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

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

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Photo of Lord Fox Lord Fox Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 9:45 pm, 9th November 2020

My Lords, it is a great honour to be speaking towards the end of this long debate, in which so many distinguished, wise and opinionated speakers have held forth. This debate complements the one we heard at Second Reading, which ended with an overwhelmingly large regret vote. Today, we have heard the legal reasons for objecting to Part 5 of the Bill. They were set out clearly by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and have been supported by legal Peers and others across the Floor. We also heard speeches explaining the effects of this Bill across the island of Ireland; I was particularly moved by the words of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames.

I am going to look elsewhere and focus on the politics, my subtitle being: “What were the Government thinking when they drafted this Bill?” It is a rhetorical question as I do not expect the Minister to answer. In today’s media round, Ministers were sent out to plug No. 10’s messages, one of which was that this Bill gives legal certainty. Well, it is certainly illegal but, as we heard very eloquently from the noble Lord, Lord, Carlile, the only certainty it brings is that the UK cannot be trusted.

We heard at Second Reading how little faith the EU had in the Prime Minister even before he climbed over and clawed past his predecessor to become Prime Minister. This Bill now confirms the European Union’s view and cements its distrust of the negotiation process. Does the Minister suppose this distrust has made sealing a UK-EU trade deal easier or harder? If it were going to help, we would, I suggest, have seen some movement by now; yet we still do not have anything that even this shameless Government can dress up and brand as a deal.

As we have heard, there is now a seismic shift across the Atlantic where the ground is getting very shaky for the PM. He is losing his perilous foothold and scrambling around as the UK slips down the future President’s to-do list. We should not be surprised. A law-breaking Government might have impressed President Trump but, when there is an Irish-American President in waiting, this Bill is not a good look. George Eustice, sent out this morning to shield the Prime Minister, was quick to say that if Joe Biden had read the Bill, and not just reports of the Bill, everything would be all right. This is patronising. It is patronising to the future President of the United States, a man who has always taken a very close interest in Irish issues, and it is not only patronising but wrong. When the President-elect read this Bill, he saw what we see: a direct undermining of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement.

In political terms, this Bill threatens the EU and US free trade deals—the Government’s two stated paramount trade objectives—and it threatens the stability in Ireland, one of the great political achievements in my lifetime. It is not just bad law; it is absolutely terrible politics.

In a few minutes, I expect the Minister to mount a defence. He will claim that Part 5 of the Bill is vital, which my noble friend Lord Newby dealt with very eloquently. I doubt that the Minister will repeat the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis’s statement that this Bill will break the law because—and I am sorry to Members opposite, all of whom appear to be non-lawyers pronouncing on the law—it is the Government’s settled position that this breaks the law. In this regard, I am happy—or unhappy—to say that the Government are right: Part 5 allows the Executive to break the law, when they choose and without restraint. That is why the whole of Part 5 comprises a legal affront, which is a huge political mistake.

The Committee will shortly be asked whether we want Clause 42 to stand part of the Bill. Noble Lords on these Benches will be voting “Not content” when that question is put, and we will continue to vote “Not content” when each clause is put forward. It is wrong and we are not content that the Government should bring the whole country into disrepute, not content that we should cede political leverage in the world at large, and not content with the wider implications of Part 5, not least on the island of Ireland.