The government has admitted that Brexit legislation to be published tomorrow will break international law - prompting a chorus of outrage led by the Conservative chair of the Commons justice select committee, Sir Bob Neill.
Nothern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis was asked to make a statement in the commons today on the UK’s commitment to its legal obligations under the Northern Ireland protocol ahead of an Internal Market Bill being published tomorrow.
Neill, a barrister, asked for assurance that nothing proposed in the legislation does, or potentially might, breach international legal obligations or arrangements that the UK has entered into.
Lewis replied: ‘I would say to my honourable Friend that yes, this does break international law in a very specific and limited way. We are taking the power to disapply the EU law concept of direct effect, required by article 4, in certain very tightly defined circumstances.’
Neill later tweeted his response to Lewis’s answer:
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’.— Sir Bob Neill MP (@neill_bob) September 8, 2020
Adherence to the rule of law is not negotiable. pic.twitter.com/VQhhA5w6lJ
Well, it was a straight answer to a straight question. But a very troubling one nonetheless. Even as a “contingency”, a willingness to break international law sits ill for a county that has always prided itself on upholding the rule of law. https://t.co/BckgcYNfRF— Sir Bob Neill MP (@neill_bob) September 8, 2020
Lord Falconer, shadow attorney general, said the government has an obligation to comply with domestic and international law:
The government - ministers and civil servants alike - have an obligation to comply with the law, domestic and international. Throughout the Brexit process the govt purported to act within the law. This is new. And very bad. https://t.co/lmTRDA9Dgo— Charlie Falconer (@LordCFalconer) September 8, 2020
Justice secretary David Lammy reminded Robert Buckland of the oath he took when he was sworn in as lord chancellor:
.@RobertBuckland you took an oath to respect the rule of law when you became Lord Chancellor.— David Lammy (@DavidLammy) September 8, 2020
How will you protect the rule of law from attack from inside your own government?
If you cannot, will you stand by your oath by breaking cabinet responsibility on this matter? https://t.co/iCmVqsxMoz
Blackstone Chambers’ Dinah Rose QC said: ‘If a barrister advises a client that a particular act would be unlawful, but the client insists on doing it anyway, the barrister may not continue to represent that client. The barrister is professionally embarrassed and should resign. I’m sure Robert Buckland knows this.’
The Law Society echoed Neill’s concerns. Simon Davis, president, said: ‘The rule of law is not negotiable. Our commitment to the rule of law is key to attracting international business to the UK and to maintaining faith in our justice system.’
Labour MP Louise Haigh asked the Northern Ireland secretary whether Sir Jonathan Jones, treasury solicitor and permanent secretary at the Government Legal Department, resigned in response to the government’s plans to bring forward legislation ‘that will undermine our legal obligations’.
Lewis said: ‘I cannot comment on the details of the treasury solicitor’s resignation because I have not seen his resignation letter, but we wish him well.’
In a statement to the Gazette, attorney general Suella Braverman said Jones had been an asset to the Civil Service. ‘He has provided a wealth of knowledge and legal advice to the government during his time, including steering the government through the complexities of leaving the EU and more recently, responding to the challenge of Covid-19,’ she said.