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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:45 pm on 9th November 2020.

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Photo of Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence) 8:45 pm, 9th November 2020

I begin by saying to the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, that I spend a lot of my time defending the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and I fear that the task is made more difficult on an almost daily, or perhaps weekly, basis by the fact that the Prime Minister appears to have little sensitivity to what is happening north of the Tweed.

Towards the end of his comprehensive speech at Second Reading, the noble Lord, Lord True, described the position of the Government as being an acceptable one of balance between the union of the United Kingdom and the rule of law. With that analysis I profoundly disagree. The truth is that the Government’s position and their proposed legislation have had the effect of putting these two not into balance but into competition, one with the other.

I will begin by examining the purported balance that the Government claim to have struck. They claim that, to the extent allowed by Part 5 of the Bill, which removes otherwise incumbent obligations, the Government will have increased freedom to act in relation to the departure from the European Union and, in particular, will no longer be bound by legal instruments that they negotiated as of right and successfully recommended to Parliament. It is worth considering the motive for the adoption of this position. It lies in the allegation by the Prime Minister that the European Union has acted in bad faith and may continue to do so. But, just as President Trump has produced no evidence to support claims of a similar character about the presidential election in the United States, the Prime Minister also has signally failed to support his claims.

Two fundamental questions remain unanswered. Where is the evidence that the European Union has acted, or may continue to act, in bad faith? This question has been posed on several occasions since the Second Reading debate, and yet it has still brought no answer. The second question is: why are the available arbitration and dispute-resolution procedures simply to be discarded? What sort of confidence will any subsequent party to an agreement with the United Kingdom which contains similar powers of arbitration and dispute resolution have if we discard them in circumstances in which, so far as can be established, there is no good reason? If you are asked to judge on bad faith, who would you regard as being more or less subject to bad faith—those who set off with a unilateral legislative ambition or those who stick to the terms of an agreement, in particular involving arbitration?

The truth is that the Government’s reasons for departing from the cardinal observance of the rule of law and the provisions of the withdrawal agreement lack both substance and credibility. However, in assessing balance, it is not enough to look at the flawed motives of the Government’s position: we must have regard to the consequences, actual and potential. Without qualification, I say that a breach of international law by this country weakens, at large, the rules system on which this country has steadfastly based its policies, both internal and external. We are justifiably renowned for our adherence to the principle of pacta sunt servanda, or “promises must be kept”, although I confess that, on some occasions in present circumstances, ignorantia juris neminem excusat, or “ignorance of the law is no excuse”, might be a more appropriate way to describe those in the Cabinet Office who are apparently the authors of the legislation that is so controversial in our debate.

The noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, has dealt with the contribution of the noble Lord, Lilley, as the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, also did. I will add two observations. First, both Germany and the European Union have written constitutions; we have a partly written one with more flexibility. Therefore, what happens in Germany or the European Union does not necessarily form an impressive precedent.

Of course, at the back of these two decisions, to which reference was made, was the question of necessity. Where is this question of necessity in the circumstances that we are discussing in this debate? A breach of international law, even if only in contemplation, damages our reputation and, more to the point, undermines our ability to hold others to account. It also damages our relations with our allies, damages our wider interests and divides Parliament but, perhaps more fundamentally in this case, divides the party of government.

In response to Part 5, the European Union has taken the United Kingdom to law. Who believes that the action of our Government in respect of the controversial legislation and the response of taking the United Kingdom to law will make negotiations easier for the trade deal that is absolutely fundamental to the economic and trade policy of the present Government? We are not trying to please the President-elect of the United States but to ensure that he and, indeed, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, who have already voiced adverse criticism, may be persuaded to grant the trade deal that forms such an important part of the Government’s trade policy. Not to accommodate their anxieties or understand the importance of the Irish question in domestic American politics is foolhardy, in my view. A breach of international law, even if only in contemplation, that imperils that trade deal is wholly contrary to the interests of the United Kingdom.

However, the truth is that the weight of the argument in this matter is wholly against the Government because there is no equivalence between what they seek to claim by way of legislation and the consequences of such a claim being allowed. The noble Lord, Lord McCrea, who is no longer in his place, referred us to scripture. If we are talking about balance, I refer the House to Daniel, chapter 5, verse 25: “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin”—or, “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting”. That is the right epitaph for this piece of legislation.