Clause 28 - Functions of the CMA under this Part: general provisions

Part of United Kingdom Internal Market Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 15th September 2020.

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Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 4:45 pm, 15th September 2020

It is a great honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham, and to follow the speech of my hon. Friend Christine Jardine.

The Bill claims to be about unity based on the pillars of mutual recognition and non-discrimination; in reality, unamended, the Bill is something quite different. It will enforce the lowest common denominator in goods and services across the United Kingdom. There is such a focus on the fear of letting in through the front door chlorinated chicken or whatever other emblem of lowered standards there might be from a trade deal with the US or anywhere else. This Bill unamended is the route through the back door to lowered standards, whether it be for farmers, in retail or in manufacturing.

What is the value in consistency if it leads to the lowest possible standards, and how do we ensure the integrity of the Union and the dignity and, indeed, sovereignty of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England as we consider how to regulate these deals? We have in front of us the proposal for the Office for the Internal Market, which looks to be utterly toothless, in effect. At the apex of its terrifying range of powers is the ability to launch investigations and to deliver written statements—and that is it. That is the entire arsenal for the devolved nations to protect their standards of goods and services, while those nations will not be around the table making the decisions in the first place.

If the Government think this is a Bill about creating a united front, they are completely and utterly deluded. Rather than finding unity and a common position between the nations of the UK, this set of proposals in reality drives a deeper wedge between them. Like my hon. Friends who spoke before me, that fills me not with joy in the anticipation of another bite at the cherry of independence, but with complete and utter dismay. It should fill Conservative and Unionist MPs with utter dismay, and I am bewildered that it does not.

The problem is that the Government voted for and the Prime Minister signed a withdrawal agreement that he knew—he must have known—was a trade-off between a border separating Northern Ireland and the Republic and a trade border in the Irish Sea. One threatens the Good Friday agreement and the other threatens the very existence of the United Kingdom. There was never a third option: there was no Malthouse compromise and nothing else was on the table. It was all guff, and I pity any Tory candidate who fell for it.

It was a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic or a border between Ireland and Great Britain, and the Prime Minister made a choice, but now he says he does not like his choice, or he did not understand his choice, or it is all the fault of the nasty foreigners. But we have discovered in the last few days, as have millions of people who voted in good faith for this Government last December, that Brexit is not done: it was never done. Either the Prime Minister did not understand what he was signing, or he said a thing, indeed a series of things, that was not so. On this also, there is no third option.

More than 20 years ago, as has been said, this country rightly moved towards devolution to empower Wales, Scotland and then Northern Ireland. To their great shame, the Labour Government at that time did not do go further in empowering the regions of England also. Of course, the devolution that did happen at the time was opposed by the Conservative party in opposition, but in time it grew to accept the new devolved nature of Government in these islands, because—guess what?—proportional representation gives it seats in Scotland.

If on issues where the devolved Administrations have competence this Government force them to submit to whatever standards they decide on in the guise of unity, all we are doing is enforcing the lowest common denominator. We will not be levelling up; we will be forcibly levelling down. The Government will be sticking up two fingers at devolution.

This is a significant threat to the Union. I am waiting and waiting for the moment when Conservative and Unionist party Members will grasp the second part of their name and their mission. The current Conservative leadership deems this Bill to be just another convenient trench in the culture war. I implore Conservative MPs to take back control of their party before it is too late and we lose our country, for then there will be no Union for us to be Unionist about.

In South Cumbria, I am 50 miles from the Scottish border. I have no desire to live 50 miles from a foreign border—not in my lifetime, nor in my children’s or grandchildren’s lifetimes.

There are both practical and emotional reasons why this Bill is the worst thing to come to this House in the 15 years that I have been a Member of Parliament. Cumbria does not have a more important internal market than our relationship with south-west Scotland. It is a porous border, not even recognised by many: people work on one side of the border and live on the other; they go to school on one side and visit their GP on the other. Sheep reared in Cumbria are sold in Scotland. Cattle reared in Scotland are sold in Cumbria. Farmers dependent on common standards on both sides are about to see those standards undermined. Our farmers, across all nations, are to be sold down the river. Every poor decision, every compromise will sow more seeds of discontent in the devolved nations, playing into the hands of those who are desperate to split us asunder.

To many, this might feel academic, perhaps to the genius spin doctors in Whitehall who play with our country as though it is some kind of great board game, some game of Risk; it is academic for them, funny for them, a game for them, but it is not for us in Cumbria—not for our farmers and not for our tourism sector. In fact, for most of us, it matters massively. It is emotional and it is practical, and you are playing games with the future of our relationship with our most important trading partners.

The Government seem not to care one bit about the cross-border single market of Cumbria and Dumfriesshire, for example. We need all the nations around the table and robust regulation of market and trading decisions, so that my farmers in Cumbria are not undercut by Government regulations—and then really until they are none the wiser and it is too late. We have the best standards of animal welfare, environmental control, and food safety in the world. I do not want there to be an in-built race to the bottom within the nations of the United Kingdom that undermine that correct reputation.