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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 9th November 2020.

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Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 5:30 pm, 9th November 2020

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Howard, and to agree with him—not inevitable, in my case. As he said, this has absolutely nothing to do with whether you think being a member of the European Union, or not, is a good or bad thing.

This afternoon, your Lordships are being invited by the signatories of the clause stand part Motion, including myself, to strike down the whole of Part 5 of the Bill. Although this is inevitably a contentious matter, there are a number of points on which I think there is no serious disagreement. First, there is no serious disagreement that the Bill as drafted provides for the UK to break international law. Ministers have admitted it, and legal opinion—as voiced so eloquently by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, a moment ago—is firmly of that view. Secondly, there is no question but that your Lordships’ House is completely within its constitutional right to delete Part 5 if it thinks fit. If we cannot take a view on a matter of deliberate law-breaking by the Government, we may as well pack up our bags now.

The key remaining question, which we have to decide today before deciding how to vote, is this: is the breach of the law contained in the Bill justified by the circumstances? It is not impossible to think of theoretical scenarios in which, as a country, we might decide to repudiate an international treaty. But is that the case here? In making the case for the Bill, the noble Lord, Lord True, at Second Reading and the Environment Secretary this morning in the media, made two linked, but central, arguments: first, that the clauses are necessary because Northern Ireland must retain unfettered access to the rest of the UK internal market; and secondly, that there was, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord True,

“a balance to be struck” between maintaining the

“rule of law … and the integrity of this union”.—[

To this George Eustice added this morning that Part 5 was necessary for “protecting peace and stability” in Northern Ireland. Both arguments are fatally flawed.

First, the concept of unfettered access under the terms of the withdrawal agreement, whether or not there is a deal with the EU, is a complete mirage. Once the Government accepted that there could be no customs border on the island of Ireland, there had to be one down the Irish Sea. Such a border fetters access, even if there is free trade across it, because there have to be checks, in respect of VAT and excise duty, to prevent smuggling and fraud, and there have to be sanitary and phytosanitary checks as well. These checks cost traders time and money, and for many they can make the difference between trading at a profit and trading at a loss, and therefore whether they trade with Great Britain at all.

The Government accept the need for these checks—these fetters. Clause 43(2) of this Bill provides for them, even if it invokes the other illegal provisions of the Bill for VAT, customs, and reasons of biosecurity. The National Audit Office spelled out the problem last week in its report The UK Border: Preparedness for the End of the Transition Period, where it stated that implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol was a “very high risk” because of, among other things,

“the scale of the changes required … and the complexity of the arrangements.”

In other words, the problem of the fetters.

Earlier in the year, the Government made £355 million available to traders in Northern Ireland to mitigate their costs in continuing to trade with Great Britain. Now £355 million is a tidy sum—not to eliminate the fetters but to try to ensure that they chafe less keenly. So let us not hear any more talk of unfettered trade—there will be none.

The Government’s other justification for Part 5 is that if it were not in the Bill, the integrity of the union would be threatened, and peace and security in Northern Ireland would be put at risk. If this were the case, the Government might have a respectable argument. But, as we have heard in many speeches at Second Reading and in Committee, and in the very eloquent comments of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, it is the Bill that threatens peace, prosperity, security and stability, not the other way around.

We have heard from many speakers how Part 5, by breaching the Northern Ireland protocol and reimposing elements of a hard border in Northern Ireland, almost inevitably puts some of the key principles of the Northern Ireland agreement under threat—a view, incidentally, that appears to be shared by President-elect Biden. If these fears were realised, does anybody seriously believe that they would not strengthen demands for a border poll in Ireland? And does anybody seriously argue that Part 5 could in any circumstances strengthen the union with Scotland, where the Government and public opinion are as appalled as most Members of your Lordships’ House at the prospect of being part of a country that is willing to flout international law?

So, far from supporting the integrity of the union, Part 5 weakens it, and in doing so fatally undermines the Government’s argument in favour of these illegal clauses. They do not provide unfettered trade; they do not strengthen the union. They were a political manoeuvre by the UK Government to try to put pressure on the EU. They failed to do this, they reduced the UK’s standing as an upholder of international law for no substantive reason whatever, and they simply must be removed.