I would like to reassure all constituents that I thought deeply before deciding how to vote and very carefully considered the consequences for our country of my decision either way. As you may be aware, for 12 years before I was elected I served as a magistrate, and consequently, I put great store by the need to obey the law. In addition, I learnt very early in my time on the bench that it is important to listen to both sides of the argument before reaching a decision - and not to jump to a verdict immediately after the prosecution has presented its case, without hearing from the defence. As a result, I very carefully researched the situation around the legality of the measures in the IMB, including speaking personally with the Attorney General as well as other ministers. Ultimately, it boiled down to a stark choice: did I vote for this Bill and the remote possibility of the UK later breaking international law, or did I vote against it, with the very real risk that the result would ultimately be the de facto break-up of the United Kingdom.
I cannot think of any country which would put compliance with an international treaty above the imperative to maintain the integrity of its own nation. Crucially important to this whole debate, then, is the reason that the UK government feels obliged to act in this way – the preservation of our union of four nations as one United Kingdom. If we were not to take the measures currently under consideration, which it must be remembered are an insurance policy in case all negotiations with the EU fail, a border could effectively be created between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This is absolutely unconscionable. It would put at peril the peace process and the Belfast (Good Friday) agreement. Let us not forget that this followed decades of terror and murder in Northern Ireland and marked the culmination of sensitive and delicate negotiations that for years had been thought impossible. It absolutely cannot and will not be cast aside.
When the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement from the EU was signed, and subsequently voted into domestic law, it was known that there would need to be further negotiations about Northern Ireland. A Joint Committee was set up to do this, with the express expectation that both sides would negotiate in good faith and with best endeavours to find a mutually acceptable solution. At that time, as the prime minister said in the House of Commons during the debate on Monday 14 September, “our EU friends agreed that Northern Ireland—this is a crucial point—would remain part of the customs territory of the United Kingdom, able to benefit from free trade deals with other countries, which we are now beginning to strike. It ensures that the majority of goods not at risk of travelling to the EU—and that is the majority of goods going from GB to Northern Ireland—do not have to pay tariffs.” However, as the prime minister went on to say “the EU has said that if we fail to reach an agreement to its satisfaction, it might very well refuse to list the UK’s food and agricultural products for sale anywhere in the EU. It gets even worse, because under this protocol, that decision would create an instant and automatic prohibition on the transfer of our animal products from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Our interlocutors on the other side are holding out the possibility of blockading food and agricultural transports within our own country.”
The UK government’s negotiators have made a considerable number of reasonable proposals to the EU, all of which have been rejected. The EU is taking a maximalist hardline in the way it is seeking to interpret ambiguous terms in the protocol, with demands that were unforeseeable, and to my mind that certainly does not demonstrate either good faith or best endeavours. Nonetheless, the government is committed to continuing to work to secure an agreement with the EU through the existing process – a point that was confirmed by the prime minister in the debate when he said the government would “persevere, no matter what the provocation”. I recommend you read the prime minister’s full speech, which sets out the risks to the UK, in Hansard: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2020-09-14/debates/83A18A5B-75DE-4843-9C64-FAD20602C884/UnitedKingdomInternalMarketBill.
Against this backdrop, what the Bill does is give fair notice of action that might have to be taken, and the fact that it would breach a clause in a treaty, if no agreement can be reached. Further, there is explicit reference in the Withdrawal Bill to the possibility of this situation, in Clause 38:
(1) It is recognised that the Parliament of the United Kingdom is sovereign.
(2) In particular, its sovereignty subsists notwithstanding—
(a) directly applicable or directly effective EU law continuing to be recognised and available in domestic law by virtue of section 1A or 1B of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 (savings of existing law for the implementation period),
(b) section 7A of that Act (other directly applicable or directly effective aspects of the withdrawal agreement),
(c) section 7B of that Act (deemed direct applicability or direct effect in relation to the EEA EFTA separation agreement and the Swiss citizens' rights agreement), and
(d) section 7C of that Act (interpretation of law relating to the withdrawal agreement (other than the implementation period), the EEA EFTA separation agreement and the Swiss citizens' rights agreement).
(3) Accordingly, nothing in this Act derogates from the sovereignty of the Parliament of the United Kingdom.
It is also worth noting that the EU would itself be breaking international law if it subsequently insisted on imposing tariffs on all goods crossing the Irish Sea, as that would be a breach of Article 4 of the Northern Ireland protocol:
“Customs territory of the United Kingdom Northern Ireland is part of the customs territory of the United Kingdom. Accordingly, nothing in this Protocol shall prevent the United Kingdom from including Northern Ireland in the territorial scope of any agreements it may conclude with third countries, provided that those agreements do not prejudice the application of this Protocol. In particular, nothing in this Protocol shall prevent the United Kingdom from concluding agreements with a third country that grant goods produced in Northern Ireland preferential access to that country’s market on the same terms as goods produced in other parts of the United Kingdom. Nothing in this Protocol shall prevent the United Kingdom from including Northern Ireland in the territorial scope of its Schedules of Concessions annexed to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade 1994.”
Whilst I fully recognise the gravity of potentially breaking international law, I am reassured that there is precedent for taking such action.
For example, the UK declined to implement Hirst v United Kingdom (No2) on giving prisoners the right to vote. This decision was first taken in 2005 by the then Labour government. For 12 years, governments of all parties (including the Liberal Democrats during coalition) chose not to give prisoners for the vote and held that it was right to breach Protocol 1, Article 3 for justifiable political reasons. In addition, in 2002, the Labour government declined to issue a certificate of compliance with section 19 of the Human Rights Act when it introduced the Communications Bill.
Furthermore, EU member states themselves have breached international law. A prime example is Germany, when its Constitutional Court declared the European Central Bond scheme to be incompatible with German Basic Law and the Federal Constitution thereby becoming the first national court to refuse to submit to the European Court of Justice. This is a clear breach of international law and EU law, usurping Costa v ENEL (1964) denying primacy of European law. The lower court in Karlsruhe declared this international obligation to be a fundamental breach of the German constitution. There are other examples, and I therefore find it entirely disingenuous of the EU to react as it has done to the prospect of the UK exercising its own democratic rights.
I am also mindful of the commitments in the Conservative Party manifesto, specifically to get Brexit done, and to ensure unfettered trade across the United Kingdom by maintaining and strengthening the integrity and smooth operation of our internal market. There is a risk that trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be very much fettered if the Joint Committee cannot reach agreement and the EU attempts to impose tariffs, or worse, to prevent the sale of British food in Northern Ireland.
On the basis of the arguments outlined above, knowing that breaking international law would only ever be a last resort, I am confident that it was right to vote for the second reading of the Internal Markets Bill.
As I am sure you are aware, the second reading of a Bill is the first time the proposed law comes before Parliament for debate; it is NOT the final version. After second reading, there is the committee stage at which amendments can be made, before third reading which is the time the Commons approves the version of the bill before it is sent to the Lords. Throughout this process, it is possible to seek changes and reconsider certain aspects - this is not usually best achieved through shouting from the parapet, instead better results tend to come through conversations with whips and ministers where frank discussions can be had and sensible, mature consideration given out of the glare of headline-seeking journalists or point-scoring members of other political parties. This process has continued throughout the past week, and resulted in the agreement by the government to introduce an amendment based on the one in the name of Sir Bob Neill and others, which states that:
Clause 54, page 41, line 26, at end insert:
— “(3A) A statutory instrument containing regulations under subsection (3) may not appoint a day for the commencement of section 42, 43 or 45 unless:
(a) a Minister of the Crown has moved a motion in the House of Commons to the effect that sections 42, 43 and 45 may be commenced on or after a day specified in the motion (“the specified day”),
(b) the motion has been approved by a resolution of that House,
(c) a motion to the effect that the House of Lords takes note of the specified day (or the day which is proposed to be the specified day) has been tabled in the House of Lords by a Minister of the Crown, and
(d) the day appointed by the regulations is the same as or is after the specified day.”
This provides further assurance that any such measures would only take place with the express permission of parliament.
Making a comparison between international law and domestic, criminal, law, is really not comparing like for like. However, in the spirit of such questions, I would suggest that the concept of self-defence is the appropriate illustration. If someone is rushing at me with a knife and I injure them in order to defend myself, I have not committed a crime provided my behaviour was necessary and proportionate. In this case, there is the real prospect of the EU rushing at us to break up the United Kingdom, and we are acting in self-defence of our sovereign nation.
Passing the UK Internal Market Bill is an important step in our new role as a fully independent and sovereign nation, reflecting the democratic result of the EU referendum and subsequent General Election in 2019 in which I was elected to parliament.