You are currently browsing the daily archive for September 24, 2020.

The first part of a review of last week in Parliament concerned coronavirus with a follow-on here.

The other big debates last week were about the Internal Market Bill, a legislative safeguard to preserve Britain’s sovereignty after the Brexit transition period concludes at the end of the year.

Talks with the EU have reached an impasse. Worse, the EU wants to take Northern Ireland hostage, as it were, with the possibility that food from other parts of Britain might be prohibited from reaching it. Absurd, but that is the state of play.

On Saturday, September 12, Steve Baker tweeted:

The Telegraph article in Steve Baker’s tweet explains (emphases mine):

Boris Johnson has accused the European Union of threatening to impose a food “blockade” in the Irish Sea that would destroy the “economic and territorial integrity of the UK”.

Writing in The Telegraph, the Prime Minister made a passionate defence of his decision to alter the Brexit divorce deal, saying he has to protect Britain from the “disaster” of handing Brussels the “power to carve up our country”.

He also issued a direct plea to Tory MPs threatening to rebel over his plans, telling them that, if they stand in his way, they will reduce the chance of getting a trade deal with the EU.

Mr Johnson insisted a Canada-style trade deal with the bloc is still possible and remains his goal, but that Brussels must “take their threats off the table” and rebel MPs must get into line. He also believes the UK will still “prosper mightily” under a narrower, Australia-style trade deal.

The Prime Minister claimed the EU could effectively impose a food blockade across the Irish Sea by refusing to grant the UK approved “third party” status for food exports, which officials say Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, has “explicitly” threatened.

The Withdrawal Agreement gives the EU oversight over goods of animal origin being transported from the mainland to Northern Ireland for four years, meaning Brussels could use an “extreme interpretation” to impose tariffs or declare such trade illegal

The Government is trying to rush through legislation that would amend the Withdrawal Agreement and in particular its Northern Ireland protocol.

Mr Johnson argues that he has been forced to act because of a “serious misunderstanding” in Brussels about the terms of the agreement, and must unilaterally make changes to it because it has become a “danger to the very fabric of the United Kingdom”.

The EU has told Mr Johnson that, unless he backtracks by the end of the month, the trade talks are over

That weekend, the news was full of MPs, senior legal experts and former Prime Ministers saying that Boris Johnson’s proposals were a ‘violation of international law’:

On Friday a group of more than a dozen MPs, among them former ministers, signalled that they would press ahead with attempts to bar the Government from overriding the Withdrawal Agreement without the support of Parliament

In the House of Commons, Sir Bob Neill, an avowed Remainer, led the rebel charge. Neill is:

the chairman of the Commons justice committee, who has already secured the backing of Damian Green, Theresa May’s former deputy, and ex-solicitor general Sir Oliver Heald.

The Remain media gave airtime to those who said this proposal violates international law, a distinctly Remainer stance. In 2018, Theresa May watered down an excellent Brexit plan — Canada ++. Boris pushed a stronger ‘deal’ last autumn. Now Boris sees what the EU could do next year if the UK doesn’t close this loophole.

In short, those who oppose Boris’s proposed legislation are Remainers. Those who support it are Leavers.

This became evident in Parliamentary debates last week and this week.

On Monday, talkRADIO interviewed two Leavers.

Sir Desmond Swayne gave an early morning interview:

Labour Peer — and Leaver — Kate Hoey went on the air later:

Guido Fawkes published the full text of the bill.

The second reading of the bill took place on Monday, September 14. Excerpts from the debate follow.

Boris introduced the second reading, emphasising its importance to the Union:

The creation of our United Kingdom by the Acts of Union of 1707 and 1801 was not simply a political event, but an act of conscious economic integration that laid the foundations for the world’s first industrial revolution and the prosperity we enjoy today. When other countries in Europe stayed divided, we joined our fortunes together and allowed the invisible hand of the market to move Cornish pasties to Scotland, Scottish beef to Wales, Welsh beef to England, and Devonshire clotted cream to Northern Ireland or wherever else it might be enjoyed.

When we chose to join the EU back in 1973, we also thereby decided that the EU treaties should serve as the legal guarantor of these freedoms. Now that we have left the EU and the transition period is about to elapse, we need the armature of our law once again to preserve the arrangements on which so many jobs and livelihoods depend. That is the fundamental purpose of this Bill, which should be welcomed by everyone who cares about the sovereignty and integrity of our United Kingdom.

We shall provide the legal certainty relied upon by every business in our country, including, of course, in Northern Ireland. The manifesto on which this Government were elected last year promised business in Northern Ireland “unfettered access to the rest of the UK”.

Sir Bob Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst, Con) spoke, asking about upholding ‘the rule of law’, a popular theme among Remainer MPs:

I have listened carefully to what the Prime Minister says, but does he accept that were our interlocutors in the EU to behave in such an egregious fashion, which would clearly be objectionable and unacceptable to us, there is already provision under the withdrawal agreement for an arbitrary arrangement to be put in place? Were we to take reserve powers, does he accept that those reserve powers should be brought into force only as a final backstop if we have, in good faith, tried to act under the withdrawal agreement and are then frustrated? The timing under which they come into force is very important for our reputation as upholders of the rule of law.

The PM responded:

there is the question of tariffs in the Irish sea. When we signed the protocol, we accepted that goods “at risk” of going from Great Britain into the EU via Northern Ireland should pay the EU tariff as they crossed the Irish sea—we accepted that—but that any goods staying within Northern Ireland would not do so. The protocol created a joint committee to identify, with the EU, which goods were at risk of going into Ireland. That sensible process was one achievement of our agreement, and our view is that that forum remains the best way of solving that question.

I am afraid that some in the EU are now relying on legal defaults to argue that every good is “at risk”, and therefore liable for tariffs. That would mean tariffs that could get as high as 90% by value on Scottish beef going to Northern Ireland, and moving not from Stranraer to Dublin but from Stranraer to Belfast within our United Kingdom. There would be tariffs of potentially more than 61% on Welsh lamb heading from Anglesey to Antrim, and of potentially more than 100% on clotted cream moving from Torridge—to pick a Devonshire town at random—to Larne. That is unreasonable and plainly against the spirit of that protocol

MPs on the Opposition benches were restive. The PM said:

To answer the questions that are being shouted at me from a sedentary position, last year we signed the withdrawal agreement in the belief, which I still hold, that the EU would be reasonable. After everything that has recently happened, we must consider the alternative. We asked for reasonableness, common sense, and balance, and we still hope to achieve that through the joint committee process, in which we will always persevere, no matter what the provocation.

Jeremy Wright (Kenilworth and Southam, Con) asked about violating international law:

When I was the Attorney General in the previous Government, I was happy to confirm that the ministerial code obliged Ministers to comply with international as well as domestic law. This Bill will give Ministers overt authority to break international law. Has the position on the ministerial code changed?

The PM replied:

No, not in the least. My right hon. and learned Friend can consult the Attorney General’s position on that. After all, what this Bill is simply seeking to do is insure and protect this country against the EU’s proven willingness—that is the crucial point—to use this delicately balanced protocol in ways for which it was never intended.

The Bill includes our first step to protect our country against such a contingency by creating a legal safety net taking powers in reserve, whereby Ministers can guarantee the integrity of our United Kingdom. I understand how some people will feel unease over the use of these powers, and I share that sentiment. I say to my right hon. and learned Friend that I have absolutely no desire to use these measures. They are an insurance policy, and if we reach agreement with our European friends, which I still believe is possible, they will never be invoked. Of course, it is the case that the passing of this Bill does not constitute the exercising of these powers.

Ed Miliband (Doncaster North, Lab) moved an amendment on behalf of Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who was not in the Chamber as he was self-isolating. Note ‘the rule of law’:

I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “That” to the end of the Question and add:

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 and the UK’s ability to enforce other international trade deals and protect jobs and the economy.”

There are two questions at the heart of the Bill and of why we will oppose it tonight. First, how do we get an internal market after 1 January within the UK while upholding the devolution settlements, which have been a vital part of our constitution for two decades and are essential to our Union? Secondly, will our country abide by the rule of law—a rules-based international order, for which we are famous around the world and have always stood up?

Those are not small questions. They go to the heart of who we are as a country and the character of this Government

After interventions from a few MPs, Miliband openly challenged the PM, which had to be seen to be believed, it was that bold:

there is also an irony here—the Prime Minister tried to slip this in; I do not know whether the House noticed—which is that this Bill does precisely nothing to address the issue of the transport of food from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. It is about two issues where the Government are going to override international law: exit declarations, Northern Ireland to GB, and the definition of state aid relating to Northern Ireland. If the Prime Minister wants to tell us that there is another part of the Bill that I have not noticed that will deal with this supposed threat of blockade, I will very happily give way to him. I am sure he has read it; I am sure he knows it in detail, because he is a details man. Come on, tell us: what clause protects against the threat, which he says he is worried about, to GB-to-Northern Ireland exports? I give way to him. [Interruption.]

As the PM smouldered at Miliband’s arrogance, Deputy Speaker Dame Eleanor Laing intervened:

Order. The right hon. Gentleman cannot give way unless he is asked to.

Miliband carried on ranting, ending with:

I do not understand this. He signed the deal. It is his deal. It is the deal that he said would protect the people of Northern Ireland. I have to say to him, this is not just legislative hooliganism on any issue; it is on one of the most sensitive issues of all. I think we should take the word of two former Prime Ministers of this country who helped to secure peace in Northern Ireland.

An indignant Sammy Wilson (East Antrim, DUP) intervened:

Before the shadow spokesman lectures the Prime Minister about reading documentation or starts lecturing us about the Good Friday agreement, does he not recognise, first of all, that the Good Friday agreement talks about the principle of consent to change the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, which is what this protocol does? The Good Friday agreement has within it a mechanism to safeguard the minorities in Northern Ireland through a cross-community vote, which again the protocol removed. So before he starts talking about the threats to the Good Friday agreement, does he not recognise that the protocol was a threat to it in the first place?

Miliband replied to Sammy Wilson, then went on to invoke other Remainers, Theresa May and former PM John Major:

The right hon. Gentleman did not like the protocol at all. He would rather have not had the protocol. He and I just have a disagreement on this issue. I believe it was necessary to make special arrangements for Northern Ireland, or for the UK to be in the EU customs union to avoid a hard border in Ireland. That is why the Prime Minister came along and said the protocol was the right thing to do

Let us just get this straight for a minute, because I think it is important to take a step back. The Prime Minister is coming to the House to tell us today that his flagship achievement—the deal he told us was a triumph, the deal he said was oven-ready, the deal on which he fought and won the general election—is now contradictory and ambiguous. What incompetence. What failure of governance. How dare he try to blame everyone else? I say to the Prime Minister that this time he cannot blame the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), he cannot blame John Major, he cannot blame the judges, he cannot blame the civil servants, he cannot sack the Cabinet Secretary again. There is only one person responsible for it and that is him. This is his deal. It is his mess. It is his failure. For the first time in his life, it is time to take responsibility. It is time to ’fess up: either he was not straight with the country about the deal in the first place, or he did not understand it.

Enough of Miliband.

Sir William Cash (Stone, Con) spoke on behalf of the bill:

There has never been a level playing field in the EU. Its cardinal objective in these negotiations from the outset has included preventing us from being able to compete fairly. That is not good faith. Under the protocol, the EU would even control our legal tax freedom to create freeports and enterprise zones. All of this would massively undermine our businesses and jobs and therefore our voters

He gave several examples of how the EU operates unfairly, then concluded:

The EU seeks to subject us to a foreign regulator, taking essentially political decisions and armed with undemocratic prohibition powers and authorisations. It would be unconscionable and utterly naive for us to allow that to happen. It would be contrary to our national interests at this time of economic instability generated by coronavirus.

You can watch his speech in full here:

Leavers thought it was an excellent performance:

Bill Cash is part of the pro-Brexit ERG (European Research Group), which issued a three-page briefing memo explaining the importance of passing the Internal Market Bill. Guido Fawkes published it in full.

The SNP’s Ian Blackford (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) gave his ‘Scotland’ speech once again and made an egregious emotional appeal, invoking, like other Remainers, the rule of law:

Every Member has a choice. We know that the Bill breaks international law—so many learned individuals, including the previous Attorney General, have told us so. Tonight, this House can tell the Government that it is not on and that this House is not going to be complicit in a breach of international law. I venture that that is the responsibility that each Member has. Every Member—every Member, Madam Deputy Speaker—should examine their conscience. This is about a Bill that breaches the terms of a treaty, the ink of which is barely dry and on the delivery of which the governing party fought an election.

As is his wont, he spoke for ages, taking interventions from Labour MPs supporting his position.

Blackford said that the bill would hamper further devolution. Michael Gove, the Chancellor for the Duchy of Lancaster, asked how.

Blackford replied:

I hear the Cabinet Office Minister shout, “How?” Perhaps he should go and talk to the General Teaching Council, and it will give him its views directly. [Interruption.] Really? We have the Business Secretary, who is supposed to be taking this Bill through, sitting laughing—laughing at the legitimate comments made by stakeholders in Scotland. It is little wonder that the Tories are rejected in the way they are at the polls in Scotland

Sir Bob Neill began to come around to see the positive points in the bill yet said he could still not support it without amendments being added.

Sammy Wilson responded, making an excellent point:

The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) said that we have obligations to the rule of law and obligations to the EU. What about the obligations to the people of the United Kingdom to ensure the provisions of the Act of Union? The economic basis of the Act of Union makes it quite clear that there shall be no barriers on trade between different parts of the United Kingdom. I believe that the Government are fulfilling, in part, their obligations to the people of Northern Ireland in this Bill, and that is why we will support it tonight.

There were many excellent contributions from Brexit-supporting Conservative MPs. Opposition MPs were feisty and the debate was lively.

That evening, the bill passed — 340 to 263:

Guido has the list of Conservative abstentions. Theresa May’s name was among those listed.

The Labour amendment to reject the bill entirely failed by 349 votes to 213. TalkRADIO has an analysis.

The bill then moved on to Committee Stage.

On Tuesday, September 15, MPs debated various clauses and amendments.

That might sound boring, but it made for excellent viewing on BBC Parliament. Sparks were flying left and right.

SNP MPs insisted that the bill would decrease their powers under devolution. This is an argument that Conservatives, rightly, find absurd.

Paul Bristow (Peterborough, Con) asked the SNP’s Drew Hendry (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey):

The hon. Gentleman called the Office for the Internal Market an unelected quango. Does he accept that, if he had his way, he would be handing powers back to unelected quangos in Brussels?

Drew Hendry replied:

This is the argument that Government Members try to propagate all the time—that if these powers came to Scotland, they would immediately be transferred to unelected people in the EU. Two things are wrong with that. First, nobody in the EU is actually unelected when they make decisions; they are all elected by either the Parliament or the people who go there. The second and most fundamental point is that, under these proposals, the UK Government are simply taking all control and overriding the ability of Members of the Scottish Parliament to do their job by representing the people who voted for them and their choices.

The SNP fear that the UK Parliament will make decisions that override the spending wishes of the Scottish Government. It’s possible but probably unlikely. Still, would that not be better than the EU making those decisions? According to the SNP, no, it would not.

Bill Cash intervened in an attempt to add reason to the debate:

The arguments that I have just heard from the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) are, in my judgment, completely unjustified. [Interruption.] He might expect me to say that; it is hardly surprising. The reality is that the Bill is intended to provide for independent advice and monitoring through the creation of this internal market within the Competition and Markets Authority arrangements. What the provision clearly states—far from it being just a bunch of nodding donkeys, which is more or less what the hon. Gentleman is saying—is that it will be a non-ministerial department, albeit sponsored by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and it will have an enormous amount and range of experience and knowledge brought from its predecessor.

Hendry asked him who would be in the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

Cash replied, dryly:

What I can say for sure is that it will not be the European Union, and that summarises the argument in a nutshell.

Cash elaborated on the danger of EU interference:

We will need to be able to compete effectively throughout the world. This is a serious matter about a serious issue. What we cannot have, as I mentioned yesterday, is the situation that we have at the moment, which is where authorisations are given by the European Commission that either create discrimination against British businesses or have the perception or the potential for doing so. They will affect the voters in Scotland—and the voters in Sheffield, if I may say so. I was brought up in Sheffield. I saw what the European Coal and Steel Community did to the British steel industry. [Interruption.] I hear what the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) says. The reality is that those businesses were driven out of business by, in many cases, unfair subsidies and unfair state aids that were given to other member states. I can give an example. I happened to know many people who worked at the coalface—I used to play cricket with them when I played for Sheffield—and I can tell Members that the Sheffield steelworkers, whom I also played with on occasion, sometimes it was rugger, found that they were very severely jeopardised by the massive state aids that were given to the German coal industry—it was as much as £4 billion—and authorised by the Commission. For a variety of reasons, we did not get the same kind of treatment here in the United Kingdom. This is all part of the problem of how to have fair and reasonable competition.

Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West, SNP) directed her comment to Cash, unintentionally getting the soundbite of the day in his reply:

I am going to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question. The Scottish National party wants Scotland to remain part of the European Union—a single market of more than 500 million consumers. The SNP does not wish to put up trade barriers with England. It is his party that wishes to enforce upon us trade barriers if we dare to exercise our democratic right of self-determination, which he has spent the last 40 years banging on about in this House for England.

Cash’s reply was brilliant:

If I may say so, not unsuccessfully.

Cherry was clearly irritated:

That remains to be seen.

There is too much to quote from this lively debate, so do read it here.

An Opposition amendment and a clause were defeated.

The debate in Committee Stage continued on Wednesday, September 16. The Opposition brought forward more amendments.

The theme of devolution continued. Discussion about a possible threat to Welsh devolution accompanied the concerns of Scottish SNP MPs.

John Lamont, a Conservative MP representing the Scottish constituency of Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk asked the SNP’s Alison Thewlis why she thought the UK government was working against Scotland’s interests:

The hon. Lady is giving a typically bitter speech around the role of the UK Government into Scotland. Does she not accept that the UK Government and the Scottish Government have worked very closely together on the growth deals and city deals in Scotland? They are very good examples of what can be achieved in Scotland with both Governments working together, rather than the attitude that she takes of opposing everything that this place does.

Thewliss replied:

I am very interested that the hon. Gentleman raises growth deals, because every single growth deal in Scotland has been short-changed by the UK Government. The Scottish Government have put in more than the UK Government to those growth deals and we are still waiting for the money for some of those growth deals to be realised.

Andrew Bowie, another Conservative MP representing a Scottish constituency (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) couldn’t change her mind, either.

The Conservatives brought logic to the debate, something Opposition MPs were unable to do.

A Labour amendment, brought forward by Ed Miliband, requiring financial assistance to be the subject of a framework agreement to be agreed by resolution of each House of Parliament was defeated: 330-208.

That day, Boris Johnson appeared before a Select Committee to explain why the Internal Market Bill was necessary:

He told Labour MP Hilary Benn that he thought the EU representatives were negotiating in bad faith:

It is always possible that I am mistaken. Perhaps they will prove my suspicions wrong.

On Thursday, September 17, Guido Fawkes outlined the debates which took place this week (emphases in the original):

The Government will table two amendments to its own Bill on Tuesday, firstly a redrafted version of the Neill Amendment – setting in stone the need for a parliamentary vote beyond the requirements of ordinary statutory instruments, and secondly a clause to prevent significant litigation of the enactment of the controversial provisions. Tightening up the ability to deploy with the consent of the House.

Of course, the Government insists it still does not want to have to use these powers of last resort. But now it will have them in case the EU don’t offer concessions…

I’ll cover those tomorrow.

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