United Kingdom Internal Market Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:39 pm on 14th September 2020.

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Photo of Rachel Reeves Rachel Reeves Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 9:39 pm, 14th September 2020

The UK has left the European Union, and we all agree on the need for clear terms for the UK’s single market to operate effectively. Many, although not all, of us believe in a United Kingdom, but we should all value devolution and its contribution to the rich tapestry of our country. The Good Friday agreement, whose groundwork was begun under a Conservative Government and fulfilled under a Labour one, has rightly been a source of admiration around the world, as has our adherence to the rule of law. I want to read out a few lines that have really resonated with me.

“The rule of law is the most precious asset of any civilised society…which makes sure that when those who hold power abuse it, they can be checked”.

Those words are from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove, and in a few moments’ time he is going to urge hon. and right hon. Members to vote for a piece of legislation that he and the Government accept seeks to break international law. How on earth did the Government get in this place? That is a question that many hon. and right hon. Members have asked in the Chamber throughout the debate.

We have heard some incredibly powerful contributions today, and it would probably be unwise to single out any of them, but let me mention just a few. Colum Eastwood invoked John Hume as having been a pathfinder for peace in Northern Ireland. Sir Oliver Heald said that breaking the law was something that this country just did not do. My hon. Friend Ms Eagle spoke about the gigantic act of self-harm that we are embarking on, masquerading as a negotiating strategy. Drew Hendry spoke about the danger of watering down our standards. And of course, Sir Robert Neill made a powerful speech. He and I have history: he roundly defeated me in the Bromley and Chislehurst by-election in 2006, but I did not hold that against him. He is held in high esteem on both sides of this House. He is motivated by trying to get the Government to move, and I hope that they do.

However, whatever the Bill lays down about when the provisions come into force, the very act of Parliament passing this legislation is in itself a breach of international law. That is because it breaches article 5 of the Government’s withdrawal agreement—an international treaty—by going against the Government’s commitment to refrain from measures that jeopardise the attainment of the objectives of the withdrawal agreement. It is important to understand this, because this is merely the starter for the law-breaking that this Government envisage. As we know from the Prime Minister’s speech today, the main course on GB-NI trade is still to come, presumably in the Finance Bill. So hon. and right hon. Members should be under no illusions. If they vote for this Bill tonight, they will find themselves on a slippery slope, being asked to vote for yet another law-breaking Bill. We say that it is time to draw a line and stand up for the rule of law.

There is a certain degree of irony in all this. Today we are asking the public to adhere to much stricter guidelines about who they can meet and where. Breaking those laws can result in police action. Indeed, this morning in a radio interview, the Minister for Crime and Policing, Kit Malthouse, said that if people were concerned about others breaking the law, they should consider phoning the non-emergency police number. Madam Deputy Speaker, I wonder whether you could give some guidance to the House. If the British public observe this Government breaking the law, who should they telephone? A party that once treasured institutions, traditions, conventions and the rule of law now trashes them in plain sight with the whole world looking on in despair. This was once the party that claimed to be the party of law and order, but Sir Robert Peel would not recognise the modern Conservative party promoting the Bill this evening.

The Government say that they have no choice, so let me directly address the latest claims that the Government make. The Prime Minister’s project fear speaks of food blockades and that the Northern Ireland protocol could enable “a foreign power” to break up our country. The question has to be asked: how could any responsible Prime Minister sign up to such an agreement, campaign on it throughout a general election and ratify it as an international treaty if that were the case? Is the message to the House and the country that the Prime Minister was too incompetent to notice the contradictions? Or that he noticed them and simply did not care? And if that really was the case, why then does this legislation only address trade from Northern Ireland to Great Britain? The Bill even fails under the terms of the Prime Minister’s own arguments. He has not thought this through.

Or is the real justification for all this to serve other political purposes? Is this some unorthodox negotiating strategy, trashing our good name in the process? Reputations are hard won but they are easily lost, and that is what the Government are embarking upon this evening. In doing so, they are using Northern Ireland as a political football. That is wrong—so wrong. Not one of the explanations to justify the Bill this evening speaks well of the Prime Minister’s integrity, and it does not speak well of his judgment either.

I urge the Government to take a step back. It is not too late. Ministers will have heard this afternoon and this evening from hon. and right hon. Members in all parts of the House urging them to take a step back, think again and not go down this route. It is not too late. I urge both sides, the United Kingdom and the European Union, to drop the rhetoric, stop the posturing, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central has argued this afternoon, start negotiating properly and take this seriously. That message is for both sides in these negotiations.

Let me end by saying this. I have spoken in many debates in this House in the 10 years that I have been a Member of Parliament, but few have had the gravity or the implications of today’s debate on the Bill that we are voting on this evening. Every living Prime Minister—five of them in total, three of them Conservatives—tells us that this Bill does serious damage to our standing in the world. The two former Prime Ministers who were the architects of the Good Friday agreement, so vital for our United Kingdom and peace within the United Kingdom, warn us of the dangers of what the Government are doing. Every Member of this House should heed those warnings and listen to those words. No one knows more than those former Prime Ministers the risks that we are taking and the risks of the slippery slope that we are embarking on. Around the world, people are looking at us and asking who we really are. What kind of country do we want to be on 1 January next year, outside the orbit of the European Union? Let us stand up for our proudest traditions. Let us stand up for the Britain that I know and love—a Britain that stands proud on the world stage and stands there with moral authority; a country that cares about the rule of law, here and abroad, and stands up for it. I urge Members in all parts of the House to support our reasoned amendment this evening and vote against this squalid Bill.