Earlier this week, following two days of debate (on 7 and 11 September), the House of Commons voted in favour of the Government’s motion that the EU (Withdrawal) Bill ‘be now read a Second time’. This means that the House of Commons has approved the principle of the Bill, which will now progress to the Committee stage, where the Bill’s provisions will be considered in detail and some (most likely) modified.
Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the SDLP and the Green Party had opposed the Bill entirely. Labour tabled a ‘reasoned amendment’ which set out why:
In the end, and despite many speeches from the Opposition benches accusing the Government of an unjustified ‘power grab’ (many citing the House of Lords Constitution Committee’s most recent report), Labour’s amendment was defeated by 318 votes to 296, with no Conservatives rebelling against the Government. The Government’s motion in favour of a Second Reading was then carried by 326 votes to 290. Seven Labour MPs (all of whom campaigned for Brexit) rebelled against the Labour whip and voted with the Government (and former Labour minister Caroline Flint abstained).
However, it was clear from the debate itself that some Tory backbenchers who voted for the Bill in principle (ie as a necessary step in giving effect to the Brexit referendum result) remain critical of the Bill’s drafting and will be seeking substantial and substantive amendments to its provisions at Committee stage.
For example, former Attorney General Dominic Grieve QC has repeatedly expressed his dissatisfaction with the Bill (see this recent Evening Standard article and his contribution to the Second Reading debate) on the grounds that, amongst other things, the Bill does not provide sufficient clarity on the status of ‘transposed’ EU law or the enforceability in UK courts of ‘imported’ EU rights (particularly that the European Charter on Human Rights ceases to apply); it gives too much power to Government ministers to modify ‘retained EU law’ (and defines that term too widely); and it would authorise Government ministers to implement the withdrawal agreement without further Parliamentary approval. He indicated in the debate that, if the Bill was not made fit for purpose, he may vote against it at Third Reading.
The Government’s position on making amendments to the Bill has not been entirely clear. On the one hand, the SSExEU, in his contribution to the debate, indicated that he would:
On the other hand, the SSExEu and other Government ministers, in the debate, repeatedly defended the Bill’s particular provisions, including on use of statutory powers (including the Henry VIII provisions, which the Government argued are subject to appropriate safeguards), the definition and scope of ‘EU retained law’, the transposition of EU law, the use of sunset clauses, the disapplication of the Charter, and so on.
Tuesday saw those on both sides of the House table a host of amendments to the Bill to be considered at Committee Stage (and MPs can continue to table amendments until the day before that set for consideration of the clause they are proposing to amend).
Unlike most other Bills, this Bill is to be considered in a Committee of the Whole House (because of its constitutional significance) – in essence, using the Commons chamber as a committee room, with all MPs forming the Committee. Eight days of eight hours have been programmed for debate – so 64 hours in total – but some MPs (notably Ken Clarke, who rebelled against the Government’s programme motion) have already sought reassurances that more time will be given if that proves insufficient.
Labour has issued a briefing paper summarising its amendments to the Bill as follows:
(Again, given the Government’s stated purpose for the Bill is to maintain the substance of the law as it stands, some Tories may support changes to the Bill which clarify that existing rights and remedies will continue).
Further amendments have been tabled from ‘Remainer’ MPs which seek to prevent the 1972 Act being repealed until a new UK/EU27 Treaty is in place, or to retain membership of the EEA and/or the customs union after exit day.
Conference season starts next week. MPs will have lots to talk about while they are away from Westminster, while the Government’s ministers and officials will have their hands full considering what amendments, if any, they are going to allow. Parliament’s detailed consideration of the Bill has only just begun.