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Government should remove Part 5 of the UK Internal Market Bill

16 October 2020

The House of Lords EU Committee has today published its report on the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill: Part 5. The report expresses the hope that the Government will remove Part 5 of the UK Internal Market Bill, which the Committee says authorises breaches of the UK’s international law obligations under the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland and the Withdrawal Agreement.

The Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland and the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement contain various safeguards, including arbitration and dispute resolution procedures that could be invoked by the UK if the EU failed to comply with its obligations under the Protocol. The Committee notes that rather than using these safeguards, the Government has instead acted unilaterally, by means of Part 5 of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill.

This gives Ministers powers to make regulations over-riding the Withdrawal Agreement and Protocol, which were ratified by the UK only in January 2020. On 8 September 2020, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland told the House of Commons that the Bill “break[s] international law in a very specific and limited way”. Since that time the Government has failed either to formally retract the statement, or to put forward a coherent or consistent argument to support the lawfulness of the Bill.

The Committee wrote to the Government on 18 September 2020 seeking clarification of the Government’s position on the Bill, and asked for evidence to support allegations that the EU had not been acting in good faith. By the day the report was agreed, on 13 October, the Government had not responded to the Committee’s letter.

The report

The Committee highlights the tension that is inherent in the Protocol’s objectives, which include maintaining the UK’s territorial integrity and internal market, protecting the EU’s Single Market and customs union, and an over-arching commitment to protect the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and its three interlocking Strands governing North-South, East-West and internal Northern Ireland relationships. The Committee notes that the UK Internal Market Bill, in focusing on the first of these objectives, fails adequately to reflect the others.

The report finds that the Government has failed to provide any evidence to support allegations against the EU, or to explain why it chose to address its concerns by means of domestic legislation rather than through the safeguards provided in the Withdrawal Agreement and Protocol.

The report notes that until the Government formally retracts the Secretary of State’s statement and puts forward a coherent and consistent argument to support the lawfulness of the Bill, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Part 5 of the Bill contravenes international law. It is also clear that this breach of international law has been entered into knowingly.

The report also concludes that the Government’s pre-emptive action has placed the United Kingdom in the wrong, and damaged its international reputation as a defender of the rule of law. The Committee therefore hopes that the Government will indicate its intention to remove Part 5 from the Bill.

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