This week will see parliamentary history being made. The House of Lords will consider a motion tabled by a former lord chief justice, Igor Judge, regretting that the government’s controversial UK Internal Market Bill “contains provisions which, if enacted, would undermine the rule of law and damage the reputation of the United Kingdom.”
For a former head of the judiciary in England and Wales to take such a rare parliamentary step on a flagship piece of economic legislation is significant in itself. When one recalls that the bill has also provoked the resignation of two significant government legal figures (the head of the Government Legal Department and the lord advocate for Scotland), attracted the criticism of numerous former senior judges, including other former lord chief justices and presidents of the Supreme Court, united the legal profession in opposition, been roundly condemned by several parliamentary committees, and this morning prompted a rare intervention by the UK’s archbishops, there is clearly something significant going on.
The government says that the relevant provisions in the bill are merely “an insurance policy,” or a “legal safety net.” As the Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland, described them in his evidence to the House of Lords Constitution Committee last week, the emergency powers are prudent and sensible to take now and hold in reserve, in case they are needed in the event that the EU acts in bad faith in the ongoing negotiations about the future relationship. Thanks to an earlier concession they are subject to a “parliamentary lock,” requiring a resolution of the House of Commons before they are brought into force. Such exceptional provisions are justified by the unusual nature of the negotiations in which the UK is engaged, says the government. And, according to the Foreign Secretary, there is no evidence of the bill doing any harm to the UK’s international reputation as a rule of law regarding nation.
So who is right? Is this a rule of law storm in a teacup, whipped up by self-serving legal types, or are the stakes really as high as all the former judges, the lawyers and now the archbishops are telling us?
As peers debate the bill this week they should be sceptical of the government’s arguments that its provisions do not undermine the rule of law…