United Kingdom Internal Market Bill - Committee (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 9th November 2020.

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Photo of Lord Howard of Lympne Lord Howard of Lympne Conservative 5:15 pm, 9th November 2020

My Lords, it is a pleasure and an honour to follow the noble and most reverend Lord, Lord Eames. His moving words carry great weight and merit serious consideration by the Government.

I hope I may be forgiven for beginning my remarks with a brief tribute to Lord Sacks, whose death was announced over the weekend. His profound wisdom will be sorely missed, both inside and outside your Lordships’ House.

I shall resist the temptation to repeat the speech I made at Second Reading, though it is quite a seductive temptation because, to use a much-maligned phrase, since then nothing has changed. Nothing has changed. It is still the case that the definitive government statement on this part of the Bill is that made by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in another place, when he admitted that its provisions breach international law. Perhaps “admitted” is the wrong word—it was not so much an admission as an assertion. Since then, as far as I am aware, no government Minister has sought to resile from his words.

Instead, Ministers, both in your Lordships’ House and elsewhere, have sought to make the case that circumstances make it expedient to break international law. But is that not what lawbreakers always say? Is that not the excuse of lawbreakers everywhere? What sort of a precedent are the Government setting when they admit that position? How can we reproach other countries—Russia, China, Iran—if their behaviour becomes reprehensible, when we ourselves have such scant regard for the treaties we sign up to and we set such a lamentable example?

Every clause in Part 5 of the Bill seeks to interpret, if one is being kind, or to displace, if one is being accurate, the provisions of the Northern Ireland protocol of the withdrawal agreement—an agreement, I need hardly remind your Lordships, which this Government signed barely a year ago. I respectfully agree with the analysis of each of those clauses made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and I do not seek to repeat his analysis.

The Government say this is all justified because the European Union has been acting in bad faith, though no evidence to support that assertion has been produced. But the agreement, which the Government signed barely a year ago, contains its own procedures for resolving any disputes which may arise between the parties—between the UK and the EU. Article 168 of the agreement, which the Government signed up to barely a year ago, provides that those procedures are to be the only way in which such disputes between the parties are to be resolved.

Some of your Lordships may have heard the Environment Secretary on the “Today” programme this morning. He said that the provisions in the Bill were there in case there is disagreement in the joint committee—but the withdrawal agreement specifies what is to happen if there is disagreement in the joint committee. If there is disagreement in the joint committee, arbitration procedures are set out in the Bill specifically to resolve those disputes, and those arbitration procedures can be expedited. That is what the Government signed up to, barely a year ago.

There have been suggestions that opposition to this part of the Bill is in some way the last charge of the remainers. That suggestion has a very dangerous implication for those who advance it. It implies that only those who voted for us to remain in the European Union care about the rule of law, the importance of keeping one’s word or the sanctity of international treaties. Fortunately, I am in a position that enables me confidently to contradict that implication. I voted and campaigned for Brexit, and I do not for one moment regret or resile from that vote. But I want the independent sovereign state that I voted for to be a country which holds its head up high in the world, keeps its word, upholds the rule of law and honours its treaty obligations. I want it to be an independent country which truly is a beacon unto the nations.

I am dismayed that the Government—who I have supported for so long and have very rarely disagreed with and rebelled against—have chosen, as one of the first assertions of their newly won sovereignty, to break their word, to break international law and to renege on a treaty they signed barely a year ago. I hope your Lordships will at least give the Government the opportunity to think again by removing Part 5 from the Bill.