Whilst recognising that the Northern Ireland protocol needs to work better, that the EU has been intransigent and that we need an improved and supported political settlement in Northern Ireland, Jesse Norman outlines why this Bill is not the answer.
It has been a splendid debate, and it is my happy privilege to stand as the thorn between two legal roses in my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), the acuity of whose interventions has been noted by the House, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Sir Geoffrey Cox), the former Attorney General, with his soaring rhetoric and legal genius.
I will be brief. Everyone in this House recognises, I am sure, that it is vital to make the Northern Ireland protocol work better; that the EU, as described and discussed today, has been intransigent and could do with more direct input from our friends and allied member states, France, Germany, Holland and the rest; and that we need an improved and supported political settlement and situation in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, however, for reasons contemplated and discussed today, and which I will briefly summarise, this Bill is not the answer.
It has been properly pointed out that the doctrine of necessity does not apply in anything like the way the Government describe it. I am not a lawyer, but even I can see that when the Minister concedes at the Dispatch Box that immediacy is not at stake and is not implied by the conception of urgency that the Government wish to deploy. In breaching international law, for the reasons that my right hon. and learned Friend the former Attorney General set out, the Bill breaks the general principle that promises must be kept. However, that is itself an unwritten principle of the British constitution, so this Bill is also a contravention of our constitution. Of course, it appears to breach article 5 of the withdrawal agreement, in which both the UK and EU state that they will faithfully enact the measures to fulfil their obligations arising from the new agreement. Finally, as has been pointed out, the wide powers contemplated under clause 4 are themselves are in clear conflict with the rule of law in the ministerial discretion that they confer.
In principle, this Bill is extremely unwise to say the least, but it is also, just in pragmatic terms, misguided and likely to be counterproductive. As my right hon. and learned Friend mentioned, there is no long-term solution to be reached by a unilateral attempt to impose one side’s will on a shared international treaty. Of course, there is no reason to think that this will change the EU’s behaviour in relation of Northern Ireland. Why should it? The EU’s concern is that the UK has been untrustworthy, and far from allaying that concern, the Bill actively reinforces it. If the EU made a concession in response—if by chance it struck a new agreement with the UK on the basis of the pressure supposedly conferred by this legislation—why should it believe that the UK would then abide by such an agreement? That whole rationale would already have been destroyed. Of course, for reasons already discussed today, this is merely the beginning of the potential trouble involved.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) properly talked about the integrity of the United Kingdom, and he was absolutely right to flag that up. However, another kind of integrity is at stake here: the integrity of our overall British patriotic desire to project ourselves as a nation with a historic willingness to lead in matters of reputation and international law. That integrity is being put at risk by this piece of legislation.
I am not going to support amendment 1, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, not because it is not a perfectly fine piece of drafting, but because this Bill is unamendably bad, in my judgment. I very much hope that this House will not see it through, and that if it does, the Bill will be rejected on Second Reading by the other Chamber.
My hon. Friend will recall that the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) raised the issue of the necessity standard applying in a context where a state has not contributed to that state of necessity. Does he feel that that provision has been activated or in some sense triggered by the present situation?
That is, of course, the fourth limb of the five-limb tests—that an essential interest of the EU member states should not be imperilled. I have to say that I do not think an essential interest is imperilled by this Bill, because it is clear that the risk of leakage into the EU single market has been minimal, even with the way the protocol is operating—or partially operating—now. That is probably the strongest ground that the Government have. But there is then the argument as to whether the party that invokes the doctrine of necessity has in some way contributed to the situation. I think that is more finely balanced, in fairness. I have seen the briefing from the Bingham Centre that suggests that that test is not met either. I am more prepared to give the Government some slack in that regard, but we need the evidence for that as well. After all, at the end of the day, the Government agreed the protocol—not long ago, in 2020—and did so on the basis of intending to operate it in good faith. That, of course, is a rather important reputation that this country has. My right hon. Friend is right to flag up those stages, but even before we get to them, I am not at all sure that we yet have the evidence before the House to justify the provision.