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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:30 pm on 9th November 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Noakes Baroness Noakes Conservative 7:30 pm, 9th November 2020

My Lords, I am speaking today because I believe that the clauses that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and other noble Lords oppose are wholly in the United Kingdom’s national interests and, importantly, wholly in the interests of our fellow citizens in Northern Ireland.

Part 5 of the Bill represents a sincere attempt by the Government to protect the Good Friday agreement and peace on the island of Ireland. If the way in which Northern Ireland has to operate within the United Kingdom is harmed, it would follow that peace and reconciliation within Northern Ireland will itself be harmed. The Northern Ireland protocol explicitly recognised that Northern Ireland would remain within the UK’s customs territory and internal market. This is crucial for Northern Ireland, as nearly 50% of its exports go to the rest of the United Kingdom. This is more than double the amount exported to the Republic and four times the amount exported to the rest of the EU. Trading within the UK’s internal market is not an optional extra for Northern Ireland. An east/west trade border in the Irish Sea is bound to have an adverse impact on the Northern Ireland economy, and economic weakness would not take long to translate into political tensions.

The practical issues of trade with Northern Ireland—for example, how the risk of goods entering the EU via Northern Ireland will work—have not yet been agreed in the Joint Committee. There is no guarantee that an agreement will be reached and, if there is no agreement, a number of harmful consequences—for example, in relation to third-party listing of agricultural products—could well follow. I understand that these have been threatened by the EU. Faced with this uncertainty, I believe that this Bill is a responsible approach by the Government to protect the interests of the United Kingdom, particularly the interests of Northern Ireland.

The Government could have waited until real harm was done in Northern Ireland, economically and politically, but that would be to court disaster. The Government have not waited until they on a burning platform. Instead, they have taken the pragmatic approach of providing a contingent power in the Bill to be activated only with the consent of Parliament and used only if the dispute resolution procedures fail.

I ask noble Lords whether they would still oppose Part 5 of this Bill if the Government sought to legislate in the face of actual, rather than prospective, harm. Would concerns about the rule of law really stop noble Lords voting through whatever was necessary to protect the UK’s economic interests and peace in Ireland at that point? I do not think so. I do not think that the rule of law is the relevant point. I am not sure that what the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said really answered the challenge on this from my noble friend Lord Lilley. If noble Lords can accept that the national interest might require us to break an international agreement in the face of actual harm, in logic they ought to support this proportionate approach to protecting the union, as well as stability and prosperity in Northern Ireland.

Lastly, I ask the opponents of Part 5 to answer one simple question: would noble Lords object to a similar power if it allowed a breach of a treaty with a state which was now an international pariah, or is the heart of opposition to Part 5 intimately linked to the fact that the EU is the counterparty to the treaty which we might need to break? I urge noble Lords to avoid unconscious bias, whether or not driven by remainer nostalgia, and put the protection of the UK, the union and peace in Ireland first.