Last night, the Internal Market Bill – a controversial piece of planned legislation that will potentially rip up parts of the EU Withdrawal Act – passed its second reading in the House of Commons.
The second reading is one of the primary stages for a bill to become a statute (law), with it now being sent to the committee stage where it will face greater scrutiny. The bill will then be reported back to the House of Commons floor, where further opportunities for amendment and debate will be had, before a third vote that can approve the bill.
From there it will be sent to the House of Lords for scrutiny. If the bill passes all of the stages, it will then be signed into British law (given Royal Assent) as a formal statute by the Queen.
Why is the bill controversial?
According to the UK government, the bill is designed to “protect trade and jobs”, in a post-Brexit Britain, however, it has received criticism as it is in contravention of the Northern Ireland protocol, which was a key element of the Withdrawal Act (which, if you cast your mind back, was the bill that determined Britain’s exit from the EU).
One of its primary functions is to allow ministers to pass legislation and regulations, specifically on trade and state aid, even if they are contrary to the withdrawal agreement previously reached with the EU, under what is known as the Northern Ireland protocol.
Whilst the bill in itself does not break international law, it would allow ministers in the government the power to do so in the coming months and years, should they feel that existing legislation is incompatible with their aims.
Part of the bill states: “Any other provision or rule of domestic law that is relevant international or domestic law ceases to have effect so far and for as long as it is incompatible or inconsistent with a provision mentioned [elsewhere in the bill].”
This essentially states the bill can void any parts of certain legislation that the government does not like, which Conservative MP Brandon Lewis, in a statement to the House of Commons, admitted breached international law in “specific and limited ways”.
“International and domestic law” that the Internal Markets bill can disregard includes “any provision of the Northern Ireland Protocol [and] any other provision of the EU withdrawal agreement”, meaning that the government has the ability to override international law, agreed with the European Union, whenever and however it sees fit.
The bill has also received criticism from the devolved administrations, particularly in Stormont and Holyrood (Nothern Ireland and Scotland) who have branded the bill a power grab by Westminster, as it will potentially allow the government to renege on some powers that were supposed to be devolved under the Withdrawal Act.
What happened in Parliament?
The bill, that was proposed by the government and cleared second reading by 340-263, is controversial as it aims to rip up parts of the Withdrawal Act passed in January, that determined the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU.
A number of senior Conservatives did not support the bill last night, with many select committee chairs and QCs (Queens Council, meaning senior barristers) notably voting against it. Former Chancellor Sajid Javid and ex-attorney generals Sir Geoffrey Cox and Jeremy Wright were the most notable abstentions, whilst Sir Roger Gale and Andrew Percy voted against the bill.
By overturning parts of the Withdrawal Act, the bill could be in contravention of international law, which are statutes passed in the United Kingdom Parliament that have been agreed with other international legislatures and exist in the law of either both or multiple countries.
Overturning this is expected to seriously damage trust in the United Kingdom’s government, with countries such as the United States stating that they would not be able to do a trade deal with the UK should the Internal Markets Bill pass.
Although this is only the first stage of the bill, given Boris Johnson’s sizeable majority, it is unlikely that the bill will be stopped from becoming law; even though 32 Tory MPs did not support the government in last night’s vote (30 abstained and two voted against) it still passed by 77 votes.
Robert Buckland, the Justice Secretary in Boris Johnson’s cabinet, was reportedly “wobbly” about supporting the bill, following a string of criticism over his support potentially undermining his former legal career.
He had reportedly asked for greater scrutiny over clause 45 of the bill, which states that regulations made by ministers under the legislation cannot be found incompatible with international law, in what could prevent any future legal challenges against Downing Street if it is deemed to break international law.
One of the most significant amendments being proposed to the bill is that by Conservative chair of the Justice Select Committee, Bob Neill, which is set to be voted on next week. MPs urged the government to accept Neill’s amendment rather than proceed with the bill.
The debate around the bill was highly publicised, particularly an exchange between the prime minister and Ed Miliband – the former Labour Party leader was standing in for current leader, Keir Starmer, who is self-isolating.
Miliband attacked Johnson for not knowing the contents of the bill, whilst calling out the prime minister as incompetent: “What incompetence. What failure of governance. Boris Johnson can’t blame Theresa May, he can’t blame John Major, he can’t blame judges, he can’t blame civil servants, he can’t sack the Cabinet Secretary again. There’s only one person responsible – him!”
“From a man who says he wanted to get Brexit done and won an election on it, this bill gets Brexit undone,” says shadow minister Ed Miliband
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) September 14, 2020
The bill, according to the government, is intended to protect the United Kingdom from being broken up by the EU, with the prime minister defending the bill in an impassioned speech to the commons.
He stated that the bill “may never be invoked” but is instead a defence against an EU trade blockade against Northern Ireland; yet, as Ed Miliband pointed out, the bill will not provide for these protections that the prime minister is claiming.
Mr Johnson has been questioned on why he fought a general election – allegedly making all of his parliamentary candidates sign a document of support for the Brexit bill – when the Withdrawal Act contained provisions that the government deemed a threat to the United Kingdom.
It is expected that the bill will pass through into law in the coming weeks, but the government are continuing to take criticism for all sides, for what is perceived as ‘reckless’ governance that is damaging the status of the United Kingdom on the world stage.