Lord Chancellor’s Oath and the Rule of Law Debate

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Department: Ministry of Justice

Lord Chancellor’s Oath and the Rule of Law

Anthony Browne Excerpts
Wednesday 14th October 2020

(3 years, 7 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Anthony Browne Portrait Anthony Browne (South Cambridgeshire) (Con)
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I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) on securing this important debate.

I should say at the outset that, like my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler), I am not a lawyer, but as a journalist I have written a lot about international law, the making and breaking of international treaties, and EU law in particular, as Europe correspondent for The Times. I have also instructed a lot of lawyers. I spent perhaps tens of millions of pounds instructing lawyers on international legal disputes—some with foreign Governments—and I am proud to say that I have won every single case in which I have been involved. Dealing with all that is a painful experience, and I have quite a lot of experience.

I will make just two points because my comments have to be brief. I will start with the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, which prompted the debate, but I will not address all the points that the hon. and learned Lady made, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury answered some of them. Secondly, I will address the impact that the Bill has on the UK’s standing, which we have not talked about much today, even though that was very much part of the political debate.

On the question whether clause 5 of the Bill breaks international law, I draw the attention of hon. Members to article 6(2) of the Northern Ireland protocol of the withdrawal agreement, which states:

“Having regard to Northern Ireland’s integral place in the United Kingdom’s internal market, the Union and the United Kingdom shall use their best endeavours to facilitate the trade between Northern Ireland and other parts of the United Kingdom”.

The lawyers present will know that “best endeavours” is a legal term and a much stronger requirement than just doing one’s best to agree.

The Government included clause 5 as an explicit response to the threat from the EU’s negotiator, Michel Barnier, that the EU would not actually recognise the UK as a third country for agricultural produce, which would effectively have made it illegal for the UK to sell goods into the single market area, particularly Northern Ireland. That would have meant a ban on trade in agricultural produce from England and Scotland to Northern Ireland, which was unconscionable.

If the Government had immediately used the powers granted by clause 5, that would have been a breach of international law, but that is not what they did. There are three triggers for using those powers: first, if no deal is reached, which we do not yet know, although I certainly hope, as does the whole House, that one is reached; secondly, if there is no agreement of the Joint Committee on the border controls in Northern Ireland; and thirdly, after a vote in Parliament, if the EU breaches best endeavours and carries out its threat not to recognise the UK as a third country for agricultural produce.

If the EU did carry out that threat, I think it would be in breach of its treaty obligations, which would release the UK from its obligations, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) mentioned. If we ever used those powers in those circumstances, in no way would they be a breach of international law. I am grateful that the Government recognised the importance of a parliamentary vote to ensure that that does not happen. I really do not think that the Bill is a breach of international law.

My second point is about the impact on the UK’s standing, which is what a lot of the political debate and concern have been about. I have written a lot about international law, and the UK has been one of the bastions of law abiding in the international community for centuries—certainly for decades—and is very well regarded by other countries.

One issue that I wrote about was the Maastricht treaty in 1992, which Sweden signed before holding a referendum on joining the euro. Sweden was committed by international treaty to joining the euro, but unfortunately, the people of Sweden said no in the referendum. Sweden said, “No, we are not going to join the euro,” and it is in permanent breach of its international treaty obligations, but that does not make Sweden a pariah state. One has to be grown up about these obligations.

I really do not think the Internal Market Bill breaches international law. I have taken advice from lots of legal friends about it, and they have reached the same conclusion. Even if it did break international law, it would not affect the UK’s international standing.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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Thank you for your brevity.