Commons passes controversial internal market bill by 340 votes to 256

Elliot Chappell
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

The controversial internal market bill has passed its third reading in the Commons with a majority of 84, as MPs voted 340 to 256 in favour of allowing government ministers to break international law.

Following a debate in Westminster this evening, MPs passed the legislation that overrides parts of the withdrawal agreement signed with the EU by Boris Johnson’s government less than a year ago.

Commenting on the bill shortly before the vote, Ed Miliband said Labour would vote against it as a result of the implications for devolution and due to its provisions for ministers to break international law.

The Shadow Business Secretary said: “[The bill] makes a choice to impose the rule that the lowest regulatory standard in one parliament must be the standard for all without a proper voice for the devolved administrations.

“And I have read carefully the debates at committee and report stage on this, and there has been no proper answer forthcoming from government about why they did not seek to legislate for the common frameworks, as they could easily have done.

“Nor can they explain why they are taking such broad powers over public spending in specific devolved areas of competence.”

The bill includes plans for a “mutual recognition regime” after the UK leaves the EU, which would require regulatory standards in one area of the union to be automatically accepted in others and centralises devolved powers to Westminster.

Miliband went on to voice Labour’s concerns about the bill breaking international law. He argued that “nobody should be in any doubt about the damage already done by this bill”, and said it “has been noticed around the world”.

The Labour frontbencher added: “We need new trade deals, where our word is our bond, and this government play these appalling games; thinking so little of their backbenchers that they can pull the wool over their eyes…

“The bill will get its majority and go to the other place. But their lordships should know that across this House there is deep concern about it. This has been shown again, and again, by good people on all sides of this House.

“I urge the other place to bring this bill into compliance with the rule of law and salvage our reputation. But we in the House of Commons have a chance tonight to show our concern again.”

The controversial bill produced a rebellion at second reading, with two Tory MPs voting against – Roger Gale and Andrew Percy – and 30 more appearing to abstain, although some will have had no vote recorded without being active abstentions.

But the parliamentary vote today comes after Boris Johnson managed to head off a full-scale rebellion within his own party earlier this month over the controversial legislation as he managed to reach a compromise deal.

The government agreed the principle of an amendment tabled by Tory Bob Neill, which provides for a ‘parliamentary lock’ on the use of certain powers within the bill – allowing MPs to decide whether a minister can break international law.

Commenting on the supposed concession today, shadow minister Lucy Powell said: “Even with the additional vote conceded by my friend opposite, it doesn’t change the fundamentals that this bill itself breaks the agreement and breaks international law.”

She urged MPs to back Labour’s amendment to the bill, new clause one, which she argued would have forced the government to “respect the rule of law whilst implementing their own withdrawal agreement”.

The amendment from the opposition party, tabled by Shadow Business Secretary Ed Miliband, was rejected by MPs earlier in the afternoon as the bill completed its report stage in the House, with 256 votes in favour and 350 against.

Theresa May was expected to vote against the bill but ultimately abstained. 21 Tory MPs in total had no vote recorded, including a number of parliamentarians who were likely paired. No Labour MP voted in favour of the bill.

Under the withdrawal agreement signed by Johnson, Northern Ireland is set to remain in the single market regardless of whether the wider UK has a deal on trade and security with the EU by the end of the year.

This means that if the UK does not reach an agreement on trade with the European bloc, the EU’s codes on goods coming into Northern Ireland will still be required, necessitating checks at the border.

The internal market bill would override this by narrowly defining the obligation to notify Brussels of subsidy decisions for it to approve, and dispense with the requirement for local businesses to file customs paperwork when exporting to the rest of the UK.

The European Commission’s Maros Sefcovic warned that the plans put forward by the UK Conservative government are “far apart” from what the EU can accept, but Michael Gove this week refused to remove the controversial parts of the bill.

Keir Starmer has declared that the government is “wrong” to propose breaking international law over Brexit, and told the government that a “good deal is there to be had and the Prime Minister needs to get on and negotiate it”.

Mark Drakeford described the legislation as a “smash and grab” on the devolution settlement, as it would allow UK government ministers to take back powers that have been devolved to Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland for 20 years.

The Welsh Labour leader and First Minister described the bill put forward by the UK government as an “enormous power grab” and warned that the measures included will “put enormous strains into the union that is the UK”.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon criticised the plans as a “full frontal assault on devolution” and argued that the campaign for independence is now about stopping the “Scottish parliament from being undermined and its powers eroded”.

UK ministers have been making their case for the bill by claiming that it would give way to more spending in devolved areas after the Brexit transition period ends, including on infrastructure and culture, for the first time since devolution.

But Welsh Brexit minister Jeremy Miles described these assurances as “laughable” to LabourList on Monday, highlighting that in the very same bill the government is legislating to break an agreement it signed less than a year ago.

The bill has now completed its progress through the Commons and will go to the Lords. The final stages are not expected to be completed until December, with MPs likely to have a final vote just days before the transition period ends.

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