Brexit news LIVE: Controversial bill which 'breaks international law' set to be published

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  • September 9, 2020
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A controversial bill which overrides elements of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal with Brussels is set to be published, after a senior minister confirmed the plan would breach international law.

The Bill, which will be tabled on Wednesday afternoon, is intended to ensure Northern Ireland can continue to enjoy unfettered access to markets in the rest of the UK. But Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told MPs the legislation would breach international law in a “very specific and limited way”.

The comment by Mr Lewis provoked a furious reaction, including from some Tory MPs, and followed news that the head of the Government Legal Department had resigned amid reports he was “very unhappy” with the proposal.

Downing Street had insisted changes in the Internal Market Bill were simply “limited clarifications” to protect the Northern Ireland peace process if they failed to secure a free trade deal with the EU.

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MEP ‘flabbergasted’ by plan to break international law over Brexit deal

A French MEP has said she was “flabbergasted” by the Government’s admission it could break international law over Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal.


Nathalie Loiseau told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’m flabbergasted by what I heard yesterday. The ink of the Withdrawal Agreement is still wet.


“We’re negotiating the future relationship and we hear that the British Government seems not to believe anymore in a rules-based order.


“This is of course a huge concern.


“And it creates questions and scepticism about how much you can trust your partner in negotiation for the future.


“You don’t break international commitments in specific and limited manners. Either you break them or you abide by them.


“Either you are legal or you are illegal.”


Senior Tory MP warns PM not to breach law over Brexit deal

A senior Tory MP has warned Boris Johnson not to breach international law over his Brexit deal, saying it would “go against everything we believe in”.


Chairman of the Commons defence committee Tobias Ellwood told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “As negotiations go down to the wire let’s not lose sight of who we are and what we stand for.


“This is about the rule of law and our resolve and commitment to uphold it. To unilaterally ignore any treaty in its obligations which we’ve signed and submitted to the United Nations would actually go against everything we believe in.”

Breaching international law over Brexit would mean the UK would “lose the moral high ground”, Mr Ellwood said. 


He  told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “How can we look at countries such as China in the eye and complain about them breaching international obligations over Hong Kong, or indeed Russia over ballistic missiles, or indeed Iran over the nuclear deal if we go down this road?


“And also we speak of global Britain, how can we also convince other states to sign up to agreements in the future if they doubt our trust at this moment.


“Our soft power is absolutely critical, it’s based on trust, on transparency, but if we go down this route we will lose the moral high ground.


“There’s an awful lot of sabre rattling at that last minute but let’s stay focused on what we believe in and securing that deal. It was the Prime Minister that said that there would be a failure of statecraft if we didn’t secure a deal.


“Let’s hold our nerve at this difficult time but let’s also not forget what Britain stands for.”


Hancock ‘comfortable’ with UK breaking law on EU withdrawal agreement

Matt Hancock has said he is “comfortable” with the fact the UK is willing to break international law on the EU withdrawal agreement.


When asked by Times Radio if he was comfortable with a minister saying the UK was willing to break international law, he replied: “I am.”


He continued: “The primary international obligation around this issue is to protect the peace process in Northern Ireland and I very much hope we conclude a deal before the end of the transition period.


“I think that we will and it is in everybody’s interest to do so as we did last time, but I also understand why ministers have chosen to prioritise at the absolute top of that the importance of protecting the peace process in Northern Ireland.”


The controversial legislation which would “breach international law” is set to be published today… 


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Government can’t just ‘renege on its contract’ – Tory MP

Conservative MP Sir Bob Neill, who challenged Brandon Lewis over whether changes in the Internal Market Bill were consistent with the UK’s international legal obligations, said breaking the law would damage Britain’s reputation.

Sir Bob told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme: “When we signed the Withdrawal Agreement, with its protocol, we registered it as an international treaty with the UN. Therefore it has the force of international law.

“So whatever we seek to do, and I hope that we are able to resolve these issues … if we find something that we signed up to inconvenient – I’m afraid that doesn’t mean that you can renege on your contract, if you like.

“That would damage our reputation long term. It would be nice if we could sometimes, but you can’t and you shouldn’t.

“I think that’s the point that I’m concerned about and so I hope very much that the Government will not go down a route of putting us in a position where we breach an international agreement that we signed up to.”


Sir Keir Starmer has urged Boris Johnson not to “reopen old wounds” and to get a trade deal with the EU as he criticised the Government’s admission it could break international law over Brexit as “wrong”.

The Labour leader called on the Prime Minister today to return his attention to the coronavirus pandemic by ensuring negotiations with Brussels are successful.

Sir Keir’s message came after Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis admitted the Government’s plan to over-ride elements of Mr Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement with Brussels would breach international law.

The head of the Government Legal Department, Sir Jonathan Jones, resigned amid reports he was “very unhappy” with the proposal.

During a series of broadcast interviews, Sir Keir told Channel 5 News: “What I would say to the Government is don’t reopen old wounds, get a deal, move on and concentrate on defeating this virus.”

He criticised the plan to introduce new legislation over-riding elements of the Withdrawal Agreement and suggested Mr Johnson could be using the proposal as a distraction.

He told Sky News: “What the Government is proposing is wrong, I think that’s plain for everybody to see. But we need to step back here and focus on getting a deal.

“There’s certainly a case to be made that this is all just being used as leverage in the negotiations and that’s wrong in principle.

“Getting a deal is in the national interest, that’s what the public want, that’s what they were promised. The outstanding issues are not difficult, they can be resolved.

“A deal can be struck in the next few weeks, the issues outstanding are not unsurmountable. To have no deal would be a failure of negotiation, a failure that has to be owned by the Prime Minister.”

He said he was not working with Conservative MPs riled by the proposal in order to table an amendment and block the move in a parliamentary manoeuvre.

He told Sky News: “I’ve not been talking cross-party on this issue because I’m very focused on the national interest which is getting a deal.”

Sir Keir said he knew Sir Jonathan during his career as a lawyer, vouched for him as a professional and said he would not have resigned “lightly”.

The Labour leader told Sky: “Jonathan is a first-class lawyer who has given excellent advice over the years and I’m absolutely sure he wouldn’t have done this lightly.

“I haven’t spoken to him but I have known him for many years.”


Boris Johnson’s Brexit plans came under fierce fire today after a Cabinet minister admitted that they would break international law as the Pound plunged on fear of No Deal.

Senior Tories including Theresa May warned that backtracking over the Withdrawal Agreement risked damaging trust in Britain and that “adherence to the rule of law is not negotiable”.

In an extraordinary days of developments on Brexit, Sir Jonathan Jones, the head of the Government Legal Department, resigned amid reported anger over suggestions that the Prime Minister is planning to override elements of the “divorce pact” from the EU.


Future trade deals could hinge on ‘archaic powers’, Lords told

Labour spokesman Lord Stevenson of Balmacara warned his party would seek to amend the legislation to ensure appropriate parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals.

He said trade policies would be determined with fewer opportunities for scrutiny and debate inside and outside Parliament unless the Bill was altered.

Unless the Bill is amended ministers will be free to negotiate future trade deals using “archaic” powers and “almost entirely avoiding accountability to Parliament”, he insisted.

He said it was not acceptable for trade policy to be “off limits” for both the Commons and the Lords.

For the Liberal Democrats, Baroness Kramer also warned about the potential lack of scrutiny for trade deals, saying Parliament’s role was being largely reduced to a “talking shop and bystander”.

Labour former Cabinet minister Lord Adonis said the best trade policy was membership of the EU and warned the move away from the single market would result in a “dire situation”.

Lord Adonis insisted the Lords should reject outright any Bill which involved “abrogating the withdrawal agreement and Northern Ireland protocol agreed by Boris Johnson last year”.


Over in the Lords, the topic of chlorinated chicken has come up as the peers discuss trade

The Government is committed to upholding the UK’s “world-class” food safety and animal welfare standards, peers have been told.

Business minister Lord Grimstone of Boscobel said chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef were not permitted for import into the UK.

In his maiden Lords speech, Lord Grimstone said: “Food imported or produced in the UK will always be safe.”

He was opening the second reading debate on the Trade Bill, which has already cleared the Commons, as talks between the UK and the EU on a post-Brexit trade deal resumed.

Lord Grimstone said the UK now had the opportunity to determine its own rules, defend its national interest and “champion free, fair rules-based trade globally”.

He said the Bill was about providing continuity for existing trade agreements that were in place through the EU while establishing an independent trade remedies authority to protect British business against unfair trading practice.

Lord Grimstone vowed that the implementation of new free trade agreements would be subject to separate scrutiny arrangements and Parliament would retain the right to block any treaties from being ratified.

“Parliament will retain the right to reject any domestic implementing legislation necessary for a trade deal,” he told peers.


Conservative MP Roger Gale joins in the criticism:

“Seeking to renegotiate the Northern Ireland Protocol will be regarded worldwide as an act of bad faith,” he said on Twitter.


Conservative MP and former minister George Freeman also criticises the Government’s move to override the Withdrawal Agreement

He tweeted: “Oh dear. That sound you hear? It’s the sound of the Supreme Court preparing to remind ministers that intentionally breaking the law – even in a very specific and limited way – is, well, unlawful.”


‘Adherence to the rule of law is not negotiable’, says Tory MP

Conservative MP Sir Bob Neil tweeted: “Any breach, or potential breach, of the international legal obligations we have entered into is unacceptable, regardless of whether it’s in a ‘specific’ or ‘limited way’.

“Adherence to the rule of law is not negotiable.”

Alongside the tweet, he shared a video of himself questioning the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis.

Speaking in the House of Commons, the MP for Bromley and Chislehurst sought reassurance that nothing proposed in the legislation “does, or potentially might breach, international obligations, or international legal arrangements that we have entered into”, and asked Mr Lewis if any ministerial direction was given to the decision.


Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said “there are some precedents” for countries to break international law in trade arrangements

Labour MP Fleur Anderson (Putney) asked: “What message does the Secretary of State think it says about our word that the UK is prepared to break international law at times?”

Responding, Mr Lewis said: “There are some precedents in very specific technical circumstances in countries around the world, including some of those we will be looking to and are working to secure trade deals, to vary their position on international law as I outlined we will be doing in this situation.”

Labour MP Wes Streeting (Ilford North) said: “Given that he (Mr Lewis) has just conceded the Government is proposing arrangements that would break international treaties, why should anyone at home or abroad trust a single word this Government says?”

In response, Mr Lewis said: “Countries around the world will look at our wider positions, as I said earlier on today, around international law and the rule of law, and I think we are a beacon around the world for that.”


Lib Dems leader Ed Davey reacts:


Alliance Party leader Naomi Long reacts:

Ms Long said on Twitter: “The Secretary of State for NI has just conceded in Parliament that Govt are about to break international law. His defence seems to be that ‘it’s only in a very limited way’.

“I’m not sure you can be a little bit illegal. It’s a bit like being a little bit pregnant.”


Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis says UK proposals linked to the Withdrawal Agreement will “break international law in a very specific and limited way”

Tory chairman of the Justice Select Committee Sir Bob Neill said: “The Secretary of State has said that he is committed and the Government are committed to the rule of law. Does he recognise that adherence to the rule of law is not negotiable?

“Against that background, will he assure us that nothing that is proposed in this legislation does or potentially might breach international legal obligations or international legal arrangements that we have entered into?”

Mr Lewis replied: “I would say to (Sir Bob Neill) that yes this does break international law in a very specific and limited way.

“We are taking the power to dis-apply the EU concept of direct effect required by Article 4 in a certain, very tightly defined circumstances.”

He added that “there are clear precedents for the UK and indeed other countries needing to consider their international obligations as circumstances change”.


DUP minister challenges Government on whether it has ‘tinfoil spine’ to secure best outcome for Northern Ireland

DUP MP Ian Paisley asked if the Government has the mettle or a “tinfoil spine” when it comes to securing the best outcome for Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole in negotiations with the EU.

Mr Paisley (North Antrim) said any customs arrangement that impacts on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK in either direction is “unacceptable and must be stopped”.

He added in the Commons: “Has this Government the mettle, or do they have a tinfoil spine when it comes to standing up to our detractors in Brussels and our debtors in the Republic of Ireland?

“Give the people of Northern Ireland the certainty, give the businesses the certainty they deserve.”

Conservative former minister Sir John Redwood said the EU must abide by its commitment to respect the restoration of UK sovereignty and work for a free trade tariff-free agreement, telling the Commons: “If the EU kept its word on these two colossally important points, the problems they’ve created in Northern Ireland would disappear.”


Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy reacts: