Peers continue to press the Government on key issues

Events coming up

Join our webinar with Alexandra Runwick, director of Unlock Democracy on Wednesday 21st March, 13.00-14.00. A brilliant opportunity to hear expert knowledge on the constitutional and democratic issues with the EU Withdrawal Bill and catch up on what the next stages of the bill are (i.e. Report Stage and ping-pong). Sign up here to attend or email malene@repealbill.org

We are heading up to North Wales on 23rd March (1.30-4.30pm), hosting a roundtable discussion on what the next steps for civil society are post-Brexit. Click here to attend. 

Northern Ireland Affairs Committee Report- Brexit: Hinging on the land border

Wednesday saw a powerful debate in the House of Lords on everything Ireland and today the Northern Ireland Committee added to that by publishing  a report on the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Timing is everything. This report, published the day before St Patrick's Day, states that “we have seen no evidence to suggest that, right now, an invisible border is possible” and that any border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain “would create a costly barrier to trade with Northern Ireland’s largest market and would be incompatible with the spirit and intent of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement”. Well worth a read here

Coming up next week: crucial House of Lords debate on devolution

The fact that there is a backlog of amendments was apparent by the Lords sitting until the early hours of Tuesday morning to try and do “catch up”. Monday and Wednesday next week should see peers debate clauses 10 and 11 of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill on devolution but there are some 40 clauses to get through before that. Important constitutional issues lie at the heart of Clause 10 and 11 and their associated Schedules 2 and 3. As drafted, these clauses risks not only undermining hardwon devolution settlements but they also give ministers significant leeway to interpret their delegated powers. Read our briefing here. 

Peers have repeatedly voiced concerns about these clauses and we’re urging peers to support amendments that will protect and respect the devolution settlements as well the Good Friday Agreement. We’ll be watching the debate closely, so do follow us on Twitter @fixrepealbill. 


Peers continue to press the Government on key issues

Tensions have been running high in the House of Lords debates on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill this week. There is demonstrable concern across the house on pressing issues like the Irish border, Henry VIII powers, and Parliament having a meaningful vote on the final deal. The pattern that has emerged during Committee Stage of the Bill is that peers do not push their amendments to a vote, but rather seek clarification and commitment from the Government on the issues mentioned above. 

Henry VIII powers
Day 6 of Committee Stage exceeded well into the night on Monday- with peers finishing the debate at 2.30am. Important issues were raised like scrutiny of statutory instruments and how Henry VIII powers may be used impose charges, fees or taxes through secondary legislation. In response to those concerns Brexit minister Lord Callanan said on behalf of the Government that “the Government are aware of the concerns of many noble Lords about raising of fees under these powers. On Report, we will look closely at how we can resolve those concerns”. 

A further concern about the Henry VIII powers is how they may be used to affect the devolution settlements for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Lord Hope of Craighead (former Scottish judge and convener of the Crossbench peers) have tabled several amendments to clauses 7-9 in this regard and argued on Monday that the breadth of powers handed to ministers is not just about balance of power between Parliament and the Executive but those powers “also raises concerns about the balance of power within the union and the future of the devolution settlements themselves”. 

Speaking on behalf of the Government, Lord Bourne reassured peers that Government will bring forward amendments at Report Stage concerning clause 7 and the powers it contain to amend the Scotland Act 1998 and Government of Wales Act 2006 (clause 7 already restricts ministers to amendment the Northern Ireland Act 1998). However, similar amendments to clause 8 and 9 will not be brought forward according to Lord Bourne, which Lord Hope criticised that if clause 8 and 9 do not contain the same restrictions- there is a potential for using those powers to amend the devolution acts. 

Parliament voting on the final deal
Wednesday, Day 7 of Committee Stage, was less acrimonious but equally as probing. If this was a football match then it certainly was a game of two halves with the first half devoted to the sovereignty of parliament and the second half to Northern Ireland and in particular the Good Friday Agreement. Indeed it could be dubbed agreement day because peers from all sides fell over each other to agree.

Debated in the morning and afternoon was Clause 9: Implementing the withdrawal agreement. Amendment 142 Lord Monks (Labour) was one of the key amendments that led to the most debate about approval by both Houses of Parliament of a mandate for negotiation and subsequently “love bombed” by supportive amendments (Lord Monks words not mine).

Lord Adonis said  “These amendments are vital. They go to the heart of the role of Parliament in our nation’s affairs...the ultimate test of Parliament is how it conducts itself on the biggest issues facing the nation at any given time. We may do brilliant work revising legislation but the thing that everyone in this country will remember about Parliament in our generation is how we conducted ourselves on this big issue of whether we stay in the European Union or leave it.” And he actually managed to get a Churchillian quote in.

Amendment 199 is a wholly Conservative supported amendment and Amendment 150 from Labours Baroness Hayter led to much discussion on what a meaningful vote looks like and Lord Wigley’s suggestion that “MPs should not be put in a position where they can vote either for a really bad deal result from the negotiations or in a way that delivers a no deal outcome. There must be a reset alternative for MPs.” Amendment 217 scoped provisions for the withdrawal of the rticle 50 notification, enabling the holding of a second referendum and deals more fully with what should be done in the event of no deal.

On behalf of the Government, Lord Callanan responded to the concerns by saying that they remain committed to hold a vote on the final deal as soon as negotiations have concluded, with the intention that the vote comes before the European Parliament vote on it. 

The Good Friday Agreement & the Irish Border
The second part of the days debate centred around the Good Friday Agreement (although not the only day amendments on this are popping up). Lord Hains (Labour) Amendment 198 on protecting the GFA in all its parts led to the most illuminating contributions, including Lord Eames, former Anglican primate, Lord Kerr, Baroness Lister and Lord Dubbs. If you haven't time to read the whole debate, get a flavour here- Lord Patten at his most eloquent.

Some stand out points: There are more crossing points along the Northern Irish 310-mile border than there are along the whole of the EU’s eastern frontier, 257 compared to 137. Second is the young people from both sides of the border in Ireland have visited Parliament to tell politicians “ We have come too far from the violence and divisions of the past. We don’t want to see regression to a hard border and conflict”.

Responding for the Government Lord Duncan confirmed their commitment to avoiding a hard border, including any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls (referring to the Prime Minister’s speech on 2 March). He also maintained there will be an appropriate provision in the withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill iterating each element of the agreement we reach, including the protections set out in the joint report. 

To find out what amendments are being debated on each day of committee, go on to ‘Today’s List’ at the Lords Whips office here. Note that they publish it on the day of the debate and is removed the next day. 

Note that the first three dates for HoL Report Stage have been announced: Wednesday 18 April; Monday 23 April; Wednesday 25 April

Recommended reading:

Malene Bratlie