Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 50 Number 39, October 31, 2020 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

SUPPLEMENT

Westminster Hall Debate on the Rule of Law


Joanna Cherry QC

On October 14, a House of Commons debate in Westminster Hall took place on the subject: "Lord Chancellor's Oath and the Rule of Law". Scottish National Party MP Joanna Cherry moved the motion "That this House has considered the Lord Chancellor's oath and the rule of law", focusing on how the UK Internal Market Bill makes a mockery of the oath, "I...do swear that in the office of Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain I will respect the rule of law." Joanna Cherry is a non-practising member of the Scottish Bar, the Faculty of Advocates. We give below extensive extracts from her presentation. While cast in the form of a defence of the rule of law, they expose how far the ruling elite has gone, and very rapidly, to erase the very conception that civil society should be governed by the rule of law, but that their powers should be unlimited and unchecked, while speaking of the supremacy of parliament and a rules-based international order.

***

The Advocate General for Scotland tendered his resignation in the wake of the statement by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill would

"break international law in a very specific and limited way."-[Official Report, 8 September 2020; Vol. 679, c. 509.]

[...]

In addition to the UK Internal Market Bill, we currently have two further Bills before Parliament that are unprecedented in legal terms. Both the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel And Veterans) Bill and the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill seek to create special classes of defendants in domestic law in respect of whom the criminal law will not apply [...].

We also have reviews pending in administrative law and human rights that would appear to threaten the scope for British citizens to challenge unlawful actions of this Government in court. Of course, part 5 of the Internal Market Bill already seeks to do that in respect of certain aspects of the Northern Ireland protocol.

There are concerns that the Internal Market Bill will undermine the Good Friday agreement. It certainly runs a coach and horses through the devolution settlement and makes a nonsense of promises made to Scottish voters during the 2014 independence referendum.

[...]

My purpose in holding this debate today is to draw attention to the very real threats to the rule of law currently posed by the actions of this Government and to ask the Lord Chancellor, having regard to his oath, what he intends to do about them.

There has been trenchant criticism from various quarters, fully rehearsed in debates in this House, about the legal implications of part 5 of the Internal Market Bill. For example, the Bar Council and the Law Society of England and Wales have said that the clauses contained in part 5 of the Bill, "enable ministers to derogate from the United Kingdom's obligations under international law in broad and comprehensive terms and prohibit public bodies from compliance with such obligations. They represent a direct challenge to the rule of law, which include the country's obligations under public international law".

As we have heard, that is why the Advocate General for Scotland tendered his resignation.

The Attorney General for England and Wales has attempted to justify her support for the Internal Market Bill by reference to the legal doctrine of the supremacy of Parliament and the judgment of the UK Supreme Court in the first case brought by Gina Miller on the circumstances surrounding the triggering of article 50. In that case, the Supreme Court held that, to be binding in domestic law, treaty obligations require to be enshrined in an Act of Parliament, but it also held that treaties between sovereign states, such as the withdrawal agreement, have effect in international law and are not governed by the domestic law of any state. It was clear that such treaties are binding on the UK under international law. I believe that the Attorney General has selectively quoted the case in order to justify her view of the Internal Market Bill. I want to know whether the Lord Chancellor agrees with me that a proper reading of the case makes a clear distinction between the domestic law and the doctrine of supremacy of Parliament, and the United Kingdom's international legal obligations.

What I am talking about was made very clear when Professor Catherine Barnard, who is the professor of European Union law at the University of Cambridge, gave evidence recently to the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union. She was crystal clear that while the United Kingdom Parliament may be sovereign under domestic law that does not impact on the rules of international law, and articles 26 and 27 of the Vienna convention mean that in international law international legal obligations take precedence. Professor Barnard also explained that there is a strong argument that the very existence of the Bill itself puts the United Kingdom in breach of its duty of good faith under article 5 of the withdrawal agreement.

[...]

I know that many cheerleaders for the Bill in Parliament have been keen to emphasise section 38 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, which restated the principle of the sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament. Of course that doctrine is a doctrine of the domestic law of England. It does not reflect the Scottish constitutional tradition, but that is perhaps an argument for another day. However, it is worth mentioning, because this Parliament is a Union Parliament, created by a treaty between two sovereign nations, Scotland and England. The United Kingdom is not a unitary state. It is a state of two countries that came together to form a Union. That fact is of relevance when we come to look at the impact of what is now clause 47 of the Internal Market Bill on the supervisory jurisdiction of the Court of Session in Scotland. It is also a point that may be of some relevance should the Scottish Government carry out their threat to litigate over the terms of the Inter nal Market Bill.

[...]

The Lord Chancellor has endeavoured in the public domain to justify the fact that he has not, unlike the Advocate General for Scotland, resigned as a result of the Bill. He told Sky News last month that he would resign if the Government broke international law "in a way that cannot be...fudged".

Can the Minister explain to us whether the Lord Chancellor's position is that the UK Government are already breaking international law, but he is happy with that because they are doing it in a way that can be fudged? He also said that he will resign only if the Government break the law in a way that is "unacceptable". What is an acceptable way of breaking the law? I am sure the thousands of ordinary members of the public who have been fined for breaking lockdown regulations, while Mr Cummings did so with impunity, would like to know from the Lord Chancellor's Department how he distinguishes between acceptable and unacceptable breaches of the law.

[...]

We have seen very much from comments not just from the Irish Foreign Minister, who described the amendments as "smoke and mirrors", but also from senior Democrat and Republican politicians in the United States of America, that what really matters is the international perception of the Bill. I think the former Prime Minister [Theresa May] was trying to persuade her colleagues in Government that the amendments [that the powers now contained in part 5 of the Bill will be used only if the European Union is in material breach of its obligations] do not make any difference to the international perception of what the Bill seeks to do.

The former Prime Minister also reminded us that an arbitration process is set down in the withdrawal agreement. She said:

"There is an arbitration process available. Under article 175, the ruling of the arbitration panel should be binding on the UK and the EU. The Government have acknowledged the existence of the arbitration procedure, but they are saying that they would enter into that in parallel with the operation of the elements of this Bill. The message, it seems to me, is very clear, which is, if we do not like the outcome of the arbitration panel, then we will break international law and we will not accept it. Yet, again, that is breaking the international treaty-an agreement that UK Government signed-because it is breaking article 175, which says that the view of the arbitration panel shall be 'binding' on both parties."-[Official Report, 21 September 2020; Vol. 680, c. 666.]

[...]

Finally, I want to turn to look at the implications of the UK Internal Market Bill for the Union between Scotland and England and for the position of Northern Ireland. [...] There are [...] very concerning implications for undertakings made in respect of human rights protections in the north of Ireland from the British Government, both in the Good Friday agreement and in the withdrawal agreement. Once again, that is not just my view; it is the view of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, who have advised that the Bill undermines "the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement commitment to ensure incorporation of the ECHR [European Convention on Human Rights], including access to the courts and remedies for breach of the ECHR rights. The Commissions are further concerned that the proposed amendments risk diminishing the commitment in Article 2(1) of the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol to ensure there is no diminution of rights, safeg uards or equality of opportunity as the UK leaves the EU."

It has been made clear in the Chamber by hon. Members representing the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Alliance party in the north of Ireland that concerns about human rights implications of the Bill go right to the heart of the Good Friday agreement. Indeed, litigation is already contemplated by a group of concerned Northern Ireland citizens, who have instructed solicitors and counsel.

I turn to the position of Scotland, which is of course a particular concern to me as the Member of Parliament for Edinburgh South West and the Scottish National party's justice and home affairs spokesperson. As well as breaking international law, the powers that the UK Government seek to give themselves in the Internal Market Bill constitute an unprecedented threat to the powers of Scotland's Parliament and the devolution settlement. Why is that relevant to the Lord Chancellor's oath to uphold the rule of law? It is relevant because-as we saw from the House of Lords Constitution Committee report-the Lord Chancellor also has an important role in protecting the constitution of the United Kingdom. The constitution of the United Kingdom includes the devolved settlement.

Last weekend in Scotland we marked the 20th anniversary of the death of the distinguished Labour party politician Donald Dewar, who was Scotland's first ever First Minister under devolution. He was also the architect of the scheme of devolution set out in the Scotland Act 1998 whereby every power not specifically reserved to this Parliament is devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The Bill introduces-for the first time-a new principle into the devolution settlement by providing broad cross-cutting powers to allow Ministers to enforce internal market provisions across devolved fields. That is not my analysis, I am reading from the analysis of Professor Michael Keating of the Centre on Constitutional Change.

Clause 50 reserves state aid to Westminster, after a dispute in which the Welsh and Scottish Governments argued that it had been devolved. Clause 48 gives UK Ministers wide powers to spend in devolved fields, which changes the previous assumption that they would spend only in reserved fields and that-with a few exceptions-financial transfers to the devolved administrations would go through the block allocation governed by the Barnett formula. That succinct analysis by Professor Michael Keating is the explanation of why the Bill undermines the devolved settlement. Holyrood is not getting any new powers that it did not already have, but Westminster is getting back sole control over state aid, and-in order to enforce the internal market-UK Ministers are getting an explicit power to cut across decision-making by the Scottish Parliament in a whole range of devolved fields.

It seems that what we are seeing, by virtue of those provisions in the Bill, is a rebalancing of the constitutional settlement as far as devolution is concerned, and a tearing up of the clear delineation between reserved powers and devolved powers that was devised by the late Donald Dewar, and set out in the Scotland Act 1998. That is important not just because it undermines the devolved settlement, but it is also important from a wider constitutional perspective, because in 2014-when people living in Scotland were asked whether they wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom or return to our previous status as an independent sovereign nation-various promises were made by those urging us to remain part of the United Kingdom. One promise in particular was that if we did so our Parliament would get more powers, we would be strengthened, and we would become - to quote another Labour politician - "the most powerful devolved parliament in the world".

These were not promises made just by Labour politicians, they were promises made Conservative and Unionist politicians who, of course, are now the party of Government in the United Kingdom. A further Scotland Act was passed in 2016 that puts the Sewel convention on a statutory basis, and entrenched the Scottish Parliament against abolition. In terms of section 63A of the Scotland Act it cannot be abolished without a referendum in Scotland. The Internal Market Bill circumvents these protections not by abolishing the Scottish Parliament, but by removing the power it previously had to act unilaterally across a whole range of competencies that impact on the day-to-day lives of people living in Scotland. It is a very significant change, and some would say a complete and absolute undermining of the devolved settlement voted for by 75% of the people in the 1997 referendum. Thanks to the decision in the United Kingdom Supreme Court in the first Miller case, we now know that the Sewel conve ntion was not justiciable despite being put on a statutory footing.

We also know, because of the Government's subsequent actions, that the Sewel convention cannot protect the devolved settlement. The Sewel convention says:

"Westminster would not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters...without the consent of the Scottish Parliament."-[Official Report, House of Lords, 21 July 1998; Vol. 592, c. 791.]

Recently, however, that has been honoured more in the breach than in the observance. Last week, the Scottish Parliament withheld legislative consent to the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, but nobody seriously thinks that the Bill will not proceed because of that.

Indeed, the Institute for Government recently said that the "Sewel Convention has been broken by Brexit", but I would argue that the Bill breaks the devolution settlement. That is important because, as I said, the constitutional relationship-the constitution of the United Kingdom-is the responsibility of the Lord Chancellor. The constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is about not just devolution but the Act of Union, which continues because of promises made in 2014 that are broken by the Bill.

I suggest that many people in Scotland have suspected for a long time that the British Government's word is no longer their bond, and that perception is reinforced by the Bill. The problem for the Lord Chancellor is that that perception is reinforced not just in Scotland, but across the world. In Europe, and as far as the United States of America, there are concerns about the implications of the Bill for the rule of law.

[...]

I, like many lawyers in Scotland, not all of whom, like myself, want to see an independent Scotland, but all of whom care about the independence of the Scottish legal system, are concerned about the provisions in part 5 of the Bill and their implications for the supervisory jurisdiction of the Court of Session and for judicial review. In Scotland, judicial review is part of our system of civil justice, which is a devolved matter under the Scotland Act 1998 and therefore the preserve of the Scottish Parliament.

More importantly, in the constitutional and pre-devolution context, the authority and privileges of the Court of Session, including its inherent supervisory jurisdiction, are protected by article 19 of the treaty of Union between Scotland and England, which states:

"That the Court of Session, or College of Justice, do after the Union, and notwithstanding thereof, remain in all time coming within Scotland, as it is now constituted by the laws of that kingdom, and with the same authority and privileges as before the Union, subject nevertheless to such regulations for the better administration of justice, as shall be made by the Parliament of Great Britain".

It is a widely held view that legislation that sought to narrow the scope of the Scottish Court's powers of judicial review and to curtail the right of judicial review could scarcely be described as for the better administration of justice. Accordingly, should the United Kingdom Government seek to circumscribe the supervisory jurisdiction of the Court of Session, they would be interfering with not only the devolved powers of the Scottish Parliament, but the treaty of Union.

[...]

To summarise, we need to see the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill in relation to Scotland through the prism not only of devolution, which is a modern development, but of the treaty of Union between Scotland and England. Without a Scottish Law Officer in place, this is an area in which the Lord Chancellor would be well advised, I respectfully submit, to take more of an interest.

[...]

I finish by saying that there is a pattern of the United Kingdom finding ways to worm its way around laws and agreements freely entered into. Because of his oath to respect the rule of law, the Lord Chancellor is in a different class of Minister. What is he going to do about that pattern? What is he going to do to honour his oath? On taking office, he spoke of his illustrious predecessors as Lord Chancellor of England and drew a comic veil over some of the less illustrious ones. I guess my question for the Lord Chancellor today is: does he want to be remembered as a Thomas More or a Richard Rich? [1]

***

Note
[1] Richard Rich was born in London about the year 1496, and as a boy he was intimate with Sir Thomas More, who, when he was on trial through Rich's treachery, said, "Of no small while I have been acquainted with you and your conversation, who have known you from your youth hitherto. For we long dwelled both in one parish together, where, as yourself can tell, you were esteemed very light of your tongue, a great dicer and not of commendable fame. And so at your house in the Temple (where hath been your chief bringing up) were you likewise accounted." [...] [Richard Rich] brought Sir Thomas More to the block, who at his trial said, "If this oath of yours, Mr. Rich, be true, then pray I that I may never see God in the face . . . . In faith, Mr. Rich, I am sorrier for your perjury than for my own peril, and you shall understand that neither I, nor no man else to my knowledge, ever took you to be a man of such credit as in any matter of importance I or any other would at any time vouchsafe to communicate with you." British History Online


ShareThis

Link to Full Issue of Workers' Weekly

RCPB(ML) Home Page

Workers' Weekly Online Archive