Not With A Bang But A Whimper - The EU Withdrawal Bill Has Completed its Bumpy Ride Through Parliament
Guest editor: Victor Anderson
The EU Withdrawal Bill is now just about to become law, after debates in the Lords on Monday and the Commons on Wednesday. The Bill has been improved in many respects on its way through Parliament – the scope for Henry VIII powers has been reduced, the devolution power grab is less severe, there are some safeguards for environmental protection, and various legal points have been clarified. None of these changes goes as far as we wanted and there is still a lot wrong with the Bill.
However this is only one part of the Brexit process. One set of negotiations – between the Tory rebels and the Government – has taken place, but there are two more due in the near future. The Cabinet is meeting at Chequers (with the possibility of resignations) at the beginning of July to sort out the content for the Government’s White Paper on the UK’s future relations with the EU, due for publication in the week beginning July 9. EU heads of government are meeting in Brussels on Thursday June 28 & Friday June 29, where they will review progress with the UK/EU27 talks. Hopes are fading that a deal will be sorted out at the EU Summit on October 18/19 (one interpretation is that is too close to the Conservative Party Conference which ends on October 3), with December 13/14 looking more likely.
In the three and a half months from mid-December to what is currently “exit day” a lot will have to happen, including the Withdrawal Agreement and Implementation Bill, which is bound to raise, in new ways, many of the same issues as those discussed in relation to the EU Withdrawal Bill. The aim of that second overall Brexit bill will be to put into UK law the legal implications of whatever deal is agreed with the EU27, or possibly to provide for the implications of there being no deal.
The Alliance is soon going to be reviewing our plans for future activity, bearing in mind this second overall bill, the specific bills such as the Trade Bill, the statutory instruments which will be issued under the Withdrawal Act, the consequences of the Act for the devolved bodies, and the implications of all this for civil society.
A recap of the final stages
Monday’s debate in the Lords: consideration of Commons reasons and amendments
On Monday, it was the Withdrawal Bill’s turn to ‘pong’ back to the House of Lords for peers to consider Commons amendments and the reasons why they disagreed with a majority of the Lords amendments (full overview here).
Angela Smith, shadow leader of the House of Lords described the mood in the house aptly when she said that while peers have rightly made changes to the bill that enhance parliamentary scrutiny, “the process of ping-pong is not to challenge the elected House, but to provide an opportunity”. It therefore came as no surprise that peers did not insist on their amendments but expressed they were content with the votes that took place in the Commons last week - in case you’ve missed it, here is a summary. Here is also our updated ping-pong scorecard, giving you all the details of the votes, the Commons amendments, amendments to amendments and government concessions.
There was one exception – the so-called “meaningful vote” amendment, where peers voted by a large majority for a slightly diluted version of the original Grieve amendment – moved by Lord Hailsham but referred to as “Grieve 2”. This was passed on to the Commons for its final debate on the Bill on Wednesday.
Wednesday’s debate in the Commons: consideration of Lords messages
Although the main message coming back from the Lords could be described as “we surrender”, there was one issue on which they stood firm, and which couldn’t in any way be characterised as “Lords versus Commons”, because they tried to give the Commons more power. The Commons, however, was not so sure it wanted it, with many Tory MPs fearing it would undermine the bargaining power of the Government in relation to the EU27 if they had to return to Parliament for approval of any deal or no deal.
The implications of what happened on Wednesday are still not entirely clear. The “Grieve 2” amendment was put to the vote and defeated. Six Tory rebels voted for it, but Dominic Grieve himself did not, nor did several others who had previously indicated their willingness to rebel on the issue. They were persuaded to side with the Government as a result of a brief written ministerial statement that may or may not represent a concession.
The statement says that it will be up to the Speaker to decide if the motion to take note of the outcome of the Brexit negotiations is to be amendable or not. Commons standing orders say that such a “neutral” (“take note”) motion can’t be amendable – but the House can suspend its own standing orders if it chooses. The future of the country may now depend on the obscure question of how to find parliamentary time for the House of Commons to vote on suspending one of its own standing orders, and on the progress of Brexiteer attempts to force John Bercow to resign as Speaker.
This is the written statement from David Davis yesterday:
“The Government has put forward an amendment in lieu to the amendment carried in the House of Lords on 18 June.
In this amendment in lieu, reference is made to a motion ‘in neutral terms’. The purpose of this written ministerial statement is to set out the Government’s understanding of the way in which this reference to ‘in neutral terms’ will operate in practice.
Under the Standing Orders of the House of Commons it will be for the Speaker to determine whether a motion when it is introduced by the Government under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act is or is not in fact cast in neutral terms and hence whether the motion is or is not amendable.
The Government recognises that it is open for Ministers and members of the House of Commons to table motions on and debate matters of concern and that, as is the convention, parliamentary time will be provided for this.”
Future security relationship with the EU
The European Commission said this week that it wants 'guillotine clauses' in the new EU- UK security relationship, which would nullify any cooperation agreement if the UK leaves the European Convention on Human Rights or falls foul of a relevant ECHR ruling. Read full summary from Bloomberg here.
Security issues have become part of the Brexit argument between the UK and EU27. The chief of GCHQ has publicly reminded the EU of the important role the UK has played in preventing terrorist plots in Europe.
Michel Barnier has warned that the European Arrest Warrant system cannot continue to apply to the UK because Parliament voted to remove the UK from the provisions of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. The Chief Constable of Northern Ireland has reaffirmed the importance of the Arrest Warrant for co-operation in policing between the two parts of Ireland.
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