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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:45 pm on 9th November 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Couttie Baroness Couttie Conservative 7:45 pm, 9th November 2020

I, along with several colleagues, sat on the EU Select Committee, so ably chaired by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull. We looked closely at Part 5 of the internal market Bill. The report that we produced was the subject of some strong debate among us. The point that we all agreed on was that none of us wanted to see the UK break international law or in any way tarnish the UK’s international reputation for fair play and justice. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, supported by many colleagues, seeks to have the clauses that make up Part 5 removed from this Bill. I am speaking today to support their continued inclusion.

Much has been made of Brandon Lewis’s remark stating that Part 5 of the internal market Bill breaches international law in a “limited and specific way”. However, his is not the only view on this controversial point. Having listened to the arguments put by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, and the Prime Minister and the evidence given by Michael Gove to the committee, it is clear to me that Part 5 may not break international law and is an essential safety net to protect the UK, most specifically in regard to both the economy and peace in Northern Ireland.

My noble friend Lord Lilley has already quoted the ECJ, pointing out that it does not expect EU countries to apply international law unconditionally. Various articles under the Vienna convention allow all countries the freedom to protect their interests and Article 184 is clear that parties must negotiate in good faith.

The withdrawal agreement was signed with contradictory clauses in it that each side thought protected their interests. Clauses that give the UK sovereignty over all its territory, including Northern Ireland, and unfettered access for goods flowing to and from the mainland and Northern Ireland are clearly difficult to reconcile with Northern Ireland remaining inside the EU customs union. The Joint Committee was established to enable resolution of these conflicts in the clauses. One of the key enablers of the proper functioning of the Northern Ireland protocol was the fair and sensible identification of the very small number of goods that were at risk of moving from the mainland to Northern Ireland and then into the EU.

We know that, as part of its negotiation, the EU threatened to withhold third-party status from the UK. The Prime Minister has told us that the EU also threatened to use the Joint Committee to designate all goods moving from the UK to Northern Ireland as being at risk of moving into the EU. The consequence of this is that tariffs will need to be paid on all goods moving from the UK to Northern Ireland; those tariffs will then need to be reclaimed on goods with a need to prove that they were not exported into the Republic of Ireland. This will create extra costs and make some supply chains unviable. It will also divide Northern Ireland from the mainland, which is unacceptable to the unionists—a point made tonight by the noble Lord, Lord Dodds. Clearly this demonstrates that the EU has not been negotiating in good faith and gives the right, under international law, to the UK to take action to protect itself. Part 5 provides this protection.

Some, including my noble friend Lord Howard, have argued that we should use the dispute mechanism in the withdrawal agreement to resolve these issues. This will take time, during which the Northern Ireland economy will be severely impaired and the much-valued and sacrosanct peace undermined. In addition, the final determination under the dispute resolution procedure is made by the ECJ, which not everyone in the UK has full confidence in.

I am pleased to hear that the negotiations have taken a more constructive tone, both concerning third-party status for the UK and the designation of goods at risk, by the Joint Committee. If this continues to be the case, Part 5 will not be needed. I sincerely hope that this proves to be the outcome, but until the negotiations are completed, I cannot support the removal of these clauses.