Withdrawal Bill Committee Stage Day 1: Update from the Alliance

Yesterday was the first day of Committee Stage of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill where the Government won the first five votes - although some of them with a slim majority. Many MPs raised concerns about the Government’s highly publicised amendment which sets out a fixed exit date, as well as the need for more parliamentary scrutiny and sovereignty when it comes to the Brexit negotiations and taking back control of our laws.  

Frank Field a Pro-leave Labour MP ended up withdrawing his clause - which stated that the UK would leave the European Union on March 30 2019. He received opposition from not only Remain Conservatives and Liberal Democratic MPs - but also from his own party. Paul Blomfield, Shadow Brexit Minister said he opposed clause 49, arguing that closing down the opportunity for effective transitional arrangements were ‘’deeply self-harming’’.

If the government had hoped that any of their concessions or promises  would calm the pro-EU Tory rebels, yesterday’s debate proved them wrong. Pro- EU Tory Ken Clarke outright described himself as ‘the rebel’ and in part of speech he described Government’s inclusion of the exit date in the Withdrawal Bill as ‘ridiculous and unnecessary’ which would harm the national interest’ 
The splits in the Tory party became ever more evident during the debate, with Ken Clarke critiqued the pro-Brexiteers for their hard-line Brexit approach. Former Attorney General and Remainer Dominic Grieve said outright he would vote against Government’s exit date at a later stage. 

After the first part of the debate was concluded, more MPs left the chamber, only to come back to vote on the selected amendments and clauses. 

The votes won by the Government yesterday: 

  • The Plaid Cymru led amendment was rejected by 318 to 52 votes. The amendment set out that the European Communities Act 1972 would only be repealed if subject to consent by devolved legislatures
  • Clause 1 was approved by 318 to 68 votes- meaning the European Communities Act will be repealed on exit day. 
  • New Clause 14 was rejected by 316 to 296 votes -This would have required ministers to set out in detail how the provision in Clause 6 would apply during a transitional period before the UK fully implements a withdrawal agreement. 
  • Amendmendent 137 was rejected by 316 to 296 votes. This amendment related to courts or tribunals paying due regard to any relevant decisions of the European Court when interpreting retained EU law after exit day
  • Amendment 278 was rejected by 316 to 295 votes. This paving amendment was intended to allow for transitional arrangements within the existing structure of rules and regulations
  • Amendments setting out exit day 

The debate saw a lot of concerns around exit day, including around the Government’s proposal to fix the exit date in statute ruling out the prospect of a transitional period. Frank Field (Labour) withdrew his New Clause (49) which stated that the UK ceases to belong to the European Union on 30 March 2019. 

After tabling their set of amendments last week (numbers 381,392,383), setting exit day on 29 March 2019, the Government said they would not tolerate any attempts to use the process of amendments to the Withdrawal Bill as a mechanism to “try to block the democratic wishes of the British people by attempting to slow down or stop our departure from the EU”. 

The Government’s comments (or “bloodcurdling threats” as Dominic Grieve called them) were not welcome by Labour nor some Tory backbenchers: 

I am really pleased that amendment 381 cannot be put to the vote this afternoon, because I have to say to my right hon. and hon. Friends that I will vote against it. There are absolutely no ifs, no buts and no maybes about this—no arm-twisting and nothing that can be done to me in the intervening period.”- Dominic Grieve (Conservative)

“It is not helpful when Ministers - and indeed, the Prime Minister over the weekend- seek to characterise scrutiny and accountability in this House as an attempt to thwart Brexit.”- Paul Blomfield (Labour)

A number of learned voices in private expressed concern about the existence of a degree of elasticity in the sunsetting of the powers in the Bill, and, for that reason, were anxious for us to fix the exit date.”- Steve Baker (Minister for Brexit)

Devolution
Both Lady Hermon (Independent) and Stephen Gethins (SNP) said a no deal would be disastrous for both Scotland and Northern Ireland. Hywel Williams (Plaid Cymru) spoke to amendment 79 which would require the UK Government to gain the consent of the devolved Parliaments and Assemblies before they repealed the European Communities Act 1972. The principle of this amendment was to give the democratically elected Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland and the Parliament in Scotland a say. Hywel Williams also pointed out how Westminister have failed to include and listen to the devolved nations during the Brexit process. 

The JMC (Joint Ministerial Committee)...met in February and did not meet again until October, during which period the most important and momentous events were taking place and fundamental decisions being taken. Following the October meeting, the Government sought to gloss over the real concerns of the Scottish and Welsh Governments” - Hywell Williams (Plaid Cyrmu)

Parliament to vote on final deal   
The Government promised that Parliament will have a meaningful vote on the withdrawal agreement. However this promise has left Tory rebels in particular unimpressed. In the debate, Ken Clarke (Conservative) described this move as “not a great concession” and argued for the need for a transition period. Yvette Cooper (Labour) welcomed the bill to give Parliament a vote on the withdrawal agreement, opposed that this would be a take-it-or-leave-it vote i.e. parliament must accept whatever deal presented or have no deal at all. Unlock Democracy has blogged about why this isn’t as big a concession as it appears. Labour MPs and Tory backbenchers like Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve said that it is Parliament, not the Executive who must take control over our laws and have a say in what Brexit will look like. 

“The truth is that the plans for our Brexit future have to be sustainable and have to command consent. The plans will have implications for many decades to come. They have to give Parliament the chance to debate the details and to have a proper, honest debate about what it will mean across the country” - Yvette Cooper (Labour)

Interpretation of EU law after exit day
Part 2 of the debate saw amendments and new clauses relating to clause 6, which is about how EU law should be interpreted after exit day by domestic courts. New Clause 14 was selected for debate which sought clarification from the Government about how a transition will be put in place and operate. During the debate many called for a transition period during which  businesses and citizens need to be informed about how EU law will be interpreted. Conservative MPs like Dominic Grieve and Sir Edward Leigh talked about the difficulty for the judiciary to interpret retained EU law given the lack of political guidance as to how this law should be interpreted. Brexit supporter and Dominic Raab (Minister for Justice) retorted that UK courts would still have flexibility to take into account post-Exit judgements, and that nonetheless the Government had commissioned work on an amendment to be tabled before Report Stage to provide clarity. 

"As we take back control over our laws, it must be right that the UK Supreme Court, not the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, has the last word on the laws of the land. It is therefore of paramount importance that clause 6 stands part of the Bill” - Dominic Raab (Minister for Justice)

What’s next

Today clause 2, 3, and 4 will be debated. These are the amendments and new clauses that have been selected can be found here. 

At the time of sending this email no dates have been fixed for the 6 further days of debate. The Government will need time for the Budget, which is next Wednesday 22 November, and additional debates on it. Committee Stage therefore may not start up again until after the week commencing the 27 November.

Malene Bratlie