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UK government suffers heavy defeat over controversial ‘law-breaking’ Brexit powers

Conservative former leader Lord Howard of Lympne led the calls for the Prime Minister to ‘think again’.

The House of Lords when the Withdrawal Agreement was being debated in January.
The House of Lords when the Withdrawal Agreement was being debated in January.
Image: Kirsty Wigglesworth

Updated Nov 9th 2020, 11:09 PM

BORIS JOHNSON HAS suffered a major defeat over his controversial Brexit legislation, as peers staged votes to strip out powers that would enable ministers to break international law.

Conservative former leader Lord Howard of Lympne led the calls for the Prime Minister to “think again” and remove the contentious parts of the UK Internal Market Bill, warning that the Government is using the language of “law breakers” everywhere.

Cross-party amendments were tabled to strike out clauses linked to the most contentious part of the Bill, namely part five, which gives ministers the power to breach the Brexit divorce deal – known as the Withdrawal Agreement – brokered with Brussels last year.

The House of Lords voted 433 to 165, majority 268, to remove section 42 – one of the disputed clauses – and section 43 was removed without a vote.

This was the first of two expected votes to remove the relevant sections that make up part five.

Ministers have insisted powers to override the Withdrawal Agreement are needed to protect the relationship between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but critics argue the powers are not necessary.

Baroness Angela Smith, Labour’s leader in the House of Lords, said in a statement: “I am sure some in Government will initially react with bravado and try to dismiss tonight’s historic votes in the Lords.

“To do so, however, would underestimate the genuine and serious concerns across the UK and beyond about ministers putting themselves above and beyond the rule of law.

The Government should see sense, accept the removal of these offending clauses, and start to rebuild our international reputation.

Peers went on to inflict a further defeat on the Government by 407 votes to 148, majority 259, stripping out a further contentious clause relating to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

All the other controversial provisions were removed without votes.

Legislation

The legislation aims to make changes to how trade will operate within the UK after it leaves the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union. This includes making decisions on Northern Ireland that are contrary to the Withdrawal Agreement it ratified this year.

Cross-party amendments were tabled to strike out clauses linked to the most contentious part of the Bill, ‘Part Five’ which gives a British minister the power to breach the Withdrawal Agreement and make unilateral decisions in relation to Northern Ireland without consulting the EU.

Peers were expected to take the unusual step of holding votes at committee stage (marked by a ‘C’ on this graphic) to remove these sections of the Bill, rather than waiting for report stage at the end of the process, signalling the level of opposition to the measures.

Ministers have insisted powers to override the Withdrawal Agreement are needed to protect the relationship between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but critics argue the powers are not necessary.

Speaking ahead of the expected votes, Howard said “nothing has changed” since Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis admitted the Bill breaks international law in a “very specific and limited way”.

He said: “Since then, as far as I’m aware, no government minister has sought to resile from his words.

“Instead, what ministers have done, both in your Lordships’ House and elsewhere, is to seek to make the case that circumstances make it expedient to break international law.

Isn’t that what lawbreakers always say? Isn’t that the excuse of lawbreakers everywhere? What sort of a precedent is the government setting when it admits that position?
How can we reproach other countries – Russia, China, Iran – if their behaviour becomes reprehensible when we ourselves have such scant regard for the treaties we sign up to, when we ourselves set such a lamentable example?

Brexit-backer Howard went on: “There have been some suggestions that opposition to this part of the Bill is in some way the last charge of the Remainers.

“That suggestion has a very dangerous implication for those who advance it.

“It implies that only those who voted for us to remain in the European Union care about the rule of law, or the importance of keeping one’s words, or the sanctity of international treaties.

“Fortunately, I am in a position which enables me confidently to contradict that implication. I voted and campaigned for Brexit and I do not for one moment regret or resile from that vote.

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“But I want the independent sovereign state that I voted for to be a country which holds its head up high in the world, that keeps its word, that upholds the rule of law and that honours its treaty obligations.”

Other contributions

Many unionists feel “deeply frustrated” about the proposed trading arrangements between Northern Ireland and Great Britain at the end of the transition period, Nigel Dodds said.

The DUP’s former Westminster leader told the Lords: “Just as it is unacceptable to nationalists to have that border on the island of Ireland, it is equally unacceptable to create barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

“That is why we feel strongly that some of the emphasis on the Belfast Agreement that has been made in this House and other places has I think erred somewhat to emphasise one side of the situation.

Many, many unionists feel deeply, deeply frustrated and angry tonight in Northern Ireland about the way in which it’s OK to have a free border north-south but you can do whatever you like east-west.

“We must come to sensible, pragmatic arrangements.”

Independent crossbench peer Igor Judge, a former head of the judiciary, advised the House of Lords should be “neither complicit nor supine” and should vote against clauses in the Bill.

Richard Newby, Liberal Democrat leader in the Lords, added: “If we can’t take a view on a matter of deliberate law-breaking by the government we may as well pack up our bags now.”

Tory Baroness Noakes said the Bill was a “responsible approach by the Government to protect the interests of the UK but particularly the interests of Northern Ireland”.

Tory former lord chancellor Lord Mackay spoke of his “shock” over the British government’s move and insisted the rule of law was a fundamental part of the UK’s constitutional arrangements.

Tory Lord Cormack said the law-breaking clauses in the Bill must go and threatened to vote against them “again and again” if necessary.

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