Parliamentary Sovereignty At The Heart Of This Week’s Committee Stage Debates
Yesterday was a big win for parliamentary sovereignty - but it is not over yet. Below, we explore in detail the need to keep up the pressure on the government when it comes to proper scrutiny of delegated legislation.
New sifting committee does not address the inadequate system of scrutinising delegated legislation
While the MPs present during the debate on Tuesday (Committee Stage Day 6) raised important points about the Henry VIII powers and the lack of clarity of what such powers may be used for- one would have expected many more MPs present, given the constitutional significance and breadth of powers the Withdrawal Bill carries.
The government made what may have looked like a concession on the need for more scrutiny on delegated legislation, by accepting amendments tabled by the chair of Procedure Committee, Charles Walker on Monday.
However- as members of the Alliance, such as Unlock Democracy andHansard Society have already pointed out- these amendments do little to address the existing, inadequate system of scrutinising statutory instruments. (statutory instruments are a form of delegated legislation, Hansard Society
provides a handy explanation here).
The new committee set up to deal with which pieces of delegated legislation need detailed scrutiny by MPs as EU law is transferred into UK law, is only advisory. That means that the government doesn’t have to follow through on its recommendations. Nor does the amendments seek to go beyond the temporary measure restricted only to the Withdrawal Bill- which ultimately prompts questions about how delegated legislation in the seven other Brexit bills will be scrutinised. That the Government has chosen a cop-out solution suggest all the more reason the keep the pressure up when it comes to proper scrutiny of delegated legislation.
Such vital concerns about the need for a change to the system of scrutinising statutory instruments- were largely missing from the Tuesday’s debate. While MPs across the house voiced concerns about the Henry VIII powers- this was not reflected in the votes on restricting the powers in Clause 7- which were ultimately defeated (Amendments 49, 158 & 25). The defeat indicates that most MPs appear to be satisfied with the new sifting committee.
While Brexit Minister Steve Baker said he’d taken the time to read Hansard Society’s book “the Devil is in the Detail: Parliament and Delegated Legislation”- he explicitly said during Tuesday’s debate that now is not the “moment for a complete reform of secondary legislation”. Many will disagree with Baker's comments however, given that the Withdrawal Bill is one of the “largest legislative projects ever undertaken in the UK” and one of the most constitutionally significant bills to pass through Parliament.
Parliament to vote on final deal
Yesterday’s debate (Committee Stage Day 7) proved to be a heated one- both on parliament having a meaningful vote on the final deal negotiated with the EU and the use of the powers handed to ministers in the bill. It was heartening to see MPs across the Chamber standing up for parliamentary sovereignty and scrutiny. While Justice Minister Dominic Raab attempted to make some half hearted concessions on the powers to implement the withdrawal agreement- Tory rebels nonetheless stood by their principles. Government defeat on the now infamous Amendment 7 (tabled by Dominic Grieve)- means that ministers will not be able to implement the withdrawal agreement without first giving Parliament a binding vote.
The Government’s press release that was issued almost immediately after the vote- stated that:
“this amendment does not prevent us from preparing our statute book for exit day. We will now determine whether further changes are needed to the Bill to ensure it fulfils its vital purpose”.
It is not entirely clear if this means that the Government will attempt to make changes to amendment 7 at Report Stage. One thing that is certain- the Alliance and its members will keep pushing for the best outcome of the Withdrawal Bill during Report and Third Reading.
Coming up: Committee Stage Day 8
The Committee Stage of the bill will finish with a flourish next week- as the house debates amendments around fixed exit day, treaty ratification and transition details. Most important - or rather most attention - will be placed on whether the government can get through their amendments (381 and 382) to enshrine exit day in law. Dominic Grieve has also tabled an amendment (6) of exiting being the same day for all purposes.
There are a number of amendments around impact assessments of various sectors (ironic given David Davis's recent admission that none exist) and /or continuance of provision of services and regulations. Expect amendments on transition (943 for example), Francovitch and devolved powers.
Finally New Clause 61, signed by Mary Creagh and Caroline Lucas, among others is one of particular interest to the Alliance as it addresses the need to ensure high standards in the UK. Alliance member ChemTrust are urging people to write/tweet/call to their MPs now to vote for this amendment.
ChemTrust points out that currently, the people and environment of the UK are protected from hazardous chemicals by the EU's leading chemicals policy, REACH (Regulation for the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals), which, although not perfect, is considered the best chemical regulation in the world.
ive the centralised nature of EU chemicals law it is it impossible for the UK to simply amend REACH to make it work in the UK. If the UK does not stay in REACH after Brexit, it will lose access to its database, potentially putting the environment and people’s health at risk because the UK Government would not be able to properly assess whether or not a chemical is harmful.
And finally- next week, Unlock Democracy are doing a Facebook Live on everything that has happened during Committee Stage & the steps ahead.Tune in to Unlock Democracy’s Facebook page on Wednesday 20th at 1pm.