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Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has suggested the full legal opinion the government has received on the legality of a controversial new bill to override parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol will not be published.
The legislation, which will be published on Monday, aims to facilitate trade processes between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
However, some legal experts have suggested that overriding sections of the original post-Brexit treaty without EU consent could breach international law.
Downing Street says it had no choice but to change the protocol through primary legislation after failing to reach an agreement after months of negotiations with the EU.
In leaked correspondence to PoliticsHome, a senior official advising the government on legal matters says he is of the view that the planned new bill cannot be “credible” for legal reasons, there is currently no no alternative to unilateral disapplication of the treaty, and that it is “very difficult” for ministers to make this point.
Speaking to the BBC on Sunday morning, Lewis insisted the new bill would not breach international law, but also defended the government’s decision not to publish the full legal advice it has. received on this.
“We will establish tomorrow not only the invoice […] but we will also be outlining the government’s legal position on this and I know people want to see our legal position,” the minister said.
“So we will do this to make sure people see that this is in line with international law,” he added.
“People give their opinion on this [that] haven’t seen the bill yet.
“So let people see the bill and they will see our legal position on it and I think people will see that it falls under international law.”
The Northern Ireland Secretary stressed that the Government’s priority was to protect the Belfast Good Friday Agreement and said the Northern Ireland Protocol as it currently operates “fundamentally undermines it”.
“Let us not forget that even in 2019 the Attorney General at the time was very clear, the primacy must be, and for us as a government it is rightly, on the Belfast Good Friday Agreement in all three strands,” Lewis said.
“That’s what we’re going to focus on.”
Two MPs told PoliticsHome they were preparing for the prospect of having the whip removed if they voted against the bill in a vote in the House of Commons.
A Tory MP said: ‘The Government’s strategy to restore confidence is a kamikaze strategy: to repeat the law breaking of Owen Paterson and Partygate and to force MPs to defend more law breaking. [Tory MPs facing Lib Dems] will be especially delighted.”
Away from Northern Ireland protocol, on helping the public cope with soaring inflation, Lewis did not rule out the idea of introducing further fuel tax cuts.
The government introduced a 5p reduction in fuel tax earlier this year, but concerns have been raised that oil companies are not passing the tax reduction on to customers.
Some figures, including AA President Edmund King, have called on Sunak to increase the fuel tax cut to 10p.
The calls come as average petrol prices hit £100 for the first time this month.
“We all want to see lower taxes and I know people are struggling with not just the fuel pump for cars, but actually energy more generally,” Lewis said.
“In my part of the world in Norfolk, many people using oil-fired central heating have also seen those prices go up,” he added.
“We want to support this, but like I said, we have to do it in a financially sensible way to make sure we get the right result.
“That’s why the Chancellor wants to… make sure that any action we take is passed on to people and people benefit from it.”
Speaking on the BBC, the chief executive of the Confederation of British Industry, Tony Danker, said households are already entering recession this year.
“The consumption and spending that we all do is going to turn negative this year,” Danker said.
“I think the government needs to recognize that building confidence, building economic confidence, rather than building political confidence, is actually on the agenda right now,” he said. added.
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