I firmly believe in the need for a strong internal market so businesses can trade freely across the UK’s four nations, which will be vital for our economy and shared prosperity. I recognise that new legislation is required to ensure the smooth, effective working of the internal market across the UK, but this is a bad and damaging Bill.
I opposed the Internal Market Bill at Second Reading and Third Reading in the House of Commons because it undermines the Withdrawal Agreement from the EU already agreed by Parliament, because it reopens discussion about the Northern Ireland Protocol that has already been settled and it undermines the UK’s devolution settlements, and because it breaches international law and would tarnish our global reputation as a law-abiding nation and weaken our ability to enforce other international trade deals and protect jobs and the economy. You can watch the Second Reading debate here.
Ed Miliband MP, who is leading on this bill for the opposition, made a much lauded speech against the bill that you can see here.
On 16 September, the Prime Minister released a statement with two Conservative MP critics of the Bill, stating that the House of Commons must approve at a later date the powers allowing the Government to override the Withdrawal Agreement. EU officials said the Bill still breached international law. On 17 September it also released a statement setting out that it would “ask Parliament to support the use of the provisions in Clauses 42, 43 and 45 of the UKIM Bill, and any similar subsequent provisions, only in the case of, in our view, the EU being engaged in a material breach of its duties of good faith or other obligations, and thereby undermining the fundamental purpose of the Northern Ireland Protocol”. It gave examples of what such behaviour would include. It also said further measures would be set out in the Finance Bill, relating to tariffs on GB-NI movements, including the same Parliamentary process that it had committed to for the UKIM Bill.
The Government’s announced changes do not remotely solve the illegality – if the bill had passed even with these amendments, the government would be breaking their international treaty obligations. The amendments are not enough, breaking a binding international agreement we signed would be wrong, even if Tory MPs vote for it.
The problem is that the government want a Trump style system whereby the way to achieve this is to come to an agreement with all the competent parts of the U.K. as to the minimum standards (as per what the EU rules were) and allow the devolved nations to improve on those minimum standards. That’s how you get agreement and a system that works but while we have a government intent on unacceptably low standards then you can’t accept the principle of mutual recognition as you wouldn’t want to recognise much reduced standards and regulations. It would be perfectly possible to have an agreed U.K. wide set of robust and high minimum standards, rules for state aid, and a clear, fair, and transparent arbitration system if this process was done properly.
At Second Reading, Labour submitted a reasoned amendment declining to give the Bill a second reading, setting out our reasons.
“That this House notes that the UK has left the EU, calls on the Government to get on with negotiating a trade deal with the EU, recognises that legislation is required to ensure the smooth, effective working of the internal market across the UK, but declines to give a Second Reading to the Internal Market Bill because this Bill undermines the Withdrawal Agreement already agreed by Parliament, re-opens discussion about the Northern Ireland Protocol that has already been settled, breaches international law, undermines the devolution settlements and would tarnish the UK’s global reputation as a law-abiding nation.”
Committee of whole house
Day 1: On Part 1 of the bill, we tabled an amendment to place limits on powers to override common frameworks, putting Common frameworks on a statutory footing.
We also put down an amendment on a duty to consult, monitor and report. Increase the powers of the CMA so that it has a duty to consult with all relevant national authorities and shall produce monitoring reports on (a) changes in standards, and (b) assessments of whether standards have been met.
Day 2: On Part 6 of the bill, Labour’s amendment 14 on Wednesday last week, which would have mandated a policy framework in which financial assistance is distributed, was defeated by the Government. This amendment would have set out rules for financial aid, working with local authorities and voices to make sure it reaches those communities that need it most. Our other amendments on respecting devolved powers and using devolved authorities to allocate any central financial assistance for devolved matter were not selected.
Day 3: Labour has tabled 9 amendments for today (Monday 21st) which remove the parts of the Bill which disapply the law, and reassert that disagreements should be worked out in line with the Withdrawal Agreement’s dispute resolution mechanism through the Joint Committee – as signed up to by the Prime Minister mere months ago. Labour’s amendments also protect action under judicial review, to maintain government accountability.
This set of amendments would have enabled the Bill to achieve its aims, but to stick to the rule of law, the Human Rights Act 1998 and our international obligations. As the Government did not accept these amendments I voted with likeminded colleagues to remove the provisions of concern completely from the Bill but Government MPs voted in greater numbers to keep them in.
I also voted for a separate amendment intended to provide a safeguard so that any powers used by Ministers are consistent with the UK’s international commitment under the Northern Ireland protocol. This too was defeated by Government MPs.
Day 4: On Part 6 of the bill, we have tabled three amendments:
- That consulting with, and working with the Devolved Administrations, the government must review and report to Parliament on the workings of Act on the following basis: (a) the functioning of the United Kingdom internal market; (b) the effectiveness of market access principles; (c) progress towards agreeing common frameworks with the devolved administrations; (d) progress towards drawing up a shared prosperity fund framework; and (e) progress in resolving issues through the Joint Committee machinery in the Withdrawal Agreement. This will allow us to rehearse the arguments about why this is a bad Bill which isn’t in the national interest that we have made throughout the passage of the Bill so far.
- A probing amendment to ask the government to define the promotion of environmental, social and labour standards as a “legitimate aim” that falls within the exemptions highlighted in Clause 8(6) of the Bill as drafted.
- A probing amendment on whether public procurement is an exemption
As mentioned the Government amended the Bill in an attempt to solve the issue by requiring MPs to approve the date on which the parts of the Act giving ministers the powers to implement parts of the protocol against international law would be given effect. The House of Lords would also have an opportunity to debate the proposed date. This does not resolve the issue. The Government’s approach still amounts to tearing up an international agreement and breaking an international treaty that the Prime Minister has just signed.
The UK left the European Union on 31 January. The task for the Government at the present time is to get on with negotiating a trade deal with the EU. Unfortunately, the Government, having promised to “get Brexit done”, instead seems now to be seeking to get it undone by trying to overturn aspects of what it promised the people of the UK was a “great new deal” that was “signed, sealed and ready” and agreed with the EU27 countries.
The Government claims measures in the Bill that break international law are necessary to protect against threats from the EU. However, I do not see how, if this truly were the case, any responsible Government could have signed up to, campaigned for and ratified any deal that would allow such threats. Furthermore, the Bill falls far short of protecting against the supposed threats the Government alleges it is designed to prevent.
Breaking international law does serious damage to our standing in the world if our country is no longer seen to keep its promises. It is not too late for the Government to change course though. The outstanding issues in the negotiations are not insurmountable. There is still time for the Government to fulfil its pledges to the British people.
We need a trade deal with Europe which reflects our country’s desire for high standards in employment, consumer, environmental and animal welfare rights in our future outside of the EU. Instead of reopening old wounds, undermining the UK’s reputation internationally and making crucial trade negotiations more difficult, the Government should concentrate on getting positively concluding a deal with the EU and work constructively on the many issues facing countries from COVID-19, security and climate change.
I firmly believe the Government could have worked cross-party and with the devolved Administrations to build a strong internal market based on mutual respect, to enhance our reputation around the world, and to strengthen our precious Union.
Unfortunately, the Bill passed its Third Reading and will move onto the Lords. I am hopefully that the Bill will be amended and will return to the House of Commons.