For a more detailed account of how the UK government would be open to challenge if it went ahead with the internal markets bill, it is worth reading this Twitter thread by Anton Spisak, a former civil servant and Brexit specialist who know works for the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.
The EU is threatening the UK with legal action if it does not drop key parts of the internal markets bill. But what legal options are open it it?
RTE’s Tony Connelly has a good explanation in a Twitter thread that summarises the legal advice provided to the commission. It starts here.
And here are some of the the main points.
EU threatens legal action against UK unless it rewrites internal market bill
The European commission has just released a lengthy statement following today’s meeting between Maroš Šefčovič, a commission vice-president, and Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, about the UK’s decision to introduce legislation (the internal market bill) that would override the withdrawal agreement. It is about as angry and aggressive as any formal statement from the EU to the UK throughout the entire Brexit process.
The commission says passing the bill would be constitute “an extremely serious violation of the withdrawal agreement and international law”.
It says that if the UK does not drop the parts of the bill that would violate the withdrawal agreement, it would take the UK to court.
Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič called on the UK government to withdraw these measures from the draft bill in the shortest time possible and in any case by the end of the month. He stated that by putting forward this bill, the UK has seriously damaged trust between the EU and the UK. It is now up to the UK government to re-establish that trust.
He reminded the UK government that the Withdrawal Agreement contains a number of mechanisms and legal remedies to address violations of the legal obligations contained in the text – which the European Union will not be shy in using.
It also implies that, if the UK does not drop the offending clauses in the bill, the EU could terminate the UK-EU trade talks. It says:
The vice-president stated, in no uncertain terms, that the timely and full implementation of the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland – which Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government agreed to, and which the UK Houses of Parliament ratified, less than a year ago – is a legal obligation. The European Union expects the letter and spirit of this agreement to be fully respected. Violating the terms of the withdrawal agreement would break international law, undermine trust and put at risk the ongoing future relationship negotiations.
Dominic Cummings never threatened civil service with ‘hard rain’, Gove claims
Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, was widely reported to have told a meeting of special advisers in June that a “hard rain” was coming for the civil service. Since then several figures at the top of the service have been forced out, and wider change has been proposed. The phrase has been widely quoted as summarising Cummings hardline approach to Whitehall.
Only he did not say it, according to Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister and a close friend of Cummings. (Cummings used to work for him at the Department for Education.)
In his evidence to the Commons public administration committee, Gove was asked about the phrase. He said he was not at the meeting where it was said to have been used, but he said some of his colleagues were there, and they did not hear Cummings say this. Gove also said he had never heard Cummings use this term himself. He said his understanding was that the report was based on a “mishearing”.
Shortage of Covid tests creating problems for schools, says teaching union
The Association of School and College Leaders has said shortages of coronavirus tests are undermining the reopening of schools and colleges in England, with around 200 headteachers and principals saying they have struggled to obtain tests for staff and students.
The lack of tests has meant that thousands of pupils with suspected Covid-19 symptoms, and those who had been in close contact with them, have been isolating at home, taking them out of the classroom while they wait for tests to be made available.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the ASCL, said the “fantastic work” of schools and colleges in reopening this month was being put at risk by the government’s failures. He said:
Our frustration is with the government which has failed to live up to its promise to ensure that the test-and-trace system is able to meet the level of demand that it must have been perfectly obvious would be needed.
Even now, the health secretary seems to be in denial, choosing to blame people for seeking tests when they are not eligible, rather than addressing the problem.
The ASCL said it had received reports from its members in England of being directed to test centres long distances away, including Inverness and Aberdeen, while others said home testing kits were either unavailable or slow to arrive.
One school leader said: “I have approximately 10 pupils who are at home with symptoms, all of whom are waiting for tests. Most have only been able to get postal tests, none have been able to get tests locally within seven days. Potentially I could have a number of positive cases linked to my school and not know it.”
Another said: “In our area we have had staff and students being asked to travel over 200 miles for a test and being told no home tests are available. This adds to the time staff are absent, putting more pressure on their colleagues and for some staff and students these sorts of distances are not realistic when they feel unwell or due to the very limited public transport in this area.”
Michael Gove gives evidence to public administration committee
Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, has just started giving evidence to the Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee. There is a live feed here.
The subject of the hearing is the work of the Cabinet Office, but Gove is taking questions now on the internal market bill.
Q: Will this legislation affect the Barnett formula?
No, says Gove.
Q: What is the government’s vision for devolution?
Gove says the government thinks devolution provides the best of both worlds. It wants the UK government and devolved governments to work together to get the best for citizens.
This is from the FT’s Jim Brunsden.
Former Tory leader Michael Howard condemns government’s ‘scant regard’ for treaty obligations
The government has faced vehement criticism from former Tory leader Michael Howard in the Lords over its admission it will breach international law in seeking to unilaterally amend elements of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.
Speaking in a brief debate sought by the shadow attorney general, Charlie Falconer, Howard asked Richard Keen, the Scottish advocate general, who was responding for the government:
Does my noble and learned friend simply not understand the damage done to our reputation for probity and respect for the rule of law by those five words uttered by his ministerial colleague in another place on Tuesday – words I never thought I would hear uttered by a British minister, far less a Conservative minister? How can we reproach Russia or China or Iran when their conduct falls below internationally accepted standards, when we are showing such scant regard for our treaty obligations?
Lord Keen had been identified as a possible waverer, even resigner, over the issue, but he was loyal in the debate. He told Howard the government was simply “endeavouring to allow for a contingency that may arise very soon” over Irish border arrangements.
Howard is the third former Conservative leader to criticise the government for planning to override the withdrawal agreement. Theresa May and Sir John Major have both spoken out strongly against this too.
Johnson’s 24-hour test result target still far away from being met, latest figures show
NHS Test and Trace has published its latest weekly performance bulletin (pdf). Here are the main points.
- NHS Test and Trace is continuing to miss almost a third of people identified as close contacts of people who have tested positive. For a test and trace system to be effective, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies says 80% of contacts must be reached and told to self-isolate. But in the week ending 2 September the figure was 69.2%, down very slightly from the previous week. The average for the period since test and trace was launched is 78.8%. Here is the key table from the report.
- The service is still failing to meet the 24-hour target for test results set by Boris Johnson. The PM told MPs in early summer that by the end of June the government would get “all tests turned around within 24 hours … except for difficulties with postal tests or insuperable problems like that.” The latest figures show that 92% of tests processed in hospital laboratories (so-called pillar 1 tests) get completed within 24 hours. But tests conducted outside hospitals or at home (pillar 2 tests), which account for roughly two thirds of all tests that are carried out, are nowhere near to meeting this target. Here are the figures.
This chart presents the same data in another form.
- The number of people testing positive and being referred to the service in the week ending 2 September, at 9,864, was up 43% on the previous week.
- Some 82% of people referred to the service in the week ending 2 September were reached and asked to provide details of their close contacts. That was up from 79.9% the previous week.
(Some readers object to us calling it NHS Test and Trace, because all the actual work is carried out by private contractors like Serco. But we use this title because that’s the name given to it by the government, which set it up. It’s what it called. You could argue that it is misleading, because it is not part of the mainstream NHS, but we still call the Conservatives the Conservatives – even though they don’t seem to favour conserving much at the moment.)
The UK government will attempt to negotiate up to 27 bilateral deals to receive information on criminals and terrorists if the EU continues to refuse to allow access to a major crime-fighting database, the Home Office’s most senior official said today.
Entrance to the Schengen information system (SIS II), a huge EU database, will end at the end of the year unless there is a major breakthrough in negotiations, the Home Office’s permanent secretary, Matthew Rycroft, told MPs.
The EU has said it is legally impossible for non-EU countries not respecting free movement of people to access the database, where police across the continent share millions of pieces of information on criminal suspects, and has proposed more basic information sharing.
Appearing before the public accounts committee, Rycroft said that the government had already begun talks with other member states so that they could access information by other means. He said:
The UK has put forward an offer from our position that would allow an equivalent of the Schengen information system to continue. We believe that would be a good outcome for both the UK and the EU at the end of the transition. But we will also be ready for alternative arrangements to be made if that is what we need to do in the event of no further deal.
Asked by the committee’s chair, Meg Hillier, what that alternative arrangement would be, Rycroft said:
The fact that the commission has set out that it is not legally possible for non-Schengen third country to cooperate through the Schengen information system is in our view one of the reasons we haven’t reached an agreement yet. There does have to be a shift from the EU side in order for us to come to an agreement.
If that shift doesn’t come and there isn’t a deal, then we will be looking at a combination of bilateral agreements and other instruments – of course there were lots of ways that the UK collaborated with EU member states in the past.
Hillier responded: “A chill goes down my spine when I hear about bilateral agreements – that is 27 different agreements which would not be up and running by January. What is the risk to the British public on this crucial issue?”
Rycroft said: “If we are in that scenario there will be a mix of multilateral and bilateral steps. There are other instruments that can be used. The UK is one of the safest countries in the world. That will continue to be the case and we will make the best of whichever scenario we are in.”
In her statement to the Scottish parliament Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, also said that a total of 161 people had tested positive for coronavirus across Scotland in the past 24 hours, taking the total number of people who have tested positive in the country to 22,039.
As PA Media reports, these latest cases are 1.9% of people newly tested, no change on the previous day.
No more deaths of confirmed patients have been recorded in the past 24 hours and this toll remains at 2,499.
Of the new cases, provisional figures indicate 65 are in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, 46 in Lanarkshire and 12 in Lothian.
There are 266 people in hospital confirmed to have the virus, a fall of eight in 24 hours.
Of these patients, seven were in intensive care, up by one.
“Covid-secure marshals” announced as part of a plan to enforce stricter rules on social gatherings will have no formal powers and must be paid for by local authorities, the government has said.
Boris Johnson told a press conference yesterday the marshals would “boost the local enforcement capacity” as he announced new rules designed to slow the spread of coronavirus.
But the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) said they would not be given enforcement powers in new legislation banning people in England from meeting in groups of more than six from Monday, PA Media reports.
Marshals had already been deployed by Leeds city council and Cornwall council, the government said. Other local authorities would now be “encouraged” to hire marshals, or use volunteers and existing council employees, with money from their own budgets, a MHCLG spokeswoman said.
She said they would probably wear high-visibility clothing to “support members of the public in one-way systems and remind them of guidelines”. Other tasks could be to “give out masks and hand sanitiser in public places”, she added.
Belgium has been cited by the UK health secretary, Matt Hancock, as a model for getting coronavirus under control – just as its public health body recorded a 15% rise in the number of daily infections compared with the previous week, my colleague Daniel Boffey reports.
Scotland will also introduce ban on people meeting in groups of more than six, Sturgeon announces
In her statement to the Scottish parliament Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, announced that from Monday next week people in Scotland will only be able to meet in groups from two households, both indoors and outdoors. She told MSPs:
We have concluded that it is necessary to tighten some existing restrictions, to help curb the spread of the virus especially between and within households.
As of now, up to eight people from three households can meet indoors. Larger outdoor gatherings are also permitted.
I can confirm that we intend to change this, so that a maximum of six people from two households will now be permitted to meet together.
To help reduce transmission – but also simplify the rules as much as possible – this new limit will apply both indoors, in houses, in pubs and restaurants, and also outdoors including in private gardens.
Sturgeon said there would be some “limited exceptions” for the new limit of six people in any gathering, for organised sports and places of worship. And she said that any children under 12 who are part of two households meeting up would not count towards the limit of six people. She went on:
Lastly, given the importance of these life events and the distress caused by not being able to mark them, we intend to allow a limited exception for funerals, weddings and civil partnerships.
Already, up to 20 people can attend ceremonies for these occasions. We intend to retain that limit for now.
The new Scottish rules are very similar to the ones announced by Boris Johnson for England yesterday, although there are some minor differences. In England the six people can come from multiple households, not just two households. But in England children count towards the six; in Scotland under-12s aren’t included.