Thank you for contacting me about the UK Internal Market Bill and the UK’s respect for international law.
There has been much speculation about the Government’s commitment to treaty obligations and international law. I believe that some of the commentary has misrepresented the situation. It goes without saying that my ministerial colleagues and I are committed to the rule of law as determined by a democratically elected Parliament.
The UK Internal Market Bill is fundamentally about protecting the integrity of the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister made this clear when he introduced the Bill in the House of Commons. The Bill will support the provision of more powers for all parts of the UK and ensure that businesses can continue to trade seamlessly across the UK – just as they have done for hundreds of years. As we recover from the Coronavirus pandemic, it will also help to protect jobs and support our economic recovery.
With regard to the provisions on the Northern Ireland Protocol, you should know that the Protocol contains inconsistencies that the UK and EU had intended to resolve by the end of the year. The end of the Transition Period is fast approaching, and with no agreement yet reached, the House of Commons has approved a safety net to protect the Union and ensure that the UK’s obligations under the Belfast Agreement are met. We must deliver on our promises to the people of Northern Ireland and this Bill allows us to do so. If no action were taken, the default legal position would risk creating barriers to trade within the UK and could threaten the Union.
Provisions in the UK Internal Market Bill will ensure, as the Protocol intended, that Northern Ireland is fully part of the UK customs territory by guaranteeing that goods moving within the UK will never pay EU tariffs. They will also ensure that Northern Ireland businesses have unfettered access to the rest of the UK, as per the Protocol, without any paperwork. They finally ensure that while Northern Ireland would remain subject to the EU’s State Aid regime, Great Britain would not.
There is no reason why these provisions should undermine the future relationship negotiations with the EU. I understand the Government is working to ensure that nothing inadvertently compromises the UK and the EU’s shared commitment to the Belfast Agreement and to ensuring that the original intention of the Northern Ireland Protocol is implemented. It is the Government's overriding priority to work within the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee to reach a negotiated outcome. But a responsible government must consider fall-back options to ensure that the communities of Northern Ireland are always protected.
It is important to understand that it is not new for Parliament to consider legislation that could override treaty obligations. This is because the UK’s constitutional settlement provides for Parliament alone to decide whether and how to implement the UK’s treaty obligations. You may remember that this principle was upheld by the Supreme Court in the Miller Case on invoking Article 50 in 2017.
I am aware that the European Commission has begun formal infringement proceedings against the UK. This began with a letter of formal notice requesting further information from the Government sent on 1 October. The Commission has requested that the Government respond within 1 month. Although I understand why the European Commission has felt compelled to issue the letter, it is important to understand that the Government’s actions do not prevent it from complying with its commitments under the Withdrawal Agreement. The Bill simply provides a safety net to ensure that harmful defaults, which neither the UK nor the EU intended, do not occur. If the UK were to take no action, the defaults could undermine the peace process on the island of Ireland and harm the integrity of the UK.
I do not believe that it is right to extrapolate the Government's implementation of these very specific parts of the Withdrawal Agreement to the UK’s international behaviour more generally. As a country we stand for international law and an ordered international system and always will. The Northern Ireland Protocol was written on the assumption that subsequent agreements could be reached between the UK and the EU on the detail. That may yet be possible, but I do not believe that a responsible government should allow damaging default provisions to come into force if an agreement cannot be reached.
After listening to concerns in Parliament, the Government tabled an amendment to the Bill which would require the approval of Parliament before ministers could use the powers under sections 42, 43 and 45. This was approved by the House of Commons. I understand that the House of Lords has voted to remove the provisions on the Northern Ireland Protocol but for the reasons mentioned above, I do not support the removal of these parts of the Bill.
These measures exist as a fall-back option if no agreement is reached with the EU on the issues that were left to be resolved in 2020. While they may constitute a technical breach, the Government is taking the power to disapply the EU law concept of direct effect, required by Article 4 of the Withdrawal Agreement, in certain very tightly defined circumstances. This is necessary to make sure that the Government can always deliver the wider objective of the protocol which is to protect peace in Northern Ireland and the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement.
It is clear to me that the Government is fully committed to the Belfast Agreement as well as to protecting Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. At no stage will it ever allow a hard border on the island of Ireland and these limited steps in the Bill will not endanger these commitments. The future of Protocol is ultimately for the people of Northern Ireland to decide four years after its implementation.
President-elect Biden has previously expressed concern about the impact of the UK’s exit from the EU on the Belfast Agreement. I understand that the Prime Minister has reassured him that leaving the EU would not undermine the Belfast Agreement and that he looks forward to working closely with the President-elect on shared priorities including on promoting democracy and tackling climate change.
Remedying the unintended consequences of the Protocol may breach the Withdrawal Agreement in a limited way but the consequences of inaction could break up the Union. While I remain fully committed to international law, I have a duty to protect the integrity of the Union – the overriding purpose of this Bill.
Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.
Craig Whittaker MP