On 16 and 17 January, the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill passed its remaining stages (Report Stage and Third Reading) in the House of Commons.
Report Stage lasted two days, and MPs used the opportunity to re-run a lot of issues discussed extensively at Committee Stage. The debate (and the many amendments and new clauses tabled) concerned both narrow ‘technical’ issues, such as:
also broader, political, issues, such as how Brexit would affect devolution, the quality of the Government’s ‘impact assessments’ (and whether it should be required to produce more as Brexit unfolds), its conduct of Phase 2 of the Brexit negotiations (including dealing with the Irish border), and the relative economic benefits of leaving the EU or staying in the Customs Union or pursuing Free Trade Agreements.
MPs also debated (for the first time, to my knowledge) how Brexit would affect Anguilla, a British overseas territory in the Caribbean (pop. 15,263), which has close ties with (and shares the airport on) the neighbouring island of Saint Martin/Sint Maarten, which is 60% French and 40% Dutch (and so staying in the EU).
Despite the wide-ranging debate, however (and much as at Committee Stage, with the notable exception of ‘Grieve’s rebellion’), the only amendments and new clauses passed were those tabled by the Government. We reviewed most of these in Blog 33, with the exception of Amendments 37 and 38 (tabled later):
On devolution, as we predicted, the Government’s minor amendments to clause 11 (about the extent to which the devolved administrations and legislatures would be able to modify transposed EU law, in the context of the development of new UK-wide frameworks) were not sufficient to allay the concerns of Labour, the SNP or Plaid Cymru about how the Bill would affect the devolution settlements. Stephen Doughty (Labour) said:
The Government had promised at Committee Stage that it would bring forward amendments to Clause 11 at Report stage, but it has now said these will come in the Lords. At Third Reading, the SSExEU said:
Even some Scottish Tories saw this approach as unsatisfactory. For example, Stephen Kerr MP (a Scottish Tory) commented at Report Stage:
Given the Government has no majority in the Lords, it may find it more difficult to pass its amendments there than it would have in the Commons.
In respect of the Charter, we were slightly surprised that Dominic Grieve MP did not table an amendment in respect of the preservation of the Charter (and other EU ‘entrenched’ law) in UK law, given how exercised he has been about the issue. He explained that he did not do so for two reasons: first, he thought the lawyers in the House of Lords would address the matter in depth, and second, he thought the proposed transition period would prove lengthy, and would give the Government time to think again.
The lack of Tory backbench support on the issue meant that the Opposition’s Amendment 4 (Jeremy Corbyn, Labour) which would have retained the Charter Rights in UK law and afforded them the same level as protection as the rights in the Human Rights Act, was defeated by 317 votes to 299. Similarly, Amendment 57 (Kerry McCarthy, Labour) which aimed to replace clause 4 of the Bill with New Clause 19, in order to preserve, more comprehensively than under existing clause 4, rights, powers, liabilities, obligations, restrictions, remedies and procedures (particularly relating to the environment) derived from EU law and incorporated into domestic law via the European Communities Act 1972, was defeated by 319 votes to 296.
On animal sentience, New Clause 7 (Caroline Lucas, Green) was defeated by 320 votes to 297. It would have transferred the EU Protocol on animal sentience set out in Article 13 of Title II of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty into UK law under the Bill, so that the obligation on the Government and the devolved administrations to pay due regard to the welfare requirements of animals as sentient beings when formulating law and policy was not lost when the UK leaves the EU. The Government has published a draft Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Bill 2017 to the same end, but Lucas was concerned that a ‘gap’ would arise between exit day and the draft Bill becoming law. The Solicitor General committed to speak to Defra about the timetabling of the Government’s Bill.
On the status of transposed EU law, neither Dominic Grieve (New Clause 13) nor Joanna Cherry (SNP) (Amendment 42) pushed for a vote on their proposed changes (New Clause 13 and Amendment 42 respectively) which would clarified, under Clause 6, which transposed EU laws were to be treated as primary legislation and which secondary, on the basis that they accepted the Government needed more time to consider the matter, and it could be dealt with in the Lords.
Finally, the Government committed to consider further New Clause 22, to provide a scheme of interpretation (as a backstop) where the transposition necessary to avoid deficiencies has not been effected by regulations made under Clause 7. This may form a Government amendment in the Lords.