I would like to thank the many constituents who have taken the time to get in touch about the UK Internal Market Bill and I do hope that you will find this update useful.
I’m writing this update as the Internal Market Bill returns from the Lords to make its way through its remaining stages in the Commons. As many of you will have seen from recent, somewhat febrile press coverage, many of the original provisions in that Bill have been removed during debates and votes in the House of Lords.
Perhaps the most significant of these relate to the ability of Ministers to disregard elements of the Withdrawal Agreement in the event of a no-deal scenario and if (and only if) the EU took subsequent action designed to undermine the fiscal and constitutional coherence of the UK.
Having spoken in support of the Government in the Second Reading debate in September, I’ll be supporting the reinstatement of those clauses when the Bill comes back before the House.
Of course, this is (like much else at present) is a fast-moving and fluid situation. If the Bill becomes law in something approaching its original form, it would give the UK government the ability to disapply specific elements of the Withdrawal Agreement relating to the movement of goods between Northern Ireland and the UK mainland in the event of a ‘No-Deal’ scenario. While the use of that power to disapply would be illegal, simply conferring the power to do so is not. The European Commission has made clear that they do not believe a breach of international law has taken place as things stand – and any changes to that guidance will be contingent upon the final form of the Bill as it receives Royal Assent.
That may seem a somewhat academic point – but it’s important given the diplomatic backdrop. The clauses that have aroused the most controversy are designed to mitigate against the risk of – in the event of no deal being agreed by the end of the transition period – an extreme interpretation of the NI Protocols in the Withdrawal Agreement which would hamper the free movement of agricultural and consumer goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. And of course, such a scenario would cripple many businesses in Northern Ireland at a time when they are managing the economic devastation resulting from COVID-19.
It would also, as I’ve said above, imperil the constitutional integrity of the UK – something that would inflame tensions and risk a return to the terrible violence we’ve seen in the past. I believe that the central principles of the Internal Market Bill are sound – which is why I voted in favour last time and intend to do so again. These central principles include mutual recognition and non-discrimination for goods and services across the UK, establishing an independent Office for the Internal Market (within the Competitions and Markets Authority) and ensuring that the economic coherence of the UK is maintained.
The disapplication powers are a safety net that would only need to be used if firstly, no trade deal emerges before December (which is not a scenario I believe the government favours) and secondly, should the EU subsequently choose to interpret the NI Protocols in the Withdrawal Agreement in such a way as to create barriers to the free trade of goods between NI and the rest of the UK. I should say that I do support the Neill Amendment that makes the use of these powers subject to a parliamentary vote – and I’ll continue to vote in a way that protects that obligation.
I actually believe the need for these powers to be exercised is somewhat unlikely (though theoretically possible) and that much of what we’re seeing (on both sides – as with the EU’s suggestion that they may create such barriers between the UK and NI) is designed to create leverage in negotiations.
As I also made clear in my speech in the Second Reading of this Bill, the power to disapply international law when the fabric of a union is threatened is something the EU has availed itself of in the recent past. It’s worth recalling the European Commission’s judgement in a 2008 legal case when they insisted:
The Court takes great care to respect the obligations that are incumbent on the Community by virtue of international law, [but[ it seeks, first and foremost, to preserve the constitutional framework of the European Community
We also have our own – rather older and enduring Union to protect – and that’s why I’ll be supporting the Government in giving itself the powers to do so.
I do hope this is useful in clarifying my views.