It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Fox, who has been a tower of strength throughout the course of this very complicated Bill. I join other noble Lords to express my deep sorrow at the untimely death of Rabbi Lord Sacks, who made a very major contribution to thought, spirituality and life in this House.
The noble Lords, Lord Howard of Lympne, Lord Empey and Lord Pannick, the noble and learned Lords, Lord Clarke of Nottingham, Lord Mackay of Clashfern and Lord Judge, the noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick and Lady Bennett, all Labour’s Members, all the Lib Dems, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds and the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury constitute, by any standards, a pretty broad church—broader than you normally see in this House. Sadly, none of them is Marcus Rashford and therefore guaranteed to get a U-turn. Nevertheless, they are a powerful group and all say the same thing: first, pull back from making the United Kingdom an international law-breaker; and secondly, do not threaten to break the Northern Ireland protocol, which ensures an open border on the island of Ireland and promotes peace through the Good Friday agreement.
Today, tomorrow and in the weeks, months and years to come, the United Kingdom will depend on our international relations with the United States of America, the European Union and the rest of the world for security and trade, to fight the climate emergency, to co-ordinate the search for and distribution of a vaccine, to fight this and future pandemics and to co-ordinate the world’s response to the massive economic downturn we are in. We will need international agreements to do it. It is hard to imagine an act more damaging to the United Kingdom’s national interest than to place the UK beyond the pale of law-abiding nations, which is what the Government wish to do.
I strongly urge the Government to take the lifeline that the House of Lords is offering and accept that these law-breaking clauses were a mistake. The Government should say that these clauses will never again see the light of day. Please think about what the Government are embarking on with these clauses. If a free trade agreement and a settlement of the Northern Irish protocol issues are reached, then these clauses would never be needed. Suppose the Government do not reach agreement on free trade and the operational actions of the Northern Ireland protocol. If these clauses were ever used, they would guarantee, as President-elect Biden has said, that the United Kingdom would go to the bottom of the pecking order in Europe with the United States of America.
We have gone from popular United Kingdom to Billy No Mates in 10 weeks from
I respect those who did not like the Northern Irish protocol but it was entered into by the House of Commons with its eyes open. The House understood that the effect of the protocol was that to secure an open border, goods coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland had to be checked to ensure that they complied with the single market regulations. Only in that way could the Republic of Ireland be sure that goods coming through the border would comply with the rules of the single market and you would not need a border as a result.
People may not like that. They may think that the checks that take place between Great Britain and Northern Ireland are inimical to the idea of Great Britain and Northern Ireland staying together, but that was the choice that the Parliament of this country made. A number of noble Lords said that democracy and parliamentary sovereignty justify this, conveniently forgetting that it was parliamentary sovereignty that led to the United Kingdom signing up to these international agreements. It was this Parliament that decided it and any call to parliamentary sovereignty is so misguided.
The second proposition advanced is that democracy demands that we allow this agreement, the Northern Irish protocol, to be broken. We are lucky to have in the House of Lords people who tell us how democracy should be interpreted. The December 2019 general election involved the winners, the Tory party, saying, “Agree to the withdrawal agreement and let us get Brexit done.” The country agreed to that. It agreed to the agreement that currently exists, not one that is about to be changed. The imprecations that we should be entitled, as a matter of parliamentary sovereignty or democracy, to change the agreement are very misguided.
The second group of those who defend what is happening are those who say, “Actually, there is no law-breaking.” The noble Lords, Lord Naseby and Lord Howard of Rising, who is, sadly, not in his place, and the noble Baroness, Lady Couttie, made plucky efforts to say there is no law-breaking. Your Lordships will recall the much missed noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen: he suggested there was no law-breaking, and he got a pretty bloody nose from the Government for that. He was told that was wrong, because Brandon Lewis was sent out to assert yet again that there was law-breaking, as he proudly said. I will accept the word of the Government themselves that there is law-breaking, and not those of their defenders who say that there is not.