The amendments by the House of Lords to the Government’s Markets Bill have sparked an email surge from both protagonists and antagonists.
The latter are outraged and demand the abolition of the Lords, but the former applaud the action by the Lords and demand that I vote against any attempt in the Commons to restore the deleted clauses.
The bill is designed to ensure that any good or service produced in one part of the UK enjoys ready access to any other part of the UK.
The controversial clauses involve a potential conflict with the Northern Ireland Protocol in our Withdrawal Agreement from the EU.
The accusation is that the bill ‘breaks international law’.
The concept of international law is clearly misunderstood by my correspondents.
In the UK you may not ‘jump’ a red traffic light because there is a law against it. International law largely does not exist in that same sense. Instead it exists in treaties between consenting parties:
We won’t jump a red light only because we agreed that we wouldn’t.
Some of these agreements have grievance procedures written into them in order to arbitrate when there is a dispute between the parties about an action by one of them which allegedly breaks a provision of the treaty.
The European Court of Justice has before it a long list of cases still to be settled involving proceedings against EU members. Whilst you can make it sound awesome by saying that the member states in question are alleged to have ‘broken international law’. The reality is that its an arbitration between signatories to an agreement.
The World Trade Organisation maintains a similar arbitration process for trade disputes between its members. It also has a long list of alleged infractions to settle. Call it ‘breaking international law’ if it sounds more exciting.
The Markets bill does not break our Withdrawal Agreement with the EU or alter its terms in any way.
What it does is to empower the UK Government, after seeking further authority from Parliament, to alter the arrangements that we agreed in the treaty if we find we need to.
So, the Bill doesn’t breach the treaty arrangements of itself. Even if it becomes an act of Parliament it does not do so. The arrangements in the agreement will only be altered if the Government, having sought further authority from Parliament, were then to actually change the arrangements originally agreed.
Only then does the question arise: would we be breaking the terms of our agreement, or if you want to put it that way, would we be breaking international law?
The Government is taking these powers in response to a direct threat made by EU during the negotiations for a trade deal.
In order to persuade the UK to concede our interests they suggested that, if we did not do so and that the outcome was no deal, then they would use the Northern Ireland Protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement to exclude UK mainland produce from Northern Ireland Markets.
Clearly, no UK Government could tolerate such action and it is essential that we arm ourselves with powers which act as a deterrent to prevent it ever happening.
Suppose it did happen though and that we used the powers, would we have broken the agreement?
No, because by interpreting the treaty perversely and excluding UK goods from part of the UK – which was never the intent of the agreement, the EU would itself have broken the treaty, and our action would be self-defence.
The Lords, in seeking to remove our deterrent whilst we are still in the middle of negotiations, have shown their irresponsibility.
By equating the deterrent power with China’s treatment of Hong Kong and other enormities, they have shown that they have no sense of proportion either.
Should we abolish them?
Well, there is a frighteningly long list of priorities on the ‘to do’ list…but one day