Taxation (Post-transition Period) Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Kevin HollinrakeMain Page: Kevin Hollinrake (Conservative - Thirsk and Malton)
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Yes, indeed. I sometimes find that Lewis Carroll has some very useful ways of putting things. There was the famous exchange between Alice and Humpty Dumpty, in which Humpty Dumpty says: “Words mean what you choose them to mean. The question is who is to be master, that is all.” Words can be used in all kinds of different ways to try to justify propositions that are unsustainable.
I say with respect, but none the less very firmly, that in this particular case it is absolutely clear that when the decision has been taken by the British people—the voters—in the referendum and has then been endorsed by an Act of Parliament and a whole series of other Acts of Parliament, including section 38, it really is not down to the unelected House of Lords to resist it on the scale that they have, and to claim that they can override the House of Commons. We have just had a whole series of agreements and disagreements going backwards and forwards on the UKIM Bill alone.
As Lord Bingham made absolutely and abundantly clear in chapter 12 of his magisterial book “The Rule of Law”, it is for Parliament to make law and pass Acts of Parliament; it is not for the judges to intervene, to seek to make law and to impugn the sovereignty of Parliament. Anyone who wants to get the full flavour of it should read chapter 12 of “The Rule of Law”, because it is the most explicit and clear statement that one could possibly imagine.
Because what section 38 does is reaffirm the capacity of Parliament to be able to make such provisions in other enactments should it be necessary to do so. Because of the complexity of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill and the issues it raises—for example, as I have said in a previous speech this afternoon, with respect to the Northern Ireland protocol itself—there remain a number of matters that are still subject not only to the negotiation over in Brussels going on right now, but to the operation of the internal market of this country. I support that Bill, but I still believe it was a mistake to withdraw the “notwithstanding” clauses, because I think we are going to find that we will need them and we may yet need to reintroduce them on a future occasion. However, it will be section 38, which is explicit with regard to the withdrawal agreement, that will give us the authority and the statutory basis for doing that, and the same applies to the provisions I am referring to here. With regard to this Bill, we had expected that the “notwithstanding” clauses would be included in it and they were not, so I have taken the opportunity—in, one might say, my usual manner—to ensure that we have an opportunity to debate this issue today.
I now turn to the reasons why I am so clear in what I have said about state sovereignty in the context of international law. The United Kingdom as a state retains its sovereign right, and it was always capable of doing this, to withdraw from the EU. The EU is an international organisation; it is not a sovereign state. On the basis of state sovereignty, it would actually be contrary to the legal position under international law that the UK would require EU consent or agreement to leave the EU, but we do have article 50 and we did implement that in the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017.
State sovereignty is paramount to international law. As has been said:
“If States were not sovereign, no international law would be possible”.
It is quite an interesting idea. International law would be impossible if states were not sovereign, because they combine together to create the circumstances in which it applies. Each state has internal supremacy over how governmental functions are run and is shielded from external interference without consent. The UK as a sovereign state has a right to withdraw from an international organisation, and this right is recognised by the EU treaties themselves. This is evident from the words of article 50:
“Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.”
It could not be clearer from what I have said and from what everybody knows, as they have been through this passage or on this journey, that we have been through enactment after enactment. Nobody could possibly say that we have not done it lawfully. It has been done completely in the sight of the world, and I am astonished that anyone would even consider that we had not done it in the proper manner—we have done so, lawfully and in accordance not only with our constitutional law but with international law. In short, the UK’s right to withdraw from the EU is approved and agreed by international law, and only limited by UK constitutional law and thus by our own discretion, which we have exercised.
Following the Brexit referendum, the United Kingdom exercised its sovereign right to leave the EU and, as far as I am concerned, I believe this cannot be disputed. It is quite clear that we have done what was required under our own constitutional requirements and also, in my judgment, with regard to the question of international law itself. That was confirmed, for example, by the German federal constitutional court in the Maastricht treaty constitutionality case—I am now speaking about the Germans’ view of this, but it is interesting to observe—in which it said:
“Because the German citizen entitled to vote exercises his right to participate in conferring democratic legitimacy on the institutions and bodies entrusted with the exercise of sovereign authority principally through the election of the German Bundestag,”—
this is the same point I was making about our voters being represented by our Members of Parliament who passed the enactments in question—
“that parliament must also decide what is to be done about Germany’s membership of the European Union, its continuance and development”.
In other words, the principle is a common one between us and the German constitutional court.
That is of great importance in our understanding the context in which we must have the right to legislate ourselves in accordance with what our voters expect of us. We are entitled to do that in relation to the UKIM Bill or the Taxation (Post-transition Period) Bill, and we are entitled also to have a “notwithstanding” clause if we so decide. It is not for unelected persons—whether they are distinguished or otherwise, and whether they are numerous in the House of Lords or otherwise—to interfere with that.
The UK Parliament, being the supreme body in the British constitution, has the right to enact legislation inconsistent with the withdrawal agreement—I have already dealt with section 38—thereby explicitly reversing the direct effect option under article 4 of the withdrawal agreement. That is crucial, because article 4 says that, but for the fact that we are entitled to do that, it would have direct effect. That position has been set out on the UKIM Bill, which was published in September, and it was specifically stated that we would ensure that we had a “notwithstanding” clause. That has been unwisely removed, but we may come back to that on a future occasion.
The next question is, what is the position regarding the EU’s own attitude towards international law? I am afraid to say that it is guilty of recurring double standards. Article 3(5) of the treaty on European Union states:
“In its relations with the wider world, the Union shall…contribute to peace, security…and the protection of human rights…as well as to the strict observance and the development of international law, including respect for the principles of the United Nations Charter.”
But in the Kadi case, it was held that EU law is an autonomous legal order, meaning that in order for an international agreement to form part of EU law, it must not call into question the constitutional structure and values on which the EU is founded.
In the second Kadi case, the European Court of Justice, confirming its previous findings in the first case, ruled that the EU Courts
“must…ensure the review, in principle the full review, of the lawfulness of all Union acts in the light of the fundamental rights forming an integral part of the European Union legal order, including review of such measures as are designed to give effect to resolutions adopted by the Security Council under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations.”
It is worth pointing out that the Security Council resolutions in question were adopted under chapter VII, which meant that those resolutions were adopted for the purposes of maintaining international peace and security and had to be carried out by members of the United Nations directly. Article 103 of the charter states:
“In the event of a conflict between the obligations of the Members of the United Nations under the present Charter and their obligations under any other international agreement, their obligations under the present Charter shall prevail.”
It is clear that our capacity as a sovereign nation is endorsed by the United Nations charter as well.
What is the position regarding the necessity of these “notwithstanding” clauses in principle? I have already explained the general power to override treaties, particularly by reference to the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020. In the Miller case, a majority in the Supreme Court said that Parliament, in the exercise of its sovereignty, is free to legislate in any way it sees fit, including contrary to the UK’s international obligations, thus
“the sovereign power of the Queen in Parliament extends to breaking treaties”.
That was confirmed in a series of other cases, such as in Salomon, in EN (Serbia) and in the Attorney-General of Ontario v. Attorney-General of Canada. The Supreme Court has unambiguously stated that this power is a corollary of parliamentary sovereignty. I have already referred to what Lord Bingham said in chapter 12 of “The Rule of Law”, so I do not need to repeat that.
Interestingly, I made some reference to the principles that are under discussion in the current negotiations. Of course, we do not know the outcome of those negotiations as we speak—as I said in the previous debate, I wish them well—but it has to be made clear that, certainly as far as I and those of my friends who agree with me are concerned, one of the most crucial questions is that of state aid, because that issue is right at the heart of the discussions and negotiations this week. I asked the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to assure the House that nothing in any treaty text or subsequent Act of Parliament will prevent the UK from having its own sovereign state aid rules, including on energy, so that we are not subjugated to EU state aid rules, nor to the European Court, given that the EU intends, as it has stated over the past week or two—in very bad faith, in my opinion—to impose and enforce its rules against us. Ultimately, of course, that would be done by a majority vote in the Council of Ministers, behind closed doors, without our even being at the table after 31 December. The fact is that we have to assert our sovereignty in the negotiations so that any treaty that emerges from them—if one does—must comply with the assertion of the sovereignty of this House, this country and this Parliament, and must at the same time apply whether in respect of direct or indirect effect.
Yes, absolutely. Sovereignty is also a question of fact. I do not want to get into the intricacies of 15th century history, but there was a chap called Henry VII who made it abundantly clear that as far as he was concerned he won the battle of Bosworth and that was it. I do not think we need to pursue that one too much, because sovereignty is quite a simple thing when it comes down to it: it is called political will and legal arguments of the kind I am addressing.
I cannot speak for that dispute-settlement service and nor can I speak for the Joint Committee that is currently considering some of these matters. We do not really know exactly what is being decided in that Joint Committee, which is why I was concerned earlier to point out that I have asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to appear before my European Scrutiny Committee, of which I have the honour to be Chairman and on which I have served for 35 years, so I have a little experience of how it operates. Under our Standing Orders, it is our task—our duty—irrespective of party politics, to examine matters of legal and political importance and report to the House, and we are doing that. Of course, we need evidence, and we need to have people to appear before us and give evidence, and sad to say, despite the fact that I have written four letters to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, he has declined to appear in front of the Committee, although he seems to be happy to see the House of Lords equivalent Committee and also the Committee chaired by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn).
It is a shame that the Bill has been rushed through the House so rapidly. Members have had a short amount of time in which to get to grips with a rather technical and lengthy piece of legislation. The small number of amendments tabled today speaks to the incredibly tight time limits that have been put in place. Given the impact of the legislation on businesses operating across Northern Ireland and Great Britain, that concerns me, and it should concern us all.
For me, the Bill speaks to the heart of the many contradictions of Brexit—between what was promised in 2016 and what is being delivered today. We were told that Parliament will take back control, but this Executive, peopled by the same individuals who made those promises, have arguably more contempt for the legislature than any before them. That is summed up by an incredibly depressing piece of legislation, presented a couple of weeks ago, to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which attempts to engineer the first ever return of powers from the legislature to the Executive in our history.
However, the contradictions do not end there. A case in point is clause 6 of this Bill on the uprating of fuel duty for aviation gasoline, which, for me, is a microcosm of the whole Brexit process. The whole point of Brexit was to get our sovereignty back—was it not?—so that we could finally write our own laws rather than follow bureaucratic regulations from Brussels, the sort of stiflingly dull directives with boring names such as EU energy tax directive (Council Directive 2003/96/EC). We might have thought that directive was exactly the sort of red tape we would finally cut through in Brexit Britain, and yet the Bill proves that the reality is far removed from the rhetoric, because EU energy tax directive (Council Directive 2003/96/EC), which ensures that across the EU a minimum level of tax is applied on a whole type of aircraft fuel, is in this Bill being applied across the whole of the UK.
The explanatory notes rather patriotically inform us that,
“the UK is not bound to comply with the Directive in respect of Great Britain (GB) from 1 January 2021,”
but none the less Great Britain is complying with it anyway. Does that not say a lot about Brexit and the current trade negotiations, where effectively the Government have been toying with the idea of taking maximum tariff pain now in order to allow regulatory divergence that, in all likelihood, is not going to take place?
Turning now to the amendments, I agree with amendments 1 and 2 and new clause 3, tabled in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. Economic assessments have been conspicuously lacking over the past few months, covid notwithstanding: not only a lack of assessments of the impact of any potential deal with the EU, but the refusal of the Secretary of State for International Trade to tell us whether any of the trade deals she has struck will actually leave us any better off than our current trading relationships. The other conspicuous absentee when it comes to the economic impact of all this is the Chancellor. I find it very surprising that he has said very little about the threat of no deal, during a time when the UK finds itself in the midst of its worst economic crisis.
It is entirely right that we carry out proper economic assessments of all that, not least for Northern Ireland. I remember during the election campaign last year the Prime Minister was caught on camera telling Northern Ireland businesses that,
“Northern Ireland has got a great deal. You keep free movement, you keep access to the single market”.
In the words of the Foreign Secretary, Northern Ireland has “a cracking deal” because it has access to the EU market. Meanwhile, as we teeter on the edge of no deal, we are told by the Culture Secretary that things “will be choppy”, but that “we can survive”. I am sure those words will be a comfort to many of my constituents.
Finally, I turn to new clause 1 and new clause 2. During the debate on the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill earlier, I spoke about what a disaster the notwithstanding clauses in that legislation were for the future of the UK and elsewhere. I will not repeat myself, because exactly the same applies here; all I ask is for the Minister to give a guarantee that, if there is no deal with the EU, international lawbreaking clauses will not be introduced in this or any future business. We cannot afford to let a no-deal scenario be a proxy for further actions that are hugely damaging to our international reputation. For that to be the UK’s first action once it left the EU would be a truly regrettable matter indeed.
Let me respond briefly. This provision is really going to apply only where there is an impugnment —an infringement—of sovereignty itself. In this case, the entirety of our leaving the EU, as is well understood by the EU and provided for by article 50, and which we have done lawfully, demonstrates that when the EU and the remainers start prattling on about the idea that somehow or other we should do it on their terms, which is the basis on which the whole thing was constructed when the negotiations began, however many years ago it was—I cannot quite remember, as it seems so long ago—we see that the bottom line is that they have acted in bad faith. That is the problem. If it were not for that —we had reasonable negotiations—we probably would not be having to discuss these matters now. Most recently, we have seen that over the state aid rules, with their saying, “We’re going to punish you if you don’t do what we want.”
All too often in international trade agreements it does come down to power and sovereignty. President Trump has regularly used national security as a good reason to impose tariffs and override World Trade Organisation rules. The EU, for years, ignored state aid rules to promote Airbus. I can perfectly understand what it was trying to do. It took a long time to catch up with it and in practice the damage, from the WTO point of view, was done.
This is about when the issue of the override is to do with sovereignty itself—that is the point. That is why this matter is essential. That is why international law actually recognises it, in article 46. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) accepted that, as, indirectly, did Lord Judge, on this Bill. So, for practical purposes, I have quite a lot of support, even from those who originally opposed my proposals.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair again, Mr Deputy Speaker.
When I put my name down to speak in this debate, I guess I did so more out of intrigue than expectation, given the shenanigans and the boorach of last week. We all saw what unfolded over the Ways and Means resolutions, the Bill coming 24 hours later and then off to Committee of the whole House, where nothing changed whatever. A week later, here we are on Report, with, as far as I can see, a very clear likelihood that the Government’s Bill will move forward without a single change, despite the best valiant efforts of the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) and his desire again to get the Government to break international law.
In that regard, I must pause and reflect; I find it utterly fascinating that, despite getting what they appear to want, Members of this Parliament who have—from what I have heard—seemingly spent their entire lives working towards the political cause of leaving the European Union still seem thoroughly unhappy. I take a little bit of joy in knowing that they are so bitterly disappointed that even their friends in the Government still refuse to do just what they want. Now, I cannot be the only one who has looked at Twitter, and it appears that there may well be a breakthrough in terms of an EU trade deal. I do not know whether the Minister is sighted on the developments on this occasion, because I do not think he was last week, but I do not think that I am overreaching or overstepping in any way, shape or form to suggest that, although that may be the case, the hon. Member for Stone may still be unhappy.