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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:00 pm on 9th November 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Conservative 9:00 pm, 9th November 2020

My Lords, I am glad to speak after my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier, although we come at the subject from slightly different directions. I have sat through much of the proceedings on this Bill. I have quite a few reservations, which I hope may be reflected in amendments or reassurances on Report. However, on Part 5 I have a great deal of sympathy with the Government and I thought my noble friend the Minister summed it all up very well in his statesmanlike speech at Second Reading.

The Government have come forward with safety net measures in domestic law that allow Ministers to protect the UK’s internal market, our union with Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland peace process, but only if needed. There will be a vote in the other place before these are used, and any SI will be subject to affirmative resolution. To pick up on something the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, said in a strong speech, it is now half way to that oven-ready Bill-in-waiting that he felt would have attracted much more sympathy across this House.

Of course, had everything worked smoothly in the exit negotiations, had the EU acted in those negotiations as though dealing with close friends and allies, had the previous Administration been more nimble in defending the UK interest, and could everything be guaranteed to continue to work smoothly, there would be no need to adopt the provisions in Part 5 to which many take exception. Unfortunately, none of those possibilities has yet proven to be the case. Accordingly, as my noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral and the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, said at Second Reading, we should not tie the hands of the Government at this time. We should give them the elastic they need.

I am grateful for the work of the EU Committee, on which I have the pleasure to sit and support the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and the work of its excellent staff on the complexities of the Northern Ireland situation and its special protocol which has helped to inform our debates. The problem—and the reason the Government are seeking the powers in Part 5—stems, I believe, from the unsatisfactory nature of the withdrawal agreement, but only if the EU were to take a disreputable and irresponsible stance. Unfortunately, that possibility cannot yet be entirely excluded. Such a development would make life very difficult for those businesses which operate in Northern Ireland and for goods and food coming in and out over either border. Indeed, today’s debate and the arresting contributions from the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, and the noble Lord, Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown, have heightened my concern about the risks to the Northern Ireland economy and the Belfast agreement.

The joint committee has wide powers to prepare for and sort out any mess but, regrettably, it has not done so. Perhaps it has no intention of doing so while vital and delicate discussions on an FTA continue. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister can report on discussions in that joint committee, where there are concerns or disagreements and whether there is any hope, even now, that the difficulty will be overcome so that the Part 5 provision will become unnecessary.

With the promoters of these amendments having demonstrated their nobility of mind in the earlier discussions at Second Reading, I was hoping for a full discussion in Committee of the wide-ranging powers being taken in Part 5 and not just a rerun of the debate of principle of 20 October. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, touched on this in his speech and I am sure my noble friend the Minister, when he responds, will address some of our concerns about the breadth of the power. But, today, I think we should celebrate the fact that there was a startling breakthrough on a coronavirus vaccine. I have some hope that there will also be a breakthrough on the FTA with the EU and that Part 5 will not now be needed. In the meantime, I will be supporting the Government.