a case on the state aid implications because it thought the state was unfairly given an advantage over Addison Lee in London. The UK Government’s position was “Catch yourself on! It is a UK-funded public service versus a UK private business, and EU state aid rules do not apply” but the EU resolved that, yes, the rules were engaged because Addison Lee could equally have been owned by representatives from another member state. That is how the question was resolved, and Addison Lee can now use bus lanes. I have no doubt that the far-reaching implications of state aid law would open the opportunity for claims from elsewhere.
To back up my hon. Friend’s argument, the farming community and businesses across the whole of Northern Ireland have expressed their great concern about the different levels of state aid. They are not only referring to food, because subsidy comes in many forms. My constituents tell me that they are also concerned about being precluded from the tax reliefs available on the mainland, because potentially our competitive ability may be greatly hampered by that discrepancy. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I do agree. I know that the Minister went through a number of the amendments we have tabled and said, “Look, there are provisions about direct and non-direct discrimination and those still apply.” However, where a business is competing in a sector for which there are state subventions and subsidies in England, Scotland and Wales but where those same subsidies and subventions are precluded in Northern Ireland, there will be discrimination. There will be an unfair playing field in the economy of this internal market, and that square is not circled in this Bill. There are no satisfactory answers from the Government to say, “If we run with the implication of EU state aid rules in Northern Ireland, and if we support businesses in GB but not in Northern Ireland, how is there not unfair competition? How are there not direct or indirect discriminatory outworkings of the provisions of this arrangement?”
I want to draw the Minister’s attention to a useful document, which I hope he will spend time considering. I refer to the Northern Ireland stakeholder response to the UK’s research and development road map consultation, which considers clearly some of the things the Government could do under clauses 46 and 47 in providing financial support for sectors in Northern Ireland. We hear an awful lot in this Chamber about doubling down on levelling up. We know that research and development support across the UK is hugely uneven, and that the majority of that money goes into the south-east of England, to London and to the east of England, and that Northern Ireland and other regions throughout the UK do not get their fair share.
The stakeholder response is a collaborative piece of work by Belfast City Council, Belfast Harbour, Queen’s University, Ulster University and Catalyst Northern Ireland. It asks that the Government ring-fence R&D support, with a minimum of £250 million per year for Northern Ireland; that they create bespoke arrangements that allow for flexibility of funds for the Northern Ireland economy; that they appoint regional delivery partnerships; and that they are considering an ARPA—advanced research projects agency—for the cyber-security hub in my constituency, our FinTech hub, the advanced and high-end engineering and manufacturing in my constituency, and the aspirations of a digital free port in Belfast. That ARPA opportunity is well worth considering and it is well worth showing that even though we may have an uneven playing field, our Government are serious about doubling down on levelling up and will extend support to Northern Ireland.
I would love to go through a lot of the amendments, but I am conscious that I have gone over my self-imposed timeline, so I will just discuss the importance of amendment 68, which proposes a change to clause 40. It proposes that Northern Ireland Assembly consent would be required for any new arrangements or requirements for goods traded from GB to NI, and new requirements would not come into force unless they were agreed with the consent of the Assembly. It would also provide that:
“No additional official or administrative costs”—
arising from new requirements—
“may be recouped from the private sector.”
The Minister referred to the trader supporter service, and we know that the Government have said that there are going to put £355 million into that service at this stage. Huge questions remain unanswered for businesses in Northern Ireland, which have heard that they have unfettered access to the UK internal market. Some understand that that promise is one way; some understand that that promise is NI to GB. Some do not understand that there are huge constraints on GB to NI trade, because the Government gave that power away in the withdrawal agreement. They passed it to the Joint Committee and therefore they are only half of the equation. We know that the Joint Committee is considering what goods are at risk, but businesses are trying to access goods in the rest of GB and their suppliers are saying, “Are we able to send this to you? Will we be able to sell you these goods? Will we be required to file exit declarations? Will there be a cost for us doing business with you in Northern Ireland, one that we are not prepared to meet or you are not prepared to pay?” If that is the case, it makes a whole nonsense of this internal UK market.
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify for the record whether, if the amendment were to proceed and the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly were required, that would constitute a unilateral breach of the protocol in how that consent would be given? Could a petition of concern be lodged against it, thereby giving his party and anyone else—Members of Traditional Unionist Voice, for example— a veto over the way forward?
The first aspect of that question is the intended breach, and the answer is clearly no, because amendment 68 talks about “new requirements”, and if the hon. Gentleman reads the content of the amendment, he will see that. The Northern Ireland Assembly has cross-community voting mechanisms not to provide vetoes but to encourage consensus. The hon. Members on the Benches to my left know exactly why those provisions were brought in, and they know the importance of them, but they tend to believe that they are worthy of use only when there is an issue for which they wish to use them. That is hugely regrettable. When I talk about the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly, I know that there are cross-community mechanisms to ensure that we get to a place of consensus. I do not believe in stalemate or in logjams. I have spent my political life trying to resolve them. I hope that when I contribute on issues in this House, people respect the fact that, although I do not necessarily agree with everyone, I try to get to a place where we can agree.
Businesses in Northern Ireland that buy from GB and wish to sell to GB want to know what their trading position will be. They were promised the best of both worlds, yet day after day they are learning about the bureaucratic and administrative burdens that are going to be placed upon them. They want answers. I know that the Minister will respond thoughtfully to the debate, and that he will pick up on some of the additional issues that I have raised on amendment 68. I hope he does that. I hope he offers some clarity and comfort for businesses in Northern Ireland, and I hope he outlines just how the Bill will assist them. I believe that it will not do so, however, so I hope that he gives us some clarity as to what steps the Government are prepared to take in the Finance Bill to resolve these overarching and burdening issues, which remain unresolved, through the Joint Committee.
This has not been the most edifying spectacle for the House of Commons over the past few days, but I hope that, at the end of the day, we can find a constructive way forward. I say that it is not edifying because, although much of the purpose of the Bill is important and valuable, to act in contemplation of something that most of us would regard as unworthy—namely, to breach an international obligation—is not something that one should ever seek to discuss lightly. Equally, it is not something that can ever be an absolute, because there can be certain extreme and pressing circumstances where such a derogation is permissible, but the bar has to be a very high one. That is why the discussions that have taken place between some of us and the Government, and the Minister’s response, are important, as far as my thinking is concerned. On the face of it, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) observed, without safeguards and caveats, clauses 42, 43 and 45 would without more ado be unconscionable, and we could not support them.
I want also to speak to my amendment 4 and the Government’s amendment 66, which I hope will provide a means of reconciling that position with the need to find a constructive way forward.
If my hon. Friend will allow me to develop my point a little, I will of course give way to him in a moment.
Without a parliamentary lock, I do not believe that it will ever be appropriate for a sovereign Parliament to contemplate breaking an international obligation. There has to be a test for the parliamentary lock to be met. I welcome, therefore, the Minister’s comments on Government amendment 66 and the test that he has adopted—and that was previously put out by Downing Street—at the Dispatch Box in respect of the high bar that would have to be met before the House could or should be persuaded to support such a course of action. For me and, I suspect, many other Members, the bar would have to be a high one.
Does my hon Friend agree that that bar becomes very apparent when dealing with the essential question of sovereignty and whether the EU is recognising sovereignty in the negotiations in the way that was clearly stated in the protocol and in the essential elements of the agreement? We are sovereign and our constitution is special in that respect, compared with some other countries that have provisions in written constitutions.
Let me put it this way: if my hon. Friend is saying that the test is something akin to that in article 46 of the Vienna convention on the law of treaties, which permits a departure from an international obligation if the violation that causes it is
“manifest and concerned a rule of its internal law of fundamental importance”,
I am not a million miles away from him. It is not an exact analogy and I do not think my hon. Friend was trying to make one, but it would have to be something similarly fundamental.
From my point of view, one could conceive—I use my words carefully—that a Government might be able to persuade the House that there was such a threat to the position of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom, and to the welfare of its economy and people, that one might take such a step. That is why, having thought and hesitated for some time, I am prepared to allow the Government the opportunity to make that case. None the less, it is a high bar, and I have to say that the fact that other jurisdictions—be it the EU or others—may have derogated from international treaties is not of itself persuasive. Many of us would need to be persuaded by the evidence that was brought in relation to the specific circumstances that might trigger the bringing into force of the three clauses under the arrangements set out in Government amendment 66. That is the point and will be the only test that will be relevant.
I have sympathy with the argument that the hon. Gentleman is making, but I have to say that the practicalities will take us in a very different direction. Last week, No. 10 Downing Street was briefing out that the hon. Gentleman and those who agreed with him would have the Whip removed if they followed through on his amendment. That is the pressure under which Government Members will be put. May I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that it is possible the Government have accepted his proposition because they see it as something that in practice will not cause them any difficulty?
I shall make two points to the right hon. Gentleman. First, he knows my record does not indicate that I am always in terror of voting against the Whip. Secondly, if anything like that was being briefed out, I never heard it, it was never said to me and I am shocked that any Government would brief such a thing without saying it to the face of the Members concerned.
I can confirm that when on the Sunday I conveyed to the Government my concerns with regard to aspects of the Bill and said that on Monday I would be resigning as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief because of real concerns about aspects of the Bill, no one at all from No. 10 ever said that the Whip would be withdrawn; instead, they said that they understood and accepted my decision.
That does not surprise me; it is consistent with my own experience. I say gently to Opposition Members that the issues at stake are too serious to be part of what might otherwise be an understandable bit of partisan knockabout. That is not what we are talking about.
The hon. Gentleman mentions the seriousness of the issue; it is that serious that the British Government’s senior Scottish Law Officer, the Advocate General, has resigned. Does the hon. Gentleman really believe that Scottish constituency Members, based on that premise, should walk through the Lobby and vote with the Government?
It is presumptuous, it seems to me, of the hon. Gentleman to try to suggest how any of my hon. and right hon. Friends might choose to vote, just as it would be presumptuous of me to take a view as to why any Member does or does not remain a member of the Government. I have a very high respect for the noble Lord, Lord Keen of Elie. I just observe that his resignation came before the terms of the Government’s amendment were announced and it was tabled, and before the declaration which the Minister has read out from the Dispatch Box was in the public domain; I perhaps regret the timing of that, but I respect Lord Keen’s position, and that is unchanged, and I do not think relevant to the case that we must make here.
I must press on now, and not take any further interventions for some time out of respect for others who wish to speak in this debate.
The Government now accept that they must come to the House and make their case. I think that they recognise that that case would have to be a persuasive one, and that the level of breach by the EU—which would have to be a breach of its obligation of good faith, which in turn would be a breach, it seems to me, of the obligations under article 26 of the Vienna convention to operate in good faith—would have to be made out before I and many others would be prepared to vote for such a course, because of the potential consequences for our international reputation and standing. That is why I am prepared to adopt the formulation of the Lord Chancellor that such a thing might be acceptable in extremis. This is not a carte blanche for the Government, and, in fairness, I do not think Ministers have ever taken it as such; I think they know that it weighs heavily to do such a thing. If the Government move amendment 66 at the relevant stage tomorrow, I will be prepared not to press my amendment, but it is to give the Government the chance to make their case as to why such an exceptional step should be necessary.
It is not wise or constructive to conflate the positions of domestic and international law in this debate; they operate in different spheres, and much of what we are looking at would be in relation to treaty law. A test that is not dissimilar—although it can never be exactly the same—to those considered in the Vienna convention is, therefore, not out of the way.
I welcome, too, the fact that the Minister indicated that the measures that would be initiated would include the arbitral provisions under the protocol to the withdrawal agreement. To try to oust those provisions would be a material breach of the agreement on our part, and would be unconscionable. Under certain circumstances the timeframe for that might not be capable of being resolved in such a way that we might not have to take some proportionate and temporary action ourselves to safeguard a vital interest, but I am sure the Minister and the House will note that I choose my words carefully in all those regards. This is not a green light to treating our international obligations lightly or cavalierly; it is an opportunity for the Government to justify why it might be necessary. One cannot give undertakings as to what that might be until we have seen the evidence at the appropriate time, and I am sure the Government know that, too. But I hope that in practice this also has the desirable effect of enabling the negotiations to proceed and, at the end of the day—with good faith on both sides, which I hope, underneath, is still there—we can get an agreement with the European Union and leave on the terms of a deal. That may not be as good as I would have liked, but much of what I have been doing ever since the referendum is trying to mitigate a circumstance that I did not wish for but which I believe has to be addressed head-on for the sake of the country. If we can achieve an agreement, I hope these provisions will be otiose and we will see no more of them. The rest of the Bill is necessary because we need a proper and efficient working of our internal market once we leave the European Union. Therefore, my other motive for adopting the course that I have is not to obstruct the rest of the Bill needlessly.
It is in that spirit—which has, in fairness, been reflected in my exchanges with the Minister—that I set out the case for why the amendment is important to debate and to consider. If the Government are able to deliver in the terms that we have discussed, I will give them the chance to make their case, if it ever be necessary, in the profound hope that we never actually get to that.
I rise to commend to the Committee amendments 46 to 48, amendment 41 and new clause 7, which stand in the name of the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry).
There has been so much invocation of the Good Friday agreement, in favour and against the measures in the Bill, that I think it bears repeating some of what is and is not contained and implied in that generation-defining agreement. Those who have read the agreement will know that it does not really talk all that much about borders, trade and internal markets, because, frankly, the EU had settled all those things, and in 1998 the prospect of either Government choosing to leave the security, opportunity and prosperity of the EU would have been considered insanity.
Violence was the reason for the continuing fortifications. The Good Friday agreement was the document that articulated most clearly the argument, which had been made by John Hume and others for so many years, that violence was neither needed nor justified. It took the gun out of Irish politics and ensured that the purported justification of those behind the violence was addressed. The agreement was then endorsed by the people of Ireland, north and south, in overwhelming numbers, and endorsed by both Governments, as the only way to achieve your politics. It took away the excuse and put peaceful constitutional views to the fore. It meant that Unionists, nationalists and others could have their views with dignity and that we all had a decent pass forward.
The Good Friday agreement does not say much about borders and trade, but it does say a lot about relationships, aspirations, consensus and respect, and I think that those are the values that unfortunately have been most damaged and will be most damaged by the Bill. The declaration that accompanied the agreement—
I am delighted that the hon. Member has given way. She casts a considerable aspersion on the Members of her party who were here for several years, but who obviously did not do as good a job in the House as she now purports to be doing, but I will leave that thought with her. Her party is in a coalition Government with my party and with Sinn Féin at the present time—obviously her words about co-operation will now ring very true indeed. Given that her party is in that coalition Government with Sinn Féin, is she actually telling the House that she believes that Sinn Féin or others are on the cusp of going back to terrorism because of what is happening here tonight?
No, obviously I am not. Only somebody with absolutely no understanding or who is so disingenuous would ask the question of where the violence comes from as if just a hope is a good enough reason to ride over a solemn peace treaty. Only somebody who either misunderstands or misdirects people would ask such a disingenuous question, and ask it repeatedly. We know that unfortunately there are many people of different political hues who have always sought to use violence as an excuse. That is why my party and others did the heavy lifting to ensure peace, while your party stood outside, waved placards and did everything it could to thwart the Good Friday agreement. So I will take no lectures or disingenuous questions, thank you very much.
The Good Friday agreement did talk about democratic and agreed arrangements, the democratic process and the primacy of the rule of law. It talked about close co-operation as friendly neighbours and partners in the EU. Each strand of the agreement has been damaged by the last few years, and they will be damaged further by the Bill. Strand 1, which deals with internal relationships in Northern Ireland, is damaged by injecting these binary choices and by trespassing into the devolved field. However, I will not, for reasons of time, go over the points that I and others made last Wednesday evening, about what undermining the devolved settlement might do.
Strand 2, which deals with relationships on the island of Ireland, will be utterly undermined by the creeping borderism that will follow from the Bill and the disruption of the north-south frameworks. Strand 3 deals with the east-west relationships, which clearly have been strained almost to breaking point over the past few years. It is because of the primacy of relationships that barriers to trade and aspiration offend the Good Friday agreement. Those who are seeking to say, “It isn’t written down anywhere, so there is no problem here” need to understand that.
The SDLP profoundly regrets the development of any barrier—east-west; the border in the Irish sea—for reasons of trade and economy, but also because we understand that borders have symbolic meaning to people, and we understand that this is particularly hurtful and egregious to those of a Unionist or British identity.
We have enjoyed, for the last 20 years, interdependence and free movement east, west, north and south, and it is Brexit and these decisions that are forcing the choice. It is not re-fighting the last campaign to remind people that the problem is not the protocol, it is not the EU and it is not uppity Irish nationalists, but it is this Government’s failure to choose between a higher degree of alignment with the EU, which offends the European Research Group, the ability to diverge, which will upset and offend people of a Unionist background, and the nuclear option of forcing a hard border on the island of Ireland. Quite clearly, the last two weeks have shown and give some reassurance that the UK will have no trading partners if that is the course it chooses.
The hon. Member says it is not the fault of the EU, but can we just remind ourselves that it was the United Kingdom Government who gave an absolutely cast-iron guarantee that we would put up no infrastructure on the border between north and south in Ireland? It was the EU that kept threatening to do that, even though alternative arrangements could be developed to obviate that need. I fail to understand why people just do not want to believe that, except that they want to blame the United Kingdom Government, not the EU.
It is funny, but we do not hear so much about the alternative arrangements, and this from a party that has us all queuing around the estate because it could not put in place any alternative arrangements for voting. We heard a lot about them for a lot of years, but the magic sovereignty dust that was supposed to solve all of our problems has not yet been produced.
However, it is true that the choices, and they are very difficult choices, are being forced by that Government. We wish that the Government had picked the first of those options. We wish they had picked a higher degree of alignment with the EU, but they did not, and they cannot keep reopening the wound every time they try to deal with the contradictory promises they made. Whatever Bill the Government bring in, the choice will be the same. You cannot opt out of the biggest free trade bloc in the world and then feign shock when the trade is not completely clear, and you cannot refuse to do the first of the two things and then pretend that they are going to happen.
To suggest that any of this is about protecting the Good Friday agreement or the people of Northern Ireland is beyond a parody. We have worked intensively with businesses and other parties to try to address some of the barriers that we accept will exist, but we have to remind the House and others that it is this Government’s choice and the failure of the DUP for the last three years to do anything about those choices that has brought us to this point, and people must own those decisions. The Joint Committee is the place to address those difficulties and those operational issues, and there are the dispute mechanisms.
We see and we very much acknowledge the anxiety that east-west barriers to trade create, but even with the politics and the identity issues stripped out, it is a regrettable fact that the sea border is more practical and more manageable than a border across the island of Ireland, given that there are three such points of entry into Northern Ireland and 108 border crossings between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. I do not say that to be hurtful; I say it because it is true.
I bit my tongue several times during the speech from the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), whose opinion is always considered. I bit it for a number of reasons. Not only because of course your party opposed giving a consent mechanism to the Northern Ireland Assembly on article 50 and opposed giving consent on the sequencing, but because you speak about the sequencing. We have seen what has happened with the gamification of the sequencing and the gamification and using of Northern Ireland as a pawn by the UK Government in order to achieve outcomes and to justify no deal. The last thing I had to bite my tongue about was your saying that the petition of concern is not used as a veto. Members can look it up, but your party has used it 86 times. It used it numerous times to veto, for example, equal marriage for absolutely no reasons of offence to the United Kingdom.
I think the second-last point—the penultimate point—was right, and I agree with the hon. Member. However, on the petition of concern and the cross-community voting mechanisms, she knows the reason they are there. She does not like it when people use them for reasons that she does not agree with, but she knows the reasons they are there. We were not the only ones to use it. We do not have the power to use it by ourselves. But the aspiration for us all must be building consensus.
It certainly should. I am not going to rehearse the figures, but I believe that the Democratic Unionist party used the petition of concern approximately two thirds of the time. You do not have the power to use it now because the electorate took that power off you, because it was wielded inappropriately so many times. I am acknowledging very clearly the barriers and impediments that this will create and the intentions of many to try to address those, but whatever the value of trade east-west—I see and acknowledge that value, but it is often cited by people who seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing—the reality is that there are more people and more units that move up and down the island than move between the two islands. In fact, after 1 January next year, there will be more external crossings into the EU on the island of Ireland than there will be in the rest of the continent’s borders.
Those who support the Bill and the last few years of poor decision making have to acknowledge the intellectual and moral failure in a position that says that a border down the Irish sea is absolutely impossible technically and impossible to bear politically, but that somehow forcing one on the island of Ireland is dead-on, that we can deal with that with a bit of administration and that people are being overly sensitive. Imperfect though I acknowledge the protocol is, it is the baseline protection against the border, so repudiation of the protocol therefore makes a border a lot more likely, and inevitable.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May)—we believe that the clauses we are dealing with today are irredeemable—and I appreciate her interventions very much. Over the few years that she served as Prime Minister, while I frequently did not agree with what she said, I could always acknowledge that she was trying to respect the sensitivities. I respect those who are trying to manoeuvre their party to the right place. I know that that is a very difficult thing to do, particularly when 21 decent MPs were sacked for refusing to vote for the previous Bill, and now they will be sacked if they do vote for the withdrawal agreement—I think that is the sequencing of things.
The amendments that we have tabled seek to protect the protocol and put the commitment to the Good Friday agreement into the Bill. While I appreciate the Minister’s words, my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) has made it clear that the words do not mean anything if you refuse the opportunity to give it legislative effect. Amendment 47 tries to put in place an understanding and an assurance that all of the Bill’s operation will be compatible with all the legislation that underpins the Good Friday agreement. While the UK’s intention is clear—I accept what it is trying to do, but I think it is doing it inappropriately and I do not think it will work—it is about rejecting EU jurisdiction, and the fact is that because of the international treaty that is the Good Friday agreement, international law has jurisdiction in Northern Ireland. That is welcome, and the rights and safeguards in the equality of opportunity section of the Good Friday agreement confirmed the incorporation of the convention on human rights into Northern Ireland law, with direct access to the courts and remedies for breach of the convention, including power for the courts to overrule Assembly legislation on grounds of consistency. That point is echoed again in strand 1 of the agreement, and it must be very clear that my party, certainly, could not and would not have signed up to the Good Friday agreement without those commitments, but this Bill casts them into the wind.
It is clear that we are not talking about narrow and specific breaches. These are going to be open-ended and unchecked powers, and there will not be any qualifications or consultations to test their basis. I sought assurances on Wednesday night from the Minister that there would be limits to the powers, and I did not receive that assurance.
Members may think that this is all a big game of chicken, or a negotiating strategy or whatever with the EU. I urge them to remember the words of the late John Hume, a former Member of this House, who said very clearly, “Victories are not solutions”. The agreement that he designed talked about the obligations of the British and Irish Governments to promote the harmonious and mutually beneficial relationships between the peoples of these islands. I dearly hope that that can somehow still be our future. We are all in the business of trying to deliver solutions for our constituents. I appreciate that some of you are trying to deliver a Brexit and your Brexit deal, however ill-advised I think that is. I am trying to deliver stability and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, but I believe your Bill prevents both of us from proceeding.
Order. I did not interrupt the hon. Lady, but I would just like to remind Members, especially new ones, that if you say “your”, as in “your party”, it is a reference to my party, and it was not my party. Also, I remind people to use temperate language when they can. There were just one or two instances where the hon. Lady was sailing a little close to the wind. I just say to all Members present that there are still a lot of people on the call list. The closer to five minutes the speeches are, the more of our colleagues will be able to contribute to the debate.
I will bear your comments on timing in mind, Sir Graham, and try to rattle through. It is a pleasure to follow a very powerful speech from the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna). We may disagree on some quite fundamental things, but I very much welcome her input to this debate.
I rise to support the Bill and the Government amendments, because we need to ensure that goods and trade can flow freely across our United Kingdom without unnecessary barriers. I see regaining control of how we regulate our economy as one of the key benefits of Brexit. That is not because I want any kind of race to the bottom. I want to maintain high standards. In some areas, there is clearly a case for introducing more rigorous regulation, for example to bring an end to the live export of animals for slaughter or fattening, but regaining domestic control over regulation will enable us to produce rules that are more targeted and more effective at tackling the problem they are designed to address, and which we can update more quickly as circumstances change. All those could be crucial in improving our global competitiveness, and in supporting jobs and growth during this time of grave economic damage caused by covid-19.
I spent six years in the European Parliament before coming to this place and I was heavily involved in debates on the creation of new EU regulation. I spent nearly two years of my life on the markets in financial instruments directive. I can say, from seeing the process at first hand, that it is long and painful to produce EU legislation, and that it frequently produces outcomes that are inflexible, bureaucratic, heavy-handed and create unnecessary costs. I believe that in this House and in this nation, we can do better. We can deliver a regulatory system that is more responsive, more agile and more proportionate.
As we have heard from many speakers, and as we well know from the debate over the past year, the Northern Ireland protocol will inevitably have an impact on the flow of goods across the Irish sea. That was one of the most painful compromises that was made in reaching agreement on the withdrawal treaty. Certainly for me that was one of the things I found most difficult in deciding whether I could support it. However, there can be no doubt that the Government are pressing ahead with implementing the protocol. Extensive preparations have been made by the UK Government for a new system for compliance with both customs and sanitary and phytosanitary obligations, as required by the protocol. It is simply not true to allege that the Government, with this proposed legislation, are somehow ripping up the protocol or repudiating the treaty.
What we cannot do is let the European Union run down the clock on securing agreement on the scope of the key concept of goods at risk of being re-exported to the EU, because that would mean a default would kick in requiring customs compliance for all goods coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. That, of course, would lead to a full customs border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, violating article 4 of the protocol. It would also change the status of Northern Ireland within the UK, contrary to the provisions of the Belfast agreement.
Concern about the potential for the EU to adopt an unreasonable and absolutist approach to the question of goods at risk is, frankly, compounded by the Commission’s current refusal to list the UK as a country is deemed fit to export food to the EU. As Environment Secretary, I was able to secure that authorisation in the event that we had left at the end of January without an exit treaty, but I have to say that it was not an easy process. The UK’s compliance with all current EU laws, including on food and animals, should mean that giving us third country status is a straightforward administrative decision, so it is therefore very hard to understand why the EU is withholding consent, for example, for us to export products to the European Union, which it permits from countries with which it has far weaker links and which have, arguably, far less rigorous standards. They include, to take just a few, Russia, Serbia, Chile, Thailand, Ukraine and Cuba. Even the Republic of Iran is on the approved list for certain products.
In these circumstances, I can support the precautions taken in clauses 41 to 45 to allow Ministers to make decisions on how aspects of the protocol will operate in practice if these important matters cannot be resolved in the Joint Committee. I honestly think that these clauses are unlikely ever to be used, but what they can do is prevent the EU from being able to use article 5 provisions to exert leverage over the United Kingdom to try to lock us into its regulatory orbit, bound by its laws and its Court.
Leaving the European Union does not mean becoming a client state of the European Union. That is why I voted three times against the first version of the withdrawal treaty, and that is why I am backing this Bill in the Lobby this evening.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers). Although I fundamentally disagree with her on Brexit, I certainly recognise her work in Northern Ireland when she was Secretary of State. I refer, in particular, to her work on the Stormont House agreement, though I think it is worth noting that that is another agreement that the Government are in the process of breaching as well.
I primarily want to speak to the amendments of which I am the lead sponsor—amendment 41 and new clause 6—but also to make wider reference to part 5 of the Bill. In brief, amendment 41 seeks to ensure that everything in part 5 is consistent with international law obligations and also with the Good Friday agreement in all of its parts, though it would be preferable to strike clauses 42 to 45 from the Bill in their entirety, but, at this stage, amendment 41 is a catch-all to try to ensure that it is compliant insofar as that is possible. New clause 6 is about putting into law the correct approach to addressing the issue of export declarations and other exit procedures in terms of trying to get a good resolution through the Joint Committee.
I want to make some general comments about the threat to international law that is contained in part 5 of the Bill and to echo that the Government amendment is essentially cosmetic. It does not address the issue. I am someone who is usually a gradualist and who will bank progress, but this is not that type of situation. This will not convince anybody of the UK’s good intentions. In essence, the threat to breach international law will still be codified in the legislation and that is not a basis on which any state can do business internationally. It will undermine the ability of the UK to manage its existing agreements, and also to conclude future agreements. The reputation of the UK internationally will fall with very serious consequences. Our ability to hold other regimes to account for breaches of democracy, human rights and the rule of law will be compromised; and the UK does have a strong record in that regard, or at least had a strong record up until this particular point in time.
More specifically, part 5 will undermine the ability of the UK to conclude a future relationship arrangement with the European Union. That will have severe consequences for the UK economy. To me, it seems as if a dead-end approach is being adopted by those who claim to want such a deal, and I am not quite sure how that will be a sustainable position.
Even beyond that, the prospects of a US-UK trade deal are very much called into question. For those who have the fantasy of an Atlanticist approach to replace the relationship with our nearest neighbour, I really struggle to understand how they believe that the approach they are taking will actually allow that dream to be realised. Of course, we should all want a deal with the United States, albeit one that we negotiate from a position of strength—people have some genuine concerns about that—but I am not sure that people fully appreciate whow difficult that will be, particularly in terms of Congress and what Speaker Pelosi and indeed some members of the Republican party have said. This is an ultimate dead end, and Members who still believe it is doable need to reflect very seriously on what has been said to them.
I will also comment on what I think is a major misunderstanding, or lack of understanding, in some parts of the House with respect to the Good Friday agreement. At times, I get the sense that the Government are almost twisting the understanding of the Good Friday agreement to fit their particular political objectives. It is important that Members understand that a fault line runs right through Northern Ireland. Anyone familiar with history will well appreciate why I am saying that. Northern Ireland is both a divided society and a contested space, particularly with regard to the latter in that there are different constitutional aspirations for the future of that part of the world. We have been on a journey through the Good Friday agreement, but the work of building integration and promoting reconciliation is still very much in progress. More needs to be done.
It is true—this is where the Government are placing all their emphasis—that the principle of consent is a core aspect of the agreement. I concur with that, and indeed it is recognised fundamentally within the withdrawal agreement, although people may have different aspirations regarding where that goes in due course. However, the agreement is also about the interlocking relationships, the internal dynamics in Northern Ireland, the north-south relationship and the east-west relationship, and the wider context of the improvement of Anglo-Irish relations, which gave rise to the agreement in the first place and which, up until now, have been working to try to ensure that the agreement stays on course.
Thank you, Sir Graham. The hon. Member mentioned the protectionism in the Belfast agreement. That is its name: the Belfast agreement. Unfortunately, from a Unionist perspective, the protections that we were sold as ensuring and enshrining our right to be part of the United Kingdom until such time as the people of Northern Ireland decided otherwise are being eroded from below our feet by the withdrawal agreement and the clause associated with Northern Ireland. That has to be recognised. Do you recognise, as a Unionist, that this does not give you much comfort?
I am grateful to the hon. Member for his intervention. I think his question was aimed at me, rather than you, Sir Graham. First, just to give Members some encouragement, Members from Northern Ireland can sort out some choreography at times in terms of speaking, so all is not lost entirely, but it is important that the hon. Member appreciates a number of points.
As I said, the principle of consent is hard-wired into the withdrawal agreement. At the same time, however, I think it is naive not to accept that what had been a relatively stable situation in Northern Ireland around the constitutional question has become much more fluid in recent years, to a large extent because of the fallout from Brexit. Whichever way things emerge over the coming months there will be some degree of political instability in that respect, and it is incumbent on us all to try to come to terms with that, to manage that and to keep people on board, making Northern Ireland work over the months and years to come.
I also stress to the hon. Member that another way of looking at the agreement is that it was, in essence, a grand bargain. We are approaching the centenary of Northern Ireland next year. For most of its history, Northern Ireland was a contested state and some people did not accept its legitimacy. We had a situation, for example, where the Irish constitution had a claim on the territory of Northern Ireland through articles 2 and 3.
With the Good Friday agreement, arguably for the first time we had a sense that the vast majority of people on the island of Ireland accepted the legitimacy of Northern Ireland as an entity, albeit with the ability to change recognised as part of that agreement. That was a major win, particularly for Unionism. At the same time, there was a recognition of the interlocking relationships—in particular, the north-south aspect—on the island of Ireland. The problem is that Brexit has come in and destabilised that. In particular I have to say to my Unionist colleagues that their charge headlong into Brexit, given that grand bargain, was most irresponsible and short-sighted.
It would not have been possible for the Good Friday agreement to be concluded if the UK and Ireland were not simultaneously part of the European Union—in particular, the customs union and the single market. The protocol is a product of the UK’s decisions, choices and red lines on Brexit, so if there are concerns, grumbles or complaints about it, it is a product of decisions taken primarily by people in this Chamber over the past number of years.
In essence, there is a trilemma at the heart of this: the UK set out three mutually incompatible objectives, only two of which can be realised at any one time. The first was that there would be an open border on the island of Ireland, the second was that the whole of the UK would leave the customs union and single market, and the third was that special measures for Northern Ireland were ruled out. The first has been a given for the best part of four years, and was rightly recognised at the start of the Brexit negotiations. The second was the determination of this House, which ruled out a softer version of Brexit, with the entire UK remaining part of the customs union and single market—an outcome that would still have been consistent with the referendum result. The third is something that the UK has essentially had to concede through the protocol.
Whatever way we look at this, when a decision was taken to leave the customs union and single market, some sort of interface was going to have to be managed with the European Union’s single market and customs union. The backstop was the first attempt—I believe it was much maligned and a missed opportunity. The protocol was the next alternative, and the Prime Minister bought into it last October. It is an attempt to square an impossible circle, but we have to do our best in that regard; there will not be a neat and easy solution. The protocol is imperfect, but it represents the bare minimum of what is required to address the particular challenges and circumstances that Northern Ireland faces.
Like the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna), I do not want to see any borders anywhere inside these islands, but we have to face the reality that some line will have to be drawn on a map, and wherever it is, some political, emotional and psychological implications will arise from it. It is easier to manage that down the Irish sea than on a land border, as a purely pragmatic analysis of the situation. As has been said, there are seven crossings down the Irish sea, and potentially more than 200 on the land border. People talk about the value of east-west trade, and I certainly recognise that, but the counterpoint to that is to recognise the sheer number of movements on the island of Ireland. The opportunity to have some degree of regulation is more readily applied on the Irish sea interface because there is more dead time, in terms of air and sea travel, than there is on the land border, with land-based transport and much more just-in-time delivery. Those are the sad choices that we are being asked to face up to in Northern Ireland.
We need to make the protocol as light touch as we can to move from what is essentially a solid line on a map to a dotted line. We need to work through the Joint Committee to address the outstanding issues and agree the future relationship. That would make the application of the protocol much easier. To make progress in both respects, the UK has to build up the trust and confidence of the European Union. Essentially, the UK is asking the EU to take it on trust that certain procedures that would otherwise be rigorously required under the terms of the protocol can be disapplied, with flexibilities and modifications shown. The situation with the UK threatening to breach the very withdrawal agreement that gives rise to the protocol will not give the European Union confidence that the UK will honour any flexibilities that it chooses to grant through the protocol.
New clause 6 sets out perhaps one example of the type of situation I am referring to. In essence, the protocol reflects the fact that Northern Ireland remains part of the UK’s customs territory, but the EU customs code is applied down the Irish sea. That was the compromise—I stress that—worked out last year by the Prime Minister, among others.
The EU is entitled to police the integrity of a single market and customs union and to determine how that takes place. However, I firmly believe we can obtain the forgoing of export declarations and other export procedures through discussions in the Joint Committee, if there is that degree of confidence. It should be possible to agree a situation where those things are disapplied entirely, or some alternative statistical method to work out what is actually moving into Great Britain, or indeed some method of differentiating between Northern Ireland urgent goods and urgent goods for elsewhere on the island of Ireland or further afield. All that is eminently doable.
In the same way—Members have alluded to this coming back in the Finance Bill—the issue of goods at risk moving from Great Britain into Northern Ireland can be addressed through the Joint Committee. The default—I stress that it is the default—is that all goods at this stage will be treated as at risk. Obviously, we have to reduce that as far as possible, and ideally to zero, and put in place different measures, but once again that has to be done through goodwill being built up.
My plea to Members is to not go down the line of breaching international law. That is entirely self-defeating, counterproductive and will not only undermine our position in terms of Northern Ireland, but will also do huge damage to the UK’s economy and standing in the world.
I am conscious that everyone needs to get in, so I will try to be as brief as possible. Most of the things I will say have probably already been said and certainly will be said in the course of the debate. I make no claim to uniqueness.
I rise to support the Government’s Bill with particular reference to clauses 40 to 45, which we are considering today. After all, the free flow of goods and trade in the UK is critical and is part of the constitutional settlement—the settlements between Ireland and GB and, later, Northern Ireland and, earlier, Scotland and England. Those principles are at the core of what we believe and what we consider to be immutable, and therefore they cannot be changed. There are areas in the protocol that, if improperly used, could affect those principles, and that cannot be allowed.
I remind colleagues that in the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020—nobody seems to have referenced this—our potential intentions were very clear in section 38, which was part of the legislation when it was passed. As I recall, the Opposition did not vote against that provision. If that was the case, it sent a very strong signal to the EU that there was every likelihood that we considered that constitutional settlement in the UK to be above the implementation of the withdrawal agreement, should the agreement end up damaging the settlement. That was quite clear. In fact, it was so clear that when the 2020 Act had passed both Houses, interestingly the EU still went ahead and ratified its end of the agreement through the European Parliament, knowing full well that that was in the Act. If the EU disagreed with that provision or disagreed with the principle, it should not have ratified the treaty at its end, but it made no bones about it and did it.
The effect of clauses 40 to 45 is just to protect the basic implementation of the UK’s internal market in terms of its constitution. I recognise the concerns of my colleagues in Northern Ireland about the application of state aids in Northern Ireland as well, but in this case the provisions allow state aids in Great Britain to be dispensed under the framework devised in this country, and not elsewhere. It seems intolerable to me that we should leave the EU only to find that it has hold of us in a number of ways that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) said, were categorically never the intention.
I do not believe that the Bill actually breaks international treaties, particularly not at this stage. I think article 46 in the Vienna convention on the law of treaties is clear about that. These things are always open to interpretation —I accept that—and different lawyers will take different views, but generally I think that at this stage in particular the Bill does not do that. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) was clear that that was one of the reasons he is prepared to go along and accommodate the Government on this point, and that is quite reasonable.
The combined effect of article 4 of the withdrawal agreement and section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 is that key parts of the withdrawal agreement and the NIP are already part of domestic law. That therefore makes it impossible for the Government, should they see that the EU is not acting in good faith at this point, to ensure that there is, in a sense, a backstop.
I raised a point with the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) earlier about the EU’s behaviour in this. My point was not, “Look, the EU doesn’t always recognise international law, as applied internally, and therefore we shouldn’t.” That was not the point. The point I was making was that we talk a lot about trust, and there is a lot of debate here about trust, with people saying, “The UK will lose all trust should it do this; no one will ever trust us again”—I do not believe a word of that, by the way, because so many other countries, including the UK, have previously breached international law, for lots of good reasons—but the EU binds it in that it is its right to breach international law.
That was very clear, as I said earlier, in Kadi v. Council and Commission in 2008. The Advocate General made it very clear that the EU does not necessarily have to bind into international treaties with direct effect if they clash with its constitutional settlement. They do so time and again, which has given us a very long list of occasions when the EU has done just that and refused to implement all or part of international treaties. I do not extol its virtues in that regard; I simply regard that as a reality.
What does that say? Does the rest of the world say that the EU cannot be trusted in international agreements? So far, apparently not. So far, it has done deals with a number of different countries and not one of them has said, “We don’t trust you, because you breach international law,” which it does. But the UK has also breached international law. In fact, it was a Labour Government that refused to implement, in about 2005, as I recall, prisoners’ voting rights, which came directly from the European Court of Human Rights. All that happened was that the Government said no. It took 10 years before that was resolved. It was not resolved because the UK Government—I think at that stage it was a Conservative Government and my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) was Prime Minister—implemented it. No, they negotiated again over its implementation and observance, and came up with a fudge.
That is the point about international law: it is not always directly applicable by the letter. Ultimately, when it is not agreed that things should be brought in, they require negotiation subsequently. That is why I say that my right hon. Friends in the Government are absolutely right to use these clauses of the Bill to make it clear to the European Union that, should it wish to pursue the line that it does not agree to work hard in the Joint Committee to resolve these matters about application, which are always a problem, the UK still reserves its right not to breach its own constitutional settlement, which is a primary cause of most breaches of international law around the world.
I intervene only because the prisoner voting issue is one that I remember very well, because I was then the Minister responsible for that policy area. Indeed, our friend David Cameron, who was then the Prime Minister, made it clear in his interview last week that his view is not as firm as some former Prime Ministers, because he recognises that there are these clashes. His point was that we should not break our commitments as a first course, but that having that as a backstop, with parliamentary control, is actually something worth considering. The example that my right hon. Friend gave is a very sound one.
That is why I gave way to my right hon. Friend—because he was there. I think he was a very good Minister too, by the way, for what it is worth.
The point is that for 10 years, Labour Governments and other Governments simply refused to put prisoners’ voting rights through. Finally, there was a fudge negotiation, where not all of what was asked for was agreed, but it was agreed that what had been done, I think on furlough—as I recall, prisoners on furlough had voting rights—was okay. That was not what was asked for.
Let us not be too pompous about this idea that international law is some God-given gospel that says, “Absolutely nobody can ever trespass away from this.” Many of these things are fudged anyway, and implementation is very important. I come back to section 38, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) initiated. That made it very clear that we would, if necessary, place our constitutional law ahead of both of those.
I make that point because in truth, we are now in exactly that state. That is why I believe that I can happily vote for this tonight. I am happy that, following the debate between my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and the Government, they have tabled amendment 66, which will give Parliament a chance to say yea or nay when the moment comes. But we are not in breach until we decide to implement this. This has been done before. It is important to show that we want to do this if necessary, but we would rather find an agreement between the parties.
I come back to the point that I made about good faith in principle. I see that Monsieur Barnier has threatened our negotiators that, if they do not agree with him—he has not, by the way, wanted to move anywhere near the Joint Committee to discuss these matters—the EU will, if necessary, not give us the status of third country. That seems a bizarre threat to make. The list of third countries, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) mentioned, is long and peculiar. Belarus, for example, which we watch almost nightly on the television, would have third country status. We would not have it, apparently. Others include the Central African Republic, China, the Islamic Republic of Iran—the list goes on. I think there are now 137 countries that would have third country status, but apparently to Mr Barnier, it would be quite acceptable for a country that has been very close to the EU for years to not have third country status. I think it is a hollow threat, but it is a peculiar threat to make, and it gives an indication of bad faith.
The EU is meant to avoid bad faith in this, and so are we. The whole idea of the Bill is to say, “Stop. Let’s consider this again. We do not want—and you should not want—to end up in a situation where we are running around on your laws. This is not what the agreement was meant to be, and we are not prepared to see our constitutional settlement trashed in the pursuit of your own vainglorious idea that somehow you’re going to keep hold of us and run us afterwards.” As my right hon. Friend said, we did not vote to be a subsidiary state; we voted for independence. That is the key point.
I am going to vote for this Bill, and I vote for it with a clean heart. I vote for it because so many areas—from state aid, to transfer of goods and agriproducts to labelling—will be affected unnecessarily. If the EU seriously wants to help and to get this done, it needs to return to the table, go into the Joint Committee as it said it would and accept what we are saying: we will not allow our constitution to become the prisoner of an EU that wants to have all power over the UK.
I rise to speak in favour of amendments 43 and 44, in my name, and to support the amendments tabled by the Scottish National party, our friends from the SDLP and our friend from the Alliance party.
I will focus my comments on my amendments, which I tabled to work out just how far this Government are prepared to go in ousting the jurisdiction of the domestic courts in relation to judicial review and review under the Human Rights Act in clause 45, as it appears on the face of the Bill. I also wish to highlight, as I mentioned in an intervention on the Minister, that, in so far as clause 45 seeks to restrict judicial review in Scotland by circumscribing the supervisory jurisdiction of the Court of Session, this not only trespasses into devolved territory but may well breach another treaty: the treaty of Union between Scotland and England, article 19 of which preserves the independence of the Scottish legal system.
Before I address my amendments in detail, for the avoidance of doubt, my primary position—and I find myself curiously on the same ground as the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May)—is that clauses 41 to 45 should not stand part of the Bill. Everything we heard from the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) was designed to hide from us the fact that we are talking about a bilateral treaty that was entered into by the Prime Minister and the United Kingdom less than a year ago, to deal with a specific situation that arose between the United Kingdom and the European Union; and the most controversial part of that treaty—the one dealing with Northern Ireland and the north of Ireland—is the one that this Government are seeking to drive a coach and horses through. That is what we are talking about, and that is what is so wrong.
I will make some progress.
Such excuses as those that the Government’s Law Officers who remain in post have sought to make for this do not stand up. I am very proud, as a member of the Scottish Bar, that Lord Keen of Elie resigned last week, and I am proud of the reasons he gave for his resignation. The only thing I would say to him is, “What took you so long, Richard?”, but apart from that I am very proud. I think it will be very difficult for the British Government to find anybody of suitable seniority from the Scottish Bar to step into his shoes, but I am waiting with some amusement to see who they might find.
Talking of rather less senior lawyers than Lord Keen of Elie, the English Attorney General has said that the English doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty means that it is lawful for the United Kingdom to override the obligations signed up to in the withdrawal agreement. I think that that is what the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green was saying when he referred to section 28 of the EU (Withdrawal) Act. This idea that the English doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty somehow trumps international law is legally illiterate. It is what we would call at the Scottish Bar—
No, I am going to make some progress.
It is what we would call at the Scottish Bar a load of old mince. That is not just my view; as I said in an intervention, it is the view of the United Kingdom Supreme Court, which said in the first Miller case, at paragraph 55, that
“treaties between sovereign states have effect in international law and are not governed by the domestic law of any state.”
I am terribly sorry to disappoint Conservative Members, but no matter how much they love their doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty—no matter how much it means to them—it cannot trump the obligations freely entered into by their Government under international law.
No, I am not going to give way.
It simply does not work that way: Britannia does not rule the waves any longer and has not done so for some time.
I regret to say that while I have the greatest respect and the highest regard for the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), the Government amendment that his efforts have secured is wholly inadequate to meet both domestic and international concerns about this Bill. I cannot do much better than repeat what the Irish Foreign Minister said this afternoon: a Government with an 80-seat majority having a parliamentary lock is not much of a reassurance to any of us. I really do not think I need to say any more than that. Once more, we have a ruse to solve the problems of the Conservative party rather than a ruse to address our international legal obligations.
My amendments 43 and 44, as I said, seek to deal with clause 45. The English Bar Council and the Law Society of England and Wales have said of clause 45 that it
“would exclude judicial review of any regulations made under clauses 42 and 43 on grounds of incompatibility with domestic law…as well as international law.”
That exclusion of judicial review would also mean excluding any human rights review under the Human Rights Act or, indeed, the Equality Act 2010. As my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) said in her very eloquent speech, human rights are of course integral to the Good Friday agreement. It is a travesty that regulations made under clauses 42 and 43 should not be subject to judicial review or to human rights review across Great Britain, but a particular travesty in Northern Ireland. It undermines not just the principle of the rule of law but the principle of access to justice. It also contravenes article 4 of the withdrawal agreement, which the British Government freely signed up to, in which they undertook to ensure a right for individuals to rely directly on withdrawal agreement provisions.
It is difficult to be certain how the courts would interpret an ouster clause such as clause 45, but precedent suggests that it would be quite hard for them to uphold it unless it is expressed in unequivocal terms. My amendments seek to clear this up. Amendment 43 would exclude the Human Rights Act and the European convention on human rights from the definition of domestic and international law, and amendment 44 would ensure that
“nothing in Clause 45 ousts the jurisdiction of domestic courts in respect of judicial review of regulations made under Clauses 42 and 43.”
Subsequent to my tabling those amendments, the Government tabled amendments 64 and 65, which appear to acknowledge that judicial review claims could still be brought in certain limited circumstances. I am interested to hear from the Minister what those circumstances would be. Do they include the normal judicial review grounds of illegality, irrationality or procedural impropriety, or will they also include review on the grounds of human rights? I look forward to hearing from him on that.
My final point is the most important point from a Scottish point of view. In so far as clause 45 seeks to interfere with judicial review in Scotland, it is interfering with a rather different beast from judicial review in England: the inherent supervisory jurisdiction of the Court of Session in Edinburgh. In doing that, it strays into devolved territory and would therefore require a legislative consent motion, which I very much doubt would be forthcoming. Put simply, the Scottish Parliament is not in the business of ousting the court’s jurisdiction on judicial review or human rights grounds—nor should it be and neither should this Parliament.
Most importantly from a Scottish point of view, the supervisory jurisdiction of the Court of Session is an inherent jurisdiction, which is not conferred on it by legislation but has been there since its inception in 1532. It therefore predates the treaty of Union between Scotland and England in 1707. Legislation seeking to narrow the scope of that inherent jurisdiction risks falling foul of article 19 of the treaty of Union, which preserves the independence of Scotland’s legal system.
In Scotland, rather to our surprise, we learned from the UK Supreme Court that putting the Sewel convention on a legal footing did not protect us from the Government driving a coach and horses through it. As the legal position stands in the United Kingdom, it seems that the Government can get away with passing primary legislation that interferes in devolved matters without a legislative consent motion. A breach of article 19 of the treaty of Union might be a different matter, however, because the question of whether parts of the treaty are so fundamental that they cannot be overridden by an Act of this Parliament has been considered by courts north and south of the border, but never entirely resolved.
I simply remind Members that the doctrine of the supremacy of Parliament is an English doctrine. Even Dicey, the great high priest of parliamentary sovereignty, was prepared to recognise that those who framed the treaty of Union between Scotland and England believed in the possibility of creating an absolute sovereign legislature that was still bound by certain unalterable laws. Many of us in Scotland believe that one of the unalterable laws of the treaty of Union is that this Parliament cannot interfere with the inherent jurisdiction of the Court of Session.
Both those problems—the in-roads into the devolved competence and the undermining of article 19 of the treaty of Union—will continue, notwithstanding Government amendments 64 and 65. I suspect that the Government have not really thought about that because, let us be honest, they do not often think about the impact on Scotland of what they want to do. Many people in Scotland, including my fellow members of the legal profession, will see that as another example of the Government’s total disregard for devolution and for Scotland’s separate and distinct institutions.
That is yet another reason why for Scotland the only way out of the mess that the Conservative and Unionist party has created over Europe is independence. I am glad that so many more people in Scotland are realising that daily. [Interruption.] It is a terrible dreadful bore for Conservative Members, but I remind them that we spend an awful lot of time listening to them bang on about the European Union and how it prevents them from having their way. Well, the Scots are pretty sick of this Parliament preventing Scotland from having its way.
From a historical perspective, my hon. and learned Friend may agree that we need to go back to the 15th or 16th century, because this is a modern-day English reformation that seeks to impose in Scotland a modern-day Brexit prayer book. The Kirk rejected it then and Scotland will reject it now.
That is correct, and it is worrying to hear my hon. Friend talk about the Kirk as he and I were both brought up in the opposite persuasion, but of course the Church of Scotland is also protected by the treaty of Union. So Members on the Government Benches can mock away; they should feel free to continue their mocking, which is seen in Scotland, and simply feeds the desire for Scotland to go a different way. They should keep up the mocking, because it is helping my party’s cause and it is helping the cause of my country.
It is an honour to rise today in this debate, following a number of very thoughtful contributions from right hon. and hon. Members across the Chamber. Although it is an honour to be called to speak today, I cannot pretend that it is an enjoyable experience, and that is because of the conflict that I feel. I feel desperately uncomfortable. I want to support the Prime Minister and the Government, and I know how the Minister feels. I have sat on that Front Bench far too many times, knowing that people behind me did not agree with my position.
I want to support the Prime Minister. I want to see the whole United Kingdom leave the European Union, respecting the referendum result, but I am desperately uncomfortable about being asked to vote to break international law. My instinct tells me that what the Government are asking me to vote for tonight is not the right thing to do or, to be charitable, may not be doing things in the right way.
The Government have been clear—they are on the record—that paragraph (5) is a breach of the withdrawal agreement, and we are angels dancing on the head of the pin as to when the law is broken. The law will be broken, if these clauses are used. It might be at Royal Assent, or it might be at commencement of the Act. It might be when the order is laid after the parliamentary vote—I thank the Government for agreeing to respect that and for agreeing to that amendment. I would like to hear from the Minister exactly what the Government’s position is now as to when the law will be broken, because no parliamentarian wants to walk through the Lobby knowing they are about to break the law.
Much has been made of the role that respecting the Belfast Good Friday agreement has in this debate. Let us be clear: the Belfast Good Friday agreement was the result of great statecraft and the power of words over violence, but it was also a triumph of compromise—or, as I used to be told I had to call it, accommodation. It was a settlement that meant that people living in Northern Ireland could be comfortable in their own identities, be that British, Irish, both or neither. As the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) said earlier, it was written at a point when both the UK and Ireland were members of the EU. I want to be absolutely clear: the Belfast Good Friday agreement was not contingent on our both being members of the European Union. It was a result of great statecraft, compromise and people being prepared to lead, and it would have happened if both countries had not been members of the same economic bloc. But the fact that both countries were EU members meant that the foundations of the Belfast Good Friday agreement—the Northern Ireland Act 1998 that this House passed—were written without the need to deal explicitly with matters that European citizenship and membership conferred. There was no need to write about citizens’ rights and how somebody who identifies as Irish and lives in Northern Ireland can exercise their right to be a member of the European Union when the country in which they reside is no longer a member of the European Union. It did not go into the points on customs and declarations. It did not talk about that because it did not need to. In fact, the reason we have the Bill—and I want to make it clear that I support the Bill as a whole; it is part 5 with which I have a problem— is because we need it, as the settlements on devolution were written at a time when we were a member of the European Union. We did not need frameworks on agriculture, because matters that will be settled by the devolved Administrations were governed by rules in Brussels.
I support our taking back control of those matters. Again, I have to make it absolutely clear that this has nothing to do with leaving the European Union. It is about how we make sure that we do so in the right way, so that I can hold my head up high and look people in the eye and say that I am proud to be a parliamentarian in this Parliament, which respects the rule of law. We have to remember that the world will judge us by the way in which we respect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, even more than our breaking the withdrawal agreement.
This is where language matters. I know, more than many, how important language is in Northern Ireland. I have said things, I have misspoken, I have made throwaway comments, and I have regretted them enormously, because they hurt people. People who have been through more hurt than any of us could ever imagine were hurt by words that I said, and I regret that more than just about anything that I have done in my political career. I have much to be proud of, but I regret having hurt people. Language is important, so I urge everyone—on the Front Bench, on the Opposition Front Bench, and in all parts of the Chamber—to remember the language that we use, because our allies are listening to what we say. They are not looking at the intricacies of amendment 64 or new clause 3—they do not really know or care—but what they hear is the headline. They hear us saying that we are going to break international law, and we are prepared to do it. That is really powerful.
I am a Conservative with a large “C” and a small “c”. I am also a Unionist, and I make no apologies for being a Unionist. As a Conservative and a Unionist, the precious thing that matters to me is our Union and the peace process in Northern Ireland. I tested myself on this over the past few days. How will I explain this to my grandchildren—my children have already told me what they think about this particular issue—when history judges us? I try to put myself in the shoes of other people, and I try to think how it feels today for someone who identifies as Irish and lives in Northern Ireland. I want them to stay part of the United Kingdom, but they identify as Irish. They are perfectly allowed to do so—the agreement says that they can—but I want them to be part of the Union. If we as Unionists want people to remain in the Union we need to talk about the power and benefits of the Union. We need to talk about those shared institutions such as the NHS and, dare I even say, the BBC, which are respected and make people proud.
We have to talk about our international reputation. We have a permanent seat on the Security Council. We are full members of many international bodies. We punch above our weight. What the UK is known for, and what people whom I want to stay in the United Kingdom want to see, is our respecting the rule of law. We need to be on the highest moral ground. There cannot be ambiguity. Protecting our Union is the most important thing to me, but we cannot do so in a way that alienates people and damages our reputation.
On the reputation of the United Kingdom and the identity of Irishness and Britishness in Northern Ireland, why was it up to Emma DeSouza to drag the right hon. Member’s Government through the courts fully to exercise their rights to identify as Irish and their rights as a European Union citizen in the High Court in Northern Ireland?
The hon. Gentleman would have to take up the reasons why the case was taken with the lady in question, but the DeSouza case is a clear example of how the Northern Ireland Act 1998 did not address these matters. I have been clear, in many interventions since I left my post last summer and while I was in post, that respecting the right of everybody who lives in Northern Ireland to identify in the way that they are comfortable with is incredibly important and we must respect it. So I say to the Minister: part 5 should not be in this Bill. The Government should not ask MPs to vote for an illegal law as a negotiating tactic. This part should be in a separate Bill, if these clauses are needed, and it should be debated separately; it should not be polluting what is otherwise a good and necessary piece of law. All possible steps to avoid needing these clauses should be taken.
I say to the Minister that I am undecided as to which way I will vote this evening, because I respect the fact that Government have moved and compromised, and I understand that that is a difficult thing for Governments to do. But I ask the Minister to give me clarity: if I walk through the Lobby today, am I breaking the law? If I walk through the Lobby today, will the law be broken as a result of my doing so? Will I have the answer for me at 3 am, not for my constituents or others, that I have done the right thing and that this will lead to a better result for the UK?
It is a great pleasure to follow that fine speech by the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley). I want to concentrate on how we get out of this mess without breaching international law and the treaty we signed up to. Four issues have caused all this: the question of exit summary declarations, the definition of “at-risk goods”, state aid and third country listing. The Bill deals with only some of those; further legislation is threatened to deal with the rest, but one has to look at them together.
The first thing I want to say is that it seems the Government are in a state of hopeless confusion on two questions. The first is: is the EU negotiating in good faith or not? I asked the Prime Minister that last week at the Liaison Committee and he told me it is not. Earlier that same day, the Northern Ireland Secretary told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that the EU is negotiating in good faith, and indeed the Government’s response to that Committee’s report confirmed that. I do not know whether that makes the Minister, for whom I have a great regard, the adjudicator in this matter, but perhaps he might offer his opinion in his wind-up, because the Government do not appear to be of one mind.
Secondly, I believe the Minister referred in his speech—I tried to write down the phrase as I recall it—to, “Harmful legal defaults that were never intended to be used” or words to that effect. If they are legal defaults that the Government object to, it really does raise the question: why did the Government sign up to those legal defaults when they negotiated the protocol and the withdrawal agreement, and signed that and extolled its virtues to the House of Commons?
On exit summary declarations, there is a place for this and other concerns to be resolved, which is in the Joint Committee, through the article 16 process. The House needs to ask itself why the Government have said so little thus far about their intention to use article 16 if a satisfactory agreement cannot be reached; I did not get an answer from the Prime Minister last week and, with respect, I did not get an answer from the Minister today, but it seems that the Government have so little faith in the mechanism they negotiated that they have decided that they need to take powers to breach the terms of the treaty, even though—I remind the Minister—article 168 of the withdrawal agreement says that, “For any dispute between the EU and the UK arising under this agreement, the EU and the UK shall ‘only’ have recourse to the procedures provided for in this agreement. This Bill drives a coach and horses through that sentence, which the Government agreed. In the statement that Ministers put out last week, the Government said that they would use the provisions of article 16 “in parallel with” the powers they wish to take in this Bill. In parallel? I really do not understand that as an argument, because surely they should use the mechanism they have negotiated first, and then if they are absolutely determined to break international law, they can get to that subsequently.
I come back to the point about the Joint Committee. Why have the Government not shared with the House the proposals they have made to the EU side about how goods at risk can be identified? It is simply not good enough. Part of the reason why the Government have got into such a mess is that they have not shared with us how the negotiations are going and have then suddenly produced a remedy that is contrary to international law to solve a problem the contents of which we are not aware of because Government have not shared with Members how things are going.
This is not an academic issue: many businesses that trade into Northern Ireland have absolutely no idea, with just over three months to go, of what the arrangements are going to be—none. There is a responsibility on both parties—the EU and the UK—to give them some clarity. Have the Government proposed using, for example, tariff lines as the way to define goods at risk? Or products and shipments, or companies as the basis? To those who have looked into the issue in great detail, it seems that those are probably the three broad approaches that might be taken. I ask the Government to please be open with the House of Commons on this matter.
On state aid, I find it impossible to believe that the Government did not realise what the full implications of article 10 might be. Everybody recognised that it brought into the ambit of the state aid rules what happens in Northern Ireland, but had it really not occurred to Ministers that there might be reach-back—I think that is the expression—implications for state aid in the United Kingdom? This is currently a theoretical issue, because there are not any cases. The Minister will be well aware that in the wake of covid, the EU Commission has significantly relaxed the state aid rules. Other EU members are giving state aid to all sorts of companies. The question is how the matter is going to be resolved by means other than resorting to the breaking of international law.
There is a great puzzle in respect of the Government’s position. When the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster appeared before the Select Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union on 11 March and we asked him whether businesses that trade out of England into Northern Ireland were going to be subject to the full panoply of state aid regulations, he replied:
“No, we do not believe so.”
That was in March, but apparently the Government do now believe so. What happened between March and now to lead them to that conclusion?
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster also said:
“The subsidy regime that the UK proposes to put in place after we have left the EU”—
we have now left the EU—
“will be one that the EU will recognise as a robust system.”
Here we are in September, and of a robust system for state aid there is no sight yet. How can that be the case? We read reports in the paper that the reason is because Ministers cannot agree on what kind of state aid policy they want.
The publication of such a policy is urgent for two reasons: not only for the purposes of sorting out the problem of potential reach-back, but for making a breakthrough in the trade negotiations. To be fair to the EU, it has moved from saying at the beginning, “You must follow all our rules on state aid in perpetuity,” to now saying rather plaintively to the Government, “Would you be so kind as to give us just an inkling of what your state aid regime is going to look like?” To announce that we are going to follow the World Trade Organisation rules is hardly a revelation, because as an independent member of the WTO we are obliged to follow the WTO rules. As we know, though, they lack important details and do not cover services.
The sooner the Government publish a state aid regime to answer the EU’s question, the sooner they can help the trade negotiations to move forward. Assuming that an agreement could be reached on that regime as part of the negotiations, the Government could, as the Minister will know, use article 13(8) of the withdrawal agreement to amend article 10, which is the cause of the potential problem—namely, reach-back.
The Bill does not deal with third-country listing, and no Bill could, because it is a regulatory decision of the European Union about the terms on which it lets third-country food and animal product imports into its jurisdiction. I happen to think that if the EU were to deny us such listing, arguably the UK could take the EU to the European Court, on the grounds that it was a perverse decision, or indeed the UK could certainly invoke article 16, on the grounds that denying the UK third-country listing was a breach of the good faith obligation under article 5.
I suspect that this is a fuss about nothing, because I can conceive of no such circumstances. The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) read out the list of all the other countries that have been given third-country status. Well, he cannot tell me that if those countries have been given it, then the EU, which knows what our rules are today—the Government, to be fair to them, have made it clear what the rules are going to be on 1 January, unless and until they decide to change them—will in the end say, “We have no idea how you are going to operate the rules.” I do not think that will be a problem, because it is not a terribly sensible way for two very large trading entities, with big and important agricultural industries, to behave.
In relation to the offending clauses in the Bill, I heard what the Minister said and what the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) had to say about the Government’s proposals. In response to what the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) said a moment ago, whether the illegality is the passing of the law all the way through to the laying of the regulations is not the point. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) and the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), made clear in their own excellent speeches, the damage has been done. It was done the moment the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland got up in the House of Commons and admitted that it was contrary to international law. Normally in a legal argument, the lawyers in the House—I have great respect for them—would be saying, “It breaches the law,” “No, it doesn’t,” “Yes, it does,” “No, it doesn’t.” Well, that conversation was cut dead when the Secretary of State said that it does. That is really irrelevant, it seems to me. I think it is counter-productive.
I urge the Government, as have other Members, to withdraw the clauses and get back to negotiating “the great deal”—I sometimes feel nostalgic for the words that echo through the mists of time: “One of the easiest trade deals in history”; “A deal with the exact same benefits.” I would like the country to achieve such a deal, and the Government’s responsibility now is to stop messing about with this Bill and to negotiate a deal, because time is short, before we leave without one because they fail to reach an agreement.
It is a real pleasure and a privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), for whom I have huge admiration and respect. I sat in this Chamber on 2 December 2015 and listened to his speech on countering Daesh in Iraq and Syria. He took a principled position then, as the shadow Foreign Secretary, and it was one of the best speeches this House has heard.
I also agree with the right hon. Gentleman with regard to the comments of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who said on 8 September that what was being proposed in the Bill
“does break international law in a very specific and limited way.”—[Official Report, 8 September 2020; Vol. 679, c. 509.]
That is completely and utterly unacceptable. I am also a lawyer, and I will refer to that comment a little further in my speech.
I accept that the majority of the Bill is necessary for an effective United Kingdom single market when we are no longer subject to EU rules. I campaigned for Brexit, my constituency voted 65% to deliver Brexit, and my voting record is the same as that of the Prime Minister and many of those who sit in Cabinet with regard to delivering Brexit. Brexit meant many things to many people, but for me it was about sovereignty. The British public elect their Members of Parliament, who have the final say on the laws that govern our country and our citizens. But Brexit must be delivered in the right way, respecting the United Kingdom’s commitment to the rule of law, and as a country that stands by the word it gives. That cannot be compromised on.
I have real concerns about clauses 42, 43 and 45 of this Bill. Brexit was about sovereignty—taking back control of our laws, borders and money—but under those provisions, we would defer that authority to Ministers, who could then, unilaterally, withdraw from an international agreement passed by this House. How can that be sovereignty? It cannot. I agreed with the former Attorney General, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), when he gave his speech to this House on 14 September, about those three specific provisions. He is a great man, and I had the privilege to be his Parliamentary Private Secretary when he was the Attorney General.
For me, there can be no compromise about one’s core beliefs, and my core belief is a respect for the rule of law. If you give your word, you have to honour it. What the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said on 8 September—we sat in our parliamentary offices, and we listened to him—is that
“this does break international law in a very specific and limited way.”—[Official Report, 8 September 2020; Vol. 679, c. 509.]
What are we saying to our citizens—that they can break other laws in a specific and limited way? Our country is going through difficult, challenging times and we are asking people to adhere to guidance, yet we have a Minister of the Crown saying that from the Dispatch Box.
There is something called honour, and for me I could not serve as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. I conveyed that message to the Government last Sunday, and I was told that the Government would not be accepting the amendment put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill). On that basis, on Monday I took the decision to resign my position. We talk about being patriotic, and our national anthem says:
“Long may she reign. May she defend our laws”—
and “defend our laws” is what this is about.
I am grateful to have been the Prime Minister’s special envoy. It was a real privilege and honour to serve as the United Kingdom’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. We took forward 17 different recommendations of the 22 in the Truro report, but I also helped, along with the United States and the ambassador from the Netherlands, to set up the international alliance to promote freedom of religion or belief around the world. We used to say to countries, “Respect article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights”. People can have whatever faith they want or no faith, but others must respect that.
Hon. Members would expect the Prime Minister’s special envoy for the United Kingdom to go along to the table and say, “I think we should do this at the Security Council or we should that at the United Nations General Assembly. We should do this at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe or we should do that at Human Rights Council.” But after what the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said at the Dispatch Box on 8 September, how can one go and lecture others when we are in this situation?
The question people ask me is: why, then, are you supporting Government amendment 66? I am supporting amendment 66 for this reason. If we look at the Order Paper on Monday 14 September and Tuesday 15 September, we see that amendment 4 put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst had only 13 signatories. That amendment is for parliamentary sovereignty. Parliament should decide: this Parliament enacted its support of the withdrawal agreement, and if it now wants to come out of it, this Parliament should say so, not defer that to Ministers. However, only 13 Members of Parliament had signed it. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, and I am also grateful to the likes of my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer), who came in in 2019, who signed the amendment.
The amendment asks for parliamentary sovereignty, but on Monday the Bill passed by 77 votes in this House, so how do I know I can get 40 votes to overturn clauses 42, 43 and 45, which I could never accept. No hon. Member would accept clauses 42, 43 and 45, so when we are in that position, do we accept amendment 66, rather than the amendment put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, being pragmatic and being reasonable? I say this as someone who for three years, from 2004 to 2007, worked with the former Prime Minister of Pakistan who lost her life fighting for democracy, going to discussions in the Foreign Office with the Foreign Secretaries Jack Straw and David Miliband and looking at the transition to democracy. There always has to be give and take, being pragmatic and being realistic. On that basis, to avoid having to put clauses 42, 43 and 45 in the Bill, I support the proposals in Government amendment 66 for parliamentary oversight.
I want to finish with a quote, Sir Graham. I know time is of the essence. Parliamentary sovereignty and parliamentary scrutiny are of the utmost importance to each and every one of us. We are all among equals. We all have a voice. We take into account the views of our constituents, and we come here and we represent them. Over summer, I read a brilliant quote from 2010 by a former Member of Parliament, before I came to this House. I will read the quote. Some will recognise the person. He is a man of great integrity and he did the right thing. This is what he said about taking Parliament seriously:
“a word to the coming generation of politicians. I have one simple message: take Parliament seriously. If we, the elected, do not, why should anybody else? By all means…support the programme on which one’s party was elected, but we are not automatons. We are not sent here merely to be cheerleaders, or to get stiff necks looking up at the fount of power. We are here to exercise our judgment—to hold Ministers to account for the powers they hold. And that means proper scrutiny. It means insisting that Ministers engage seriously with Parliament, and that they are open to dialogue.”—[Official Report, 25 March 2010; Vol. 508, c. 486.]
On that basis, I am grateful to the Prime Minister for listening, engaging and ensuring that we have amendment 66, should these matters come before the House and if the United Kingdom ever deviated from its commitment. Initially, the provisions were put forward under statutory instruments, under which the Government could have put forward a 90-minute affirmative motion, with the Minister standing at the Dispatch Box for an hour. Please, as I tried to ask him earlier, will the Minister clarify that when and if this comes back to the House, there will be a full debate, with as many Members of Parliament who need to speak being able to?
One of the great things I did was to represent our country at the canonisation of St John Henry Newman, a great British saint with global impact. I will end by quoting his “Lead, Kindly Light”:
“…I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.”
When and if the Government look to bring these measures forward, please do it so that there are appropriate checks and balances at every level by this House.
It is good to follow the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti). I congratulate him on the moral choice of resigning from the Government, although I remind him that when it comes the law of the country, there is the law of England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
As a Scottish nationalist, I have often tried to stick to our maxim of leaving Ireland to the Irish, but in these constitutionally fraught times I feel it is necessary to remind the British Conservative and Unionist party of the histories and stories across these islands that give us an understanding of where we find ourselves today. We can be in no doubt that this Government will seek to portray this perfidious power grab as actually strengthening the devolution settlement, which so many of us have fought so hard to secure, but we know very well from the history of Northern Ireland that rewriting devolution by decree is simply unsustainable.
Let us move beyond the bluff and bluster of this Government’s Front Bench and the obsequious chatter of their pliant Back Benchers, and remind ourselves very clearly that a Union requires Unionists at both ends. Usually, when I look over to my Scottish Conservative and Unionist opposites—I do not see any here tonight—I see fellow Scots who are equally passionate in their convictions for our nation of Scotland as any on these Benches. They are Unionists who are looking desperately to the south to see their convictions mirrored by English colleagues, but I am afraid that the only colleague they found tonight was the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May).
As we debate the Northern Ireland protocol here, we see a foreshadow of what is about to happen to my fellow Scots who have placed their faith in this Union, because while people in Northern Ireland collectively voted to remain within the European Union, they have seen not only that express wish disregarded but the very fabric of their daily lives become part of the negotiations over the past three years. Now they see the future of that quotidian offered up as a gambling chip by this Government. One party, the Democratic Unionist party, sought to follow its Unionist convictions by backing this Government, but its Members have instead seen themselves, cajoled, seduced, rebuffed and tossed aside before being asked again to come back into the warm embrace of the Conservative party.
Let us look into the forgotten past, to the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act 1972, in which this House decided unilaterally to pluck the powers of the people of Northern Ireland invested in their Parliament in Stormont and bring them here, where they could be “better administered”, quite against wishes of the Unionist leadership of the day. I am surprised not to have heard more about that Act, given that it would be almost entirely analogous to the situation in which we find ourselves today, were it not for the fact that direct rule was again discontinued only last year, thanks in part to the efforts of the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith). Of course, like anyone in the Conservative party with any talent or opinions of their own, he was sacked by the Government—I intimated to him and others that I intended to mention them in my speech this evening.
In the face of the deteriorating security situation in 1972, and to avoid the possibility of an unwelcome result in a Stormont election, Westminster unilaterally disbanded the Parliament that had sat since 1920, deciding instead to govern Northern Ireland through Orders in Council laid before this House of Commons. Not only was this done against the express wishes of their supposed Unionist allies—Government Members should maybe put their phones down and learn a little bit of history tonight—but the supposed temporary nature of the arrangements lasted for more than 30 years, until the Belfast agreement. That was power previously held by the peoples in these islands being taken back by a Conservative Government. So how have they managed to do it all over again?
At the start of my speech, I brought forward the idea that a Union must have Unionists at both ends, yet throughout the whole Brexit process this Government have not stopped to think once about their own actions and how they affect this Union, least it be for the purposes of a cheap soundbite. So, as the Governments of all shades in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh beseech the one across the House from us today at least to listen to their concerns, far less treat them as equals in the family of nations, we owe it to ourselves to ask whether they understand what “Union” means at all. We in Scotland remember that it is not an Act of Union but a treaty of Union, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) reminded us earlier. While that framing may not be possible in other nations, it has certainly spoken to myself and to many of those who do not share my opinions on the constitution, as it demonstrates that this is at least something of a partnership of equals.
We on these Benches will see our colleagues from the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Benches trooping through the Lobby to support this Bill because they believe it strengthens the Union, but if they were here, I would simply ask them: do you believe the Government when they say that the Union is their first priority? As we debate the Northern Ireland protocol today and think of the past three years through the eyes of Unionists here—the fine words of flattery, followed by flummery and forgetting, the lack of understanding and the taking for granted—I ask my Unionist pals: can you trust these people? I mentioned the temporary provisions Act of 1972. I could just as easily have gone back to the Government of Ireland Act 1920 to demonstrate how, when the Unionists on these islands set aside their own convictions and interests in pursuit of a mythical greater good, it rarely works out for them. As my pals seek to vote through this power grab to allow a Government far away from the people they represent to rewrite their unwritten constitution and to award themselves sweeping powers over the people of Scotland, please don’t kid yourselves: this Government have been willing to pick up and put down Unionist leaders for as long as the Union has existed. They did it to Edward Carson, they did it to Brian Faulkner, they have just done it to Arlene Foster and, let us be absolutely clear, they are about to do it to Douglas Ross—gutted, washed out and tossed aside like a haddie on the pier at Buckie.
Well, Sir Graham, it is difficult to follow that. I remember your enjoinder, Sir, that we should stick to five minutes. So far, nobody has met that challenge. I thought that the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) was going to do so several minutes ago, but he did not.
I rise to support this Bill. I especially support clause 11 and part 5, and amendment 66, the “break glass” amendment. It reflects in all important respects amendment 4, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), the Chair of the Justice Committee. We have all been grateful to him for the consideration that he and others have given to this matter. I appreciate the agony that many hon. and right hon. Members have gone through in trying to work their way through this Bill and reconcile it with their views on international law.
The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) spoke about values and asserted that our reputation was at stake. Last week, we saw how the UK stands up for international law. We saw a graphic demonstration of our values when perhaps others fall short. In the middle of the channel—not a pleasant place generally speaking, and it certainly was not last week—there was an inflatable dinghy containing 16 Afghan refugees and asylum seekers. They were people in peril on the sea, and they were being shepherded by the French navy not to safety, but to British territorial waters where, of course, eventually they were picked up by Border Force and conducted to a place of safety. I am proud of that, not only because it demonstrates our British values—something that many may be uncomfortable with—but because, in doing that, we were complying with one of the most fundamental of international treaties, the United Nations convention on the law of the sea of 1982. There is no grey in this treaty, no ambiguity, and it strikes at the very heart of what we are in this country. Indeed, it strikes at the very heart of our humanity, because we save life and we ask questions later.
Others have described violations of international law by the European Union and others, and I am certainly not going to rattle them off again. We heard eloquent contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) in which they listed some of the treaties that have been mutable. Clearly, UNCLOS was mutable on the part of our largest continental neighbour last week, but it was not for us and, for me, that is the message that goes to the international community, not some fine debate about this particular measure that we are discussing this evening. That message will have gone out loud and clear and, on that, I am extremely proud indeed. What is clear from the list that others have trotted out is that international law is a contested space, and sometimes it is mutable and can be overwritten.
I disagree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) on this: she said that two wrongs do not make a right, and generally speaking she is absolutely correct, but by listing the occasions on which international law has been breached, written over, mutable or contested, we are setting the context for what we are doing on this occasion. That is something that I think has been lost in this debate. Time and time again, international law has been shown to be not absolute but, on occasion, capable of being overwritten, modified and made mutable by this country, other countries and the European Union.
Generally, we stand by what we sign up to and are as good as our word, so what has changed since last year? I, like many right hon. and hon. Members, have given this some considerable thought. What has changed is the appreciation of the issue of good faith, which ran like a vein through a block of granite throughout all the discussions last year. This works only if the parties act in good faith, and it has become clear over the past several weeks that the European Union side is prepared to regard the Northern Ireland protocol as a lever to get what it wants. It raises the spectre of agrifood being unable to move freely between the nations of the United Kingdom, which is clearly contrary to the Act of Union and drives a coach and horses through the Good Friday agreement. It was not on the table last year, and it calls into question the “acting in good faith” enjoinder, which I have referred to, and which is clearly contained within the withdrawal agreement and its accompanying political declaration.
I very much agree with my right hon. Friend, but does he agree with me that it is also contrary to the European Union’s conceding to the UK that Northern Ireland is in the UK’s customs territory? That raises additional considerations that are very material to these clauses. I want to take this opportunity to say that of course I shall therefore support the Government.
I am very pleased to hear that expression of confidence in this good Bill, which is being made better by the amendment tabled by the Government. I agree with my hon. Friend’s point.
I have already gone over my five minutes, Dame Eleanor, but it is important to note the extreme hardball attitude that the EU has recently adopted and what that says about what might be in store for us in the future. The points that the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) made about state aid are extremely germane to this. I remember well, as Northern Ireland Minister and Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the issues relating to Bombardier. It was plain as a pikestaff that this might be used in the event that the UK decided to support Bombardier in GB, because, as things stand, the EU would claim that it is unfair and unlawful because of Bombardier’s presence in Belfast. That is a clear and present danger.
It is also important to get real about what we are up against. I have every respect for the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who quite rightly expounded at length on the fact that the negotiation has to be bounded in good will and said that this will cause difficulty for us in Brussels, but I am clear that this negotiation is no love-in. It is a bare-knuckle affair. Pique is never far away, nor is the desire to make an example of an errant UK pour encourager les autres. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stone said, international law is 40% law and 60% politics, as it is here—this is politics in the raw.
I am sorry that, throughout this whole torrid process, hon. and right hon. Members have shackled the UK Government in our negotiations in Brussels. The British public know that. The hon. Member for Sheffield Central shakes his head, but he should know that more than anybody else, because the British public spoke loud and clear on this issue in December. They understand what we often forget in this place, and they get this business in the way that many of us do not. His party needs to learn that lesson. That is why it suffered so badly in December.
Without amendment 66 or perhaps amendment 4, we would have a problem internally too, because we are up against the judiciary, which has shown itself to be perfectly capable of going head to head with the British Government. By bringing this matter back to the House, it will not be the British Government that the Supreme Court goes head to head with. It will be Parliament itself, and more than that—the people of this country. Amendment 66 will give certainty on both sides of the English channel. It makes a good Bill better. It assures and insures our national interests, and I wish it well.
I will to try to keep within the five minutes, to give time to others. I never intervene in debates on the European Union, and I do not intervene in debates on Northern Ireland, but I felt I had to intervene today on a debate that concerns the rule of law, because I consider it fundamental to the health of our democracy.
I have been an MP for many years. I have sat here feeling pride, joy, uncertainty and anger as we have considered and debated new laws, but never have I felt the shame that I feel today, when we are being asked by our Government to support a proposition that entails Britain deliberately and intentionally breaking international law. The plea of mitigation from some Members today and from the Prime Minister that this is merely a safety net and an insurance policy; the false assertion from the Law Officers that the ministerial code, under which Ministers swear on oath to comply with the law, applies only to domestic legislation; and the fabricated claim by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster that this proposed law
“protects, enhances and strengthens our Union and the prosperity of all our people”—[Official Report, 14 September 2020; Vol. 680, c. 127.]
—all those statements are simply plain wrong, and those who made them know that.
We are being asked tonight to support Great Britain breaking the law. The Vienna convention clearly states:
“A party may not invoke the provisions of its internal law as justification for its failure to perform a treaty.”
I put it to the Committee that it is the patriotic duty of each and every one of us to vote down this proposal. Great Britain’s global influence, our ability to hold our head up high and even our naked self-interest will all be wrecked by this disastrous proposal to deliberately flout international law. Our post-Brexit ambition to establish our country as global Britain, so that we can be an influential player in world affairs, would be fatally undermined. How could we challenge a corrupt Government or stand up to an aggressive dictatorship? Who would listen when we support the citizens of Hong Kong, challenge the Russians over the Skripal poisoning or defend the Rohingya people in Myanmar if we ourselves flout international law to suit the Prime Minister’s short-term whim?
Today’s FinCEN leaks show that the UK is at the heart of global money laundering and financial crime. How can Britain lead global efforts to combat that if we are not seen as an honest broker or a country that will uphold international agreements? The farce of doing this when it threatens our relationship with the USA, as we see if we read Joe Biden’s tweet or listen to Nancy Pelosi’s comments, beggars belief. To deliberately put this key friendship at risk and deliberately jeopardise a trade deal with the USA is utterly irresponsible and unpatriotic. I say to those on the Government Benches who were brave enough to voice their opposition last week, “Don’t be bought off by a shabby and dishonest compromise. Don’t stand on the head of a pin and be beguiled into thinking that a vote for the amendment means that we’re not actually legislating to break our international legal obligations.”
Once the power to break the law is on the statute book, it is there—no nuances, no ifs or buts, and no kicking the can down the road. Every MP who votes for these clauses will be voting against the rule of law. We are being sucked in as accomplices to the Government’s reckless bid to undermine the rule of law, and that goes for our Law Officers. They should hold their heads in shame at not resigning and speaking out against this irresponsible move. Yet this move is part of a consistent pattern of behaviour: disdain for the judiciary, contempt for us here in Parliament, animosity towards civil servants and loathing of the BBC.
This Government approach their work as if it were a game in which they attack the pillars of our democracy simply to gain a mendacious, populist headline. Their latest target is the rule of law, but it is Britain’s long-term future that is at stake tonight. There is nothing decent, honourable or patriotic about playing roulette with the rule of law. Breaking it will destroy our reputation, integrity, authority and influence on the world stage. I urge every hon. Member of Parliament to vote against this outrageous proposal.
It is a great pleasure to contribute to a debate with such significant implications. I will be brief; I reckon I can be the first person to break precedent and stick within five minutes, because I know an enormous number of colleagues want to speak.
The Bill really is crucial in maintaining the integrity and the smooth operation of the UK’s internal market, and ensuring that they are underpinned by the principle of non-discrimination across the four constituent parts of our Union. I will focus on clause 45 and its constitutional ramifications, because the question that has been engrossing the Committee, and the public, is that of the notwith- standing powers and their potential breach of international law.
Even a potential breach of international law is to be treated with the utmost seriousness, but to suggest, as some have, that the provisions of the Bill place us in some sort of moral equivalence with China or Russia really is risible. Degree and proportion matter. Clause 45, as I hope it will be amended by amendment 66, equips democratically elected Members of this House to decide whether or not to protect the powers outlined in clauses 42 and 43 in the case of need. Should this House decide to, it would mitigate the risk of the UK’s internal market splintering, with all the potential consequences that would flow from that.
There is no equivalence there, and I do not believe that the Bill is symptomatic of some kind of collapse of British support for a rules-based international order. We have heard a lot of this before, but I must say that I do not remember the same level of outrage bursting forth when Germany or France violated treaty obligations on deficit and debt levels, when Canada broke international law to legalise cannabis, or in the Kadi and Barakaat case, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) mentioned, when the European Court of Justice ruled that the EU should ignore the UN charter—the highest source of international law—if it conflicted with the EU’s internal constitutional order. The ECJ then said:
“A treaty can never enjoy primacy over provisions…that form part of the constitutional foundations of the union.”
That cuts to the heart of the issue. When treaty obligations threatened to damage the constitutional coherence of the EU, it felt not only free but obligated to disregard them.
That is not to say, of course, that anyone should contemplate the EU using such powers lightly, but if, and only if, a situation arose where the movement of goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK was hampered and access to our internal markets was fettered, not only would it be essential but surely we, too, would be obliged to have powers in place to meet such a contingency. Like the EU, the UK has a Union to protect, and it is absolutely right that it equips itself to do so through the clauses we are currently considering. That is why I cannot support Opposition amendments that seek to de-fang clause 45.
I pay tribute to the hard work of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), and I am reassured by Government amendment 66 that the exercise of these powers will require parliamentary approval. As I said, even a limited breach of international law is a serious matter and it is right that colleagues from across the House will have the opportunity to exercise their judgment in that respect. Of course, no one wants to see Ministers forced to come to this House seeking approval to use these powers, not least because that would suggest that the attempts of the EU and the UK to agree a trade deal had stalled or failed altogether.
Finally, it is worth restating that of course a trade deal is in the best interests of the EU and the UK, but if all efforts to secure such a deal fail and the EU then acts on its threat to damage the UK, it is essential that we have the necessary tools to protect our national coherence and the economic framework on which that depends.
I am sure, Dame Rosie, that over the years, you and I have both sat through many debates where it was obvious eventually that everything had been said but that not yet everybody had said it. I fear that we may be into that territory today, but uniquely, I think we got to that point after the first contribution from a Back Bencher. The contribution from the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) was quite one of the most remarkable and clinical deconstructions of the Government’s argument that it was possible to imagine. She spoke with total conviction and clarity, which together were absolutely irresistible. In fact, I think it is worth recording for the benefit of Hansard that no one on the Treasury Bench did resist her. The Minister and the Secretary of State could have intervened and sought to put her right if they thought they were able to do so, but of course they did not. They sat there and squirmed, and it was a joy for many Opposition Members to watch. It took me back to another similar moment in March 2003, when the late Robin Cook delivered his resignation statement from the Government Back Benches. Again, there was the same conviction and clarity delivered at a moment of existential significance and in relation to a matter that will inevitably bring this country into conflict with the rule of law.
It is worth recalling why we have a protocol to the withdrawal agreement in the first place. It is essentially as a result of the Prime Minister’s determination to remove us from the customs union. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead understood that, and when she sought to negotiate the withdrawal agreement, she came forward with the backstop. It was that backstop that the now Prime Minister resigned over, eventually, and then proceeded to stick pins into the right hon. Lady until she too could stand it no longer. He eventually took her place, at which point he renegotiated the withdrawal agreement with the protocol attached to it. The essence of that renegotiation, of which he has boasted so many times since, was rooted in that backstop.
Tonight was always going to come, because the Government and the Prime Minister have insisted all along that they could do three things when at best they could only ever do two. They told us that they could leave the customs union, that they could avoid the placing of a hard border on the mainland of Ireland, and that they could avoid a border down the Irish sea. Once we come out of the customs union, we can only do one or other; we cannot do them both. And what we have seen tonight is these chickens coming home to roost. Goodness only knows they were warned often enough.
I have always seen this protocol as a threat to the Belfast agreement. The withdrawal agreement with the protocol attached to it is a political choice made by the Prime Minister to give Brexit and leaving the customs union precedence over the Belfast agreement. This is not some matter of detail; this is a question that goes right to the very heart of the deal that was negotiated by the Prime Minister himself, and we cannot in all seriousness enter into an agreement and then seek to repudiate it because the other party is doing what we have just agreed they are allowed to do.
I turn now to the Government amendment that follows on from the representations made by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill). As a general rule, I am pragmatic—I believe that half a loaf is better than no loaf of bread—but on a matter of this importance I have to say to the House that the deal that the hon. Gentleman has secured is simply not good enough, and it is the raw politics that render it inadequate. Just imagine the conversation in Downing Street between the Prime Minister and the Chief Whip when it comes to that vote. The Prime Minister will ask the Chief Whip, “Can you win it?” Of course, he must be canny in his answer—we both know that—but it has to start, surely, “Well, Prime Minister, with a majority of 80”. That is the political reality. We know, as the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) learned to his cost, that this Government play whipping hard ball when it matters to them, and that is what they will do in the event that this is the only protection that stands between them and getting what they want.
Also, as the right hon. Member for Maidenhead said, it really makes no difference whether it is Ministers in Downing Street or Members in this House who break the law; at the end of the day Britain as a whole—the United Kingdom—will be judged on that action and nobody will care who was ultimately responsible for it.
I remind the House that in 2003 this House had a vote on the question of whether we should go to war in Iraq, and this House voted to go to war in Iraq, an action which again had little or no foundation in international law, and which was ultimately shown to be an unlawful act. Nobody cared that it was an act that had been authorised by this House and not just by Ministers in Downing Street.
This is not an isolated action from this Government; it is part of a course of conduct. As Oscar Wilde might have said had he ever found himself in this unfortunate position, “For a Government to act unlawfully once might be regarded as misfortune; to act unlawfully twice looks like carelessness.”
In fact, come Wednesday, the Government are going to introduce bring a Bill that will effectively decriminalise the use of torture as part of armed conflict in certain circumstances. That is, again, almost certainly a breach of international law, so it is not a question of misfortune or mistake or carelessness; it begins to look like a habit, and it is a habit that any wise Government would be well advised to avoid. On this occasion, it is bad not just for our reputation as a player on the world stage, but it threatens the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom as a unitary state, and the Conservatives and Unionists on the other side of the House should understand exactly what they enter into if they support it in the Lobby tonight.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). I shall speak to clauses 40 to 45. Let us be clear from the start: the Bill protects and strengthens the United Kingdom, and it safeguards peace in Northern Ireland. There is nothing in it that undermines the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, nor is there any possibility of a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland under any circumstances. From the very outset, the United Kingdom has acted in good faith, and it did so when it signed the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol. Crucially, from the outset, the UK’s understanding of the provisions in the agreement and the protocol were abundantly clear to the EU and all those at the negotiating table. It is clear to the extent that some matters need clarification that we put faith—honest faith—in the Joint Committee reaching reasonable interpretations, being fully aware of our understanding of the issues that needed to be ironed out.
It was not just our understanding of the agreement and protocol on which we relied. The Northern Ireland protocol is clear about some key aspects. Article 1, as well as affirming that nothing in the protocol should interfere with the provisions of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, says:
“This Protocol respects the essential state functions and territorial integrity of the United Kingdom.”
Article 4 provides:
“Northern Ireland is part of the customs territory of the United Kingdom.”
Article 6 goes on to say:
“Nothing in this Protocol shall prevent the United Kingdom from ensuring unfettered market access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to other parts of the United Kingdom's internal market.”
We now find, however, that the EU is suggesting interpretations of the protocol that were never envisaged, notwithstanding the fact that the provisions are clearly set out in the protocol itself, as I have read out. There have been clear suggestions from the EU that its interpretation of the protocol would lead to the creation of a barrier within the United Kingdom, thus seriously compromising our political and economic integrity. Such action by the European Union threatens the territorial integrity of the UK. It threatens to take Northern Ireland out of the UK customs territory, and it threatens our internal market.
That is unacceptable, and no Government can sit back and allow an international organisation to do that to the very fabric of our country. The Bill is therefore a safeguard that ensures that the UK is not divided and there is no external interference in the running of our country today or in the decades to come. The Bill ensures that we leave the EU as a sovereign independent country, as the people of the UK voted to do.
It is to be hoped that an agreement can be reached with the EU. Indeed, Donald Tusk originally offered a Canada-style agreement, but to the extent that there is a material breach of good faith by the EU, we have the safety of the Bill, which not only provides for the preservation of our Union but ensures that measures are not followed through without first having obtained the consent of the House.
Finally, let us remember that all Members on these Government Benches stood as candidates at the last general election not only as Conservatives, but as Conservative and Unionist candidates. Every single Member on these Government Benches sits here as a Conservative and Unionist Member of Parliament. To now not agree the passing of this Bill would make a complete mockery of the very platform upon which we stood to get elected to Parliament.
I thank the last few speakers, who have stuck brilliantly to the shorter time limit, but I point out that there are still many colleagues who want to get in. If we can stick to the five minutes, that would be very considerate of others who have sat here for a long time wanting to speak.
I assume that your remarks were addressed to me, Chair, and I will do my best to respond positively. It is a great joy to follow the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), who has been a great friend of Northern Ireland and has taken a principled stand during the previous debates on the Brexit negotiations. He is highly regarded in Northern Ireland for his principled stand, his pro-Unionist views and his willingness to make sacrifices for those pro-Unionist views, too.
We will be supporting the Bill this evening and these particular clauses, but I have to say we have some reservations about the extent and the distance that the Government have gone to try to reverse the damage done by the withdrawal agreement and, in particular, the Northern Ireland protocol. I am pleased that the Government now recognise that, either inadvertently or deliberately, damage is being done to not just Northern Ireland, but the United Kingdom as a whole as a result of the withdrawal agreement, and they are trying to reverse it.
Two arguments have been advanced as to why people should oppose the Bill. The first—it has been an obsession in the House this evening, and outside the House over the past number of days—is that it goes against the Good Friday agreement. Indeed, if one looks at the amendments tabled by the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party and the nationalist Alliance party, it is clear that their only concern is the Good Friday agreement, or their interpretation of the Good Friday agreement. All the amendments that my party have tabled address not the alleged ineffectiveness of the protocol in dealing with the Good Friday agreement, but the real problems that will be caused for Unionists, nationalists, the young, the old, businesses and workers in Northern Ireland by the protocol going through in the form that the EU wishes and by it being imposed in the way the EU wishes.
The protocol will have an effect by putting up costs—that is not my assessment, but the Government’s—reducing opportunities and variety for consumers, impacting on investment and impacting on the trade we do with our biggest market in GB. That is the effect. I will not go through all our amendments, because my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) went through them very succinctly and effectively when he was speaking. All our amendments are designed to undo that economic damage.
Let me just address the issue of the Good Friday agreement. It is significant that when pressed about how the Good Friday agreement is damaged, all we can get from those who make that claim is, “Well, it may not actually go against what is written in the Good Friday agreement, but it goes against the spirit of it”, or to use the words of the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna), “It goes against the implications”—not the wording, and she admitted that—“of the Good Friday agreement”. She could not find a clause in the Good Friday agreement that was breached by the legislation. Instead, it was the intention and the implication of it.
The truth of the matter is, of course, that the Good Friday agreement is offended by the withdrawal agreement, because the withdrawal agreement affects Northern Ireland politically. Laws will now be made in Brussels rather than in Westminster. Northern Ireland will be subject to rule by the EU; we will be part of its single market rules rather than part of the UK single market.
The Union, of course, is not just about where our laws are made. The Union is about the economic benefits of being joined with the four nations. Indeed, article 6 of the Act of Union concentrates on the economic benefits. The benefit of being part of the United Kingdom is that none of the countries within it face tariffs on trade with each other or barriers to trade with each other, and each has the opportunity to share in any economic treaties that the United Kingdom enters into with third countries, yet all those things are breached as a result of the protocol. The Government, in this Bill, seek to acknowledge that those issues come from the withdrawal agreement and to remedy them.
The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and others, including the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), say, “Oh, but there are ways of dealing with this. You deal with them through the withdrawal agreement and the mechanisms in withdrawal agreement. There’s a Joint Committee and there’s an arbitration panel and so on, so why not go through those?” The fact of the matter is that we have three months left. There is no certainty in Northern Ireland among businesses. Are they going to have to pay taxes on every good that they bring in on which there is an EU tariff, whether it is consumed in Northern Ireland or not? Which range of goods will be covered by that? We do not know. Is it them all? Is it a very limited list? When we send goods to the other parts of the United Kingdom, will we have to fill in export declarations, with the extra costs and administration? Consumers in Northern Ireland do not know whether, when they buy goods from Amazon and eBay, they will be delivered to Northern Ireland, or whether the burden of bringing goods into Northern Ireland will be such that both those companies will simply say, “It’s not worth our while.”
The whole concept of the internal market has been split by the withdrawal agreement. Some people claim that the Government are trying to tear up the withdrawal agreement, but this is the irony: in my constituency only last week, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was instructing—I do not know how he does this under the devolved rules—civil servants in Northern Ireland to get on with putting up a border post within the United Kingdom, between different parts of the United Kingdom. We are told, “Oh, don’t worry, it’ll be minimal.” Well, £15.5 million-worth of building is hardly about minimal checks. Forty-five thousand square feet of building, in which lorries will be emptied and searched, is hardly about minimal checks. Ministers tell us, “Well, it’s only a precaution.” They must have money to throw away if they are building these buildings only as a precaution and they might never be used.
We need certainty. Let us not forget that these issues have not even been dealt with at the Joint Committee. All we have had are threats: “We’re going to not list the UK. You’ll not be able to bring food in from the UK.” In the absence of negotiations being conducted in good faith, the Government’s first duty is not to adhere to the letter of an agreement that the other side is clearly not honouring and is not even trying to work towards finding some agreement on. The duty of the Government is to the people in our own country—to the people who belong to the United Kingdom and who, under the Act of Union, have been guaranteed no impediments to trade and that their prosperity will not be affected by impositions of taxes and barriers to trade. That is the Government’s first obligation. For those reasons, I believe that the Government are right. I do not think that the tinkering with the withdrawal agreement in this Bill or even the promises that have been made today that other parts will be dealt with in the Finance Bill are sufficient.
I would say to Conservative Members, with many of whom I fought the Brexit fight, that there are many other mines and hand grenades in the withdrawal agreement. The EU will still, through the European Court of Justice, be able to tell us how much we owe in divorce payments and future payments. It will still be able to have jurisdiction and make adjudications if there is a dispute about the rights of EU citizens living in this country. There will still be disputes on its books, and for years into the future it will be able to adjudicate on where that impinges on European Union law. Many other things in the withdrawal agreement are not being addressed in this Bill. That is why the only way of getting out of the quagmire and getting Brexit really done and delivered is for the Government not just to tinker with the withdrawal agreement: it has to be replaced.
It is a pleasure, as always, to follow the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). He may well have gone over his five minutes, but every word was well worth listening to. I will make sure that I stick to five minutes.
I had the pleasure and honour of chairing the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee for seven years, and our first report was to encourage the Government to explore ways in which corporation tax in Northern Ireland could be reduced to the levels in the Republic so that Northern Ireland businesses could compete on a level playing field. We were told by the European Union that it would be against its rules to do that: it had to be devolved and the Northern Ireland Assembly had to do it, and even then it would be very restricted when it tried to do it. Such taxation, which normally we would claim as our responsibility in this place, comes under the state aid rules. When we talk about bringing powers over state aid back to this Parliament, we are not necessarily talking about bailing out lame ducks. I am showing my age when I mention that phrase; I think it was first used in the early 1970s. We are not even just talking about giving boosts to certain parts of the economy. We are actually, in some cases, talking about the control of taxation. We are all familiar with the phrase, “No taxation without representation.” It is very important, therefore, that the Government stand firm on this issue.
When I was working to prepare the Committee’s report, I said that it was very important to cement the relative peace that had been achieved in Northern Ireland by having a sound economy. Obviously one of the best ways to achieve a sound economy is through trade. It is therefore very important that we do everything we can to protect trade in the United Kingdom, and, as far as I can make out, that is exactly what this Bill is trying to do. It not only connects the four countries of the United Kingdom and paves the way for them to continue to trade with each other very easily; it also makes sure that Northern Ireland can trade, as the right hon. Member for East Antrim said, with its largest trading partner, and that is Great Britain. As I said on Second Reading, north-south trade is very important, but it is not as valuable as east-west trade or west-east trade. That is something we have to be determined to protect.
I do not anticipate the European Union working from a position of bad faith. I am sure that it will continue to do everything it can to protect its businesses by coming to a free trade agreement with the United Kingdom. If we achieve that, none of what we are discussing tonight becomes important. In case it does not act in good faith, however, we need an insurance policy so that we can cement the relative peace in Northern Ireland through prosperity and continue to secure the Union of the United Kingdom.
I intend to keep my remarks short to aid the House’s consideration of such an important topic. I am a proud child of the north-west of England and I am sure the House agrees that there are strong links between the communities of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and those in Manchester, Liverpool, Lancashire and beyond. We travel, live and work on both sides of the short straits of the Irish sea, as my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Antony Higginbotham) said.
It will shock several hon. Members that I am actually really old—old enough to remember the shock of seeing my home town of Manchester shattered by an explosion and the devastation of the Warrington bomb. From the ’90s onwards, I have been proud to have good friends on different sides of the Northern Irish community who studied, lived and worked here and in the north-west, and who are now successful business women trading on both sides of the Irish sea. That is not to forget my next-door neighbour.
Those wonderful women and men told me stories of their childhoods. They were often a difficult and heart-rending listen, but they are important for today’s debate. They were of losing a parent to a car bomb, of having two different ways to say house to avoid the beating that would undoubtedly come if they identified their community by their pronunciation, and of the fear that they would not be able to go home if peace was not secured. To the many hon. Members who have proposed that the Bill poses a threat to the hard-won peace and that the Government would consciously do something to bring about such awful events and bring them back, I say an emphatic no.
As a young woman, I listened to teenage girls crying in a pub about what had happened to them and their families. I promised myself that if I were ever in a position to have influence, “never again” would be my mantra. To keep that promise to my teenage self, I have examined in detail the measures in the Bill and studied the text of the Good Friday agreement, specifically the section on economic, social and cultural issues, which includes:
“the British Government will pursue broad policies for sustained economic growth and stability in Northern Ireland and for promoting social inclusion, including in particular community development and the advancement of women in public life.”
The Bill in no way undermines the Good Friday agreement. On the contrary, it includes provisions to protect the agreement and help to ensure that, regardless of whether further agreement is reached in negotiations with the EU, there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and Northern Ireland businesses will continue to benefit from unrestricted access to the rest of the UK market when the transition period ends.
We need the ability to pursue, as it says in the Good Friday agreement, broad policies for sustained economic growth. My reading of the WA requires us to issue specific clarifications encoded in the Bill. The Government are taking reasonable steps to create a safety net that ensures that they are always able to deliver on their commitments to the people of Northern Ireland and uphold the gains of the peace process. To be specific, we cannot have a situation where goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland face restrictions from a third party and where we cannot help to pursue community development due to EU regulations.
I am confident that the Government’s commitment to the Good Friday agreement is beyond question, but I appeal to EU and UK leadership to redouble their efforts in negotiations to reach an agreement and render the safety net not required.
I thank the Government for amendment 66 and for giving the House an ability to have its say should that eventuality even come close to coming to pass.
I will vote with the Government on the Bill today and I will keep my word to those old friends of mine who owned the white Vectra, enjoyed a good DJ set and to whom my drink will always remain a Guinness. They are all powerful businesswomen—I will support them and I will support the Bill.
The Bill is objectionable in a very broad sense, and my colleagues and I will not rest in detailing its egregious impositions on Scotland and our people. Like others, I look across the Chamber and I cannot see a single Scottish Tory MP in here. Perhaps they are not worried about how goods will move freely between Scotland and Northern Ireland, but I can assure the House that I and my colleagues are.
As we debate part 5 of the Bill, like many other hon. and right hon. Members I focus on clauses 42, 43 and 45, which would see comprehensive powers afforded to Ministers to disapply wide-ranging elements of the protocol and the withdrawal agreement, therefore breaching established international obligations and international law. All this would essentially be applicable unilaterally and without the burden of impasse having been established beforehand between the EU and the UK, which also dismisses the obligations to unblock any such disputes through arbitration as set out in article 68 of the withdrawal agreement—another distinct breach of faith.
This calamity is not some unconventional wheeze, such as fantasy extra funding for the NHS as a Brexit dividend, or describing this deal to the exhausted UK public as oven-ready just before an election. This is breaking international law: it is in a different league altogether. If the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) were still in his place, I would say to him that amendment 66 is a slight improvement on where we were a number of days ago, but he has warned the Government that it is not a green light—it is certainly not a red light and it is barely an amber light, because with a majority of 80 the Government will have no difficulty whatever in getting it approved by willing Tory Members.
Clause 42(3)(b) is binary, if not wholly myopic in its abstract assertion that there exists uniquely the need to maintain the integrity and smooth operation of the UK internal market, as though that works in one direction only. Without an agreement, the EU will, of course, have every legitimate claim to protect the completeness and integrity of its single market, so what is the takeaway from that? It is border checks.
The Northern Ireland protocol agreed by this Prime Minister in this Parliament in January this year is now to be rowed back on by this Bill. At one stage, we were told that a border in the Irish sea would be the solution to this, and now it turns out that that is as unlikely as it sounded. Brexiteers championed hollow assurances about technological solutions for the movement of goods, but could not identify a single instance around the world where that existed at scale. We were told this would be achieved with good will on all sides, but I suggest that good will is a resource that the Government have now thoroughly exhausted. The Government stand ready to sacrifice any country in the UK, to jettison any basic measure of international responsibility and to compromise the UK’s international reputation, such as it is, to their ideological thirst for the purest of all Brexits.
As regards the EU establishing checks on the border, that too would appear to be in contravention of the protocol, which states that the UK and the EU made a guarantee of avoiding a hard border, including any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls. But make no mistake, when a customs infrastructure goes up, it will be the United Kingdom and this Government who will be found to be delinquent and not the EU. The EU is not legislating to renege on the withdrawal agreement, but the UK is. A border between Northern Ireland and the Republic—how can it have come to this, many ask. I do not know how familiar the Minister is with border installations in Northern Ireland, but I recall very well what a menacing scar they were on the Irish countryside. I say that with all due deference to my Northern Irish colleagues, whose lived experience I cannot even hope to comprehend. The irony is not lost on those of us with a closeness to that corner of these islands that the erasing of that border and the securing of peace in the 1990s was a product of real statesmen and women who possessed and deployed political courage, wisdom and foresight. Contrast that with the reckless disregard of this Prime Minister and—let us call them—his associates, who would not be fit to carry the bags of people such as Mo Mowlam, John Hume, David Trimble, Senator George Mitchell and many more. What will the clauses in part 5 of the Bill, so enacted, mean for people in Northern Ireland—in not just the Six Counties but the neighbouring counties in the Republic, with cross-border economies? What hardship and anxiety awaits the people and businesses in counties such as Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal?
The pride of all British nationalists is the alleged strength of the Union but, as we see in the Bill, Northern Ireland is, like Scotland and Wales, important to the British state only when it can further a British ambition or generate a British receipt. The toll that takes on our peoples is merely collateral, and it was ever thus. It is hard to know which is the less competent: signing a treaty that stymies their own Brexit ambitions or trying to defend and protect their precious Union by tearing up the basis of devolution and smashing the principles of subsidiarity asunder with the Bill. The further disintegration of the UK was always going to be a consequence of Brexit and the Bill merely hastens the essential crisis that the UK now faces. Although this is in step with my own ambitions for the UK’s demise, Scottish independence is close at hand with or without the immediate impositions of the Bill, which my colleagues and I will continue to oppose.
I shall speak against clauses 42 and 45 standing part of the Bill.
When five out of the last six leaders of the Conservative party and all five living Prime Ministers are on the same side of the argument, it is time to sit up and take note. It is not often that I agree with the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), but her remarks earlier in the debate were absolutely right. The Bill’s attempt to enable the UK to break an international agreement made in good faith is both reckless and damaging. There have been protestations that the measures in the Bill would be used only if an agreement cannot be reached, but their price is the trashing of Britain’s reputation as an honest broker. The Bill will forever allow those regimes that flout international law to counter any criticism and point a finger back at the UK. Is that really a price worth paying? Of course it is not.
How did we get here? The withdrawal agreement clearly made reference to the state aid rules in article 10 of the Northern Ireland protocol. The clue was in the title of the article—it was there in black and white: “State aid”. Did no one notice that section? Did no one read that? If not, the Government are grossly negligent. We have learned that article 10’s impact was made fully known to Ministers at the time. Even if it was not picked up in October, it was certainly referred to in those January days when Parliament debated the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill at length before passing it into law. If state aid was such a big deal, I am surprised that Government Members who were so ebullient in their support of the withdrawal agreement Bill are now so eager to say it was flawed and explain why we must pass this Bill instead. Why did they not kick up a fuss at the time? Where were they?
Many from the Conservative party will say that the measures in the Bill will be invoked only as a last resort, but even passing the Bill and allowing the Government to break international law is doing untold damage to this country’s reputation. The United Kingdom is a signatory to and has ratified the Vienna convention. One of the principles that underpin that convention is negotiating in good faith. Passing this Bill will fly in the face of the Vienna convention and give a green light to other countries wishing to break agreements. With the Government having taken this step, how will anyone ever trust anything that they say in negotiations ever again? Far from making trade deals easier, this legislation has made negotiations much harder, with the United States leading the outcry as it sees renegotiating the Northern Ireland protocol as a gross act of bad faith.
The former Conservative leader Lord Howard was right when he asked how the UK could reproach Russia, China and Iran for their actions when the UK itself was willing to break international law, as he lamented the damage to Britain’s reputation for probity and respect for the rule of law. Perhaps the Bill’s intention is to ensure that we leave the transition period without an agreement. Perhaps it is a negotiation tactic, or perhaps it is designed to be a big distraction. Whichever one of those it may be, saying that the Bill breaks the law
“in a very specific and limited way”—[Official Report, 8 September 2020; Vol. 679, c. 509.]
has diminished Britain’s global reputation.
Just as conspiracy offences carry the same maximum sentence as the original offence itself, even if the powers in the Bill were not used, the fact that the intention was there to do so is proof enough of bad faith. If the Bill passes, even if the power to disapply is not used, irrevocable damage has been done to Britain’s international reputation. Once that reputation is lost it will be very hard to get back.
I wish to speak to my amendment 42. I am optimistic that we can reach a deal for the benefit of both the UK and the EU. My amendment outlines a way whereby in the event that the implementation period ends without a UK agreement we can still provide reassurance on the integrity of our internal market. The statement that EU negotiators made on 10 September, threatening, on the record, that the EU could control the movement of food from Great Britain to Northern Ireland was a regrettable escalation. The reality is that we do not need to accept its interpretation of the protocol. The alternative in the face of unreasonable demands is to state clearly our interpretation of what we agreed to when we signed the protocol.
As I highlighted in the debates last year—I also had numerous meetings with the then Prime Minister and the then Attorney General, and the ideas I promoted were incorporated in the previous Prime Minister’s last suggestion—there is an instrument of diplomacy that can be applied to treaties of this kind and it is called an “interpretative declaration”. Any party to a treaty can use this legal instrument on its own initiative. To emphasise that, we refer to it as a unilateral interpretative declaration. I am sorry to get into detail, but this is terribly important. The law is important and we must uphold the law, which is why I have concerns about the current direction the Government are taking. If the Germans have given the world great music and the French have given it great pictures, we have given the world freedom under the law, under parliamentary democracy, so we must remain within the law.
The point is that there may be a way for the Government to achieve their objective without breaking international law. If the EU were to act on its threat, it would violate our sovereignty—one of the most basic principles of international law. This is what lawyers call an act of bad faith in negotiations. It can also be called a manifestly absurd interpretation of the protocol, and under international law no one is bound by an absurd interpretation of a treaty that is entered into in good faith. If we use a unilateral interpretative declaration to spell out our objections, the EU must respond by either explicitly rejecting or implicitly accepting our interpretation. If it rejects, it must formulate and justify an alternative interpretation. If the EU goes along with a unilateral interpretative declaration made by the UK, it becomes a legally binding joint interpretation. If the EU opposes our interpretation, we have at least strengthened our negotiating position, pushed the EU negotiators on to the back foot and gained a basis for appealing to EU national Governments for new instructions to be given to EU negotiators.
Importantly, an interpretative declaration would hand the EU a way out of the escalation, which is why I am putting this forward as a constructive idea to get us out of the impasse we are in. So much of diplomacy is about saving face, and this would help the EU to do so, while securing an agreement. We would not be reopening or unpicking the protocol; we would just be making a small explanatory statement of our interpretation of what we had signed up to in good faith. Stage three of Brexit starts in January, when we will have established a series of new relationships between the UK, the Republic of Ireland and the EU. There have been deep and bitter rifts over this, first about the backstop and then about the new protocol, but two major improvements have taken place. First, we no longer have the backstop. Secondly, the new arrangement will last only as long as it has the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. Critics say, “Oh, but Northern Ireland is part of the UK. We will still be linked to the EU.” That is a valid point, but what clear alternatives are they offering?
We have a fundamental logical difficulty here. We have three important goals, and it is difficult to see how they can all be reached compatibly but in full: first, we want to support the Belfast agreement; secondly, we want to leave the customs union; and thirdly, we want a cohesive, sovereign, independent United Kingdom. We cannot reach each of those three goals in full simultaneously without a little bit of give and take, and that is all I am suggesting. We need to invoke the great British spirit of compromise. It may be called muddling through, but it is what we do best.
It is the same in the family of communities that is the United Kingdom and the family of nations in the world. We need to make sacrifices in order to work together. With a little bit of malleability, making some tweaks to the integrity of our internal market, we can preserve the peace in No