Brexit: Withdrawal Bill Committee Stage Day two

Update from the Alliance (Unlock Democracy)

The second day of Committee Stage saw the Government continue to win the vote but the vote margin (on both amendments and new clauses) is reducing. New clauses and amendments which relate to clauses 2, 3 and 4 were debated –  Clauses 2 and 3 convert EU obligations and law; clause 4 ensures that any remaining EU rights and obligations that do not fall within clause 2 and 3 are recognised and available after exit day.

Yesterday’s debate saw concerns raised about the status of retained EU law,  whether it will have the status of primary or secondary legislation, and whether it is Ministers that are given powers to “modify retained EU law”.

The uncertainties of what such powers might mean for rights, protections, and standards were raised during yesterday’s debate by Labour MPs like Matthew Pennycook and the usual (rebelling) suspects from the Conservative side like Dominic Grieve and Ken Clarke.

Conservative Leave campaigner and member of the highly influential European Research Group Priti Patel argued that the Government should not listen to those who do not have confidence in going forward with Brexit or who think the UK can’t govern itself. Patel was referring to Labour MPs but interestingly, Anna Soubry (one of the Tory rebels), said she was fed up with the constant accusations that those wanting an open debate on withdrawal were actually attempting to thwart Brexit.

In contrast to the first day of Committee Stage, significantly fewer members were present during yesterday’s debate.

Breakdown of last night’s vote:

  • Amendment 70 was rejected by 313 to 48 votes. The SNP amendment would have required various articles of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU to be included in the Withdrawal Bill (some articles included non-discrimination of ground of nationality, citizenship rights, free movement of capital).
  • New Clause 67 was rejected by 313 to 297. Tabled by the Opposition, the amendment aimed to ensure that environmental principles (such as the precautionary principle, polluter pay principle etc) of EU law remain part of UK law after Brexit.
  • New Clause 30 was rejected by 313 to 295 vote. Tabled by Caroline Lucas (Green), with cross-party support, the clause aimed to transfer the EU Protocol on animal sentience into UK law, so that animals continue to be recognised as sentient beings under domestic law.
  • New Clause 58 was rejected by 311 to 299 votes. Tabled by Labour, this clause was to ensure after exit day, EU derived rights relating to consumer standards, employment & more, can only be amended by primary legislation
  • New Clause 25 rejected by 311 to 295 votes. The clause would have established which retained EU law may be amended by delegated powers outside the time restrictions of the bill, subject to enhanced scrutiny.

Rights, protections & standards after Brexit

Matthew Pennycook, a shadow Brexit minister, opened the debate by highlighting that Labour’s New Clause 58 was designed to ensure that rights people have from EU law, which are meant to be protected under the bill, don’t “fall away”. The clause was subsequently rejected by only 12 votes.

Responding to that concern, Michael Tomlinson (Conservative) said that many of these rights and protections existed before we joined the EU and so will be there after we leave. Pennycook argued that the key point is to ensure retained EU law cannot be chipped away by secondary legislation; ministers should only be able to change fundamental rights derived from the EU through primary legislation with a full debate in Parliament.

‘’It is true the Government have promised to ensure that workers’ rights are fully protected and maintained after the UK’s departure from the EU, but in the absence of stronger legal safeguards, there are good reasons to be skeptical about that commitment.’’- Matthew Pennycook (Shadow Brexit Minister)

Dominic Grieve, the former Attorney General and one of the key Conservative critics of the Bill from agreed with the Opposition’s concerns about the status of retained EU law. His own clause 55 (which was not selected for a vote) would set out that retained EU law may only be amended by primary legislation and safeguard standards of equalities, environmental and employment protection from being amendments to subordinate legislation.

“The problem that has arisen is that, as currently drafted, the importation of EU law means that standards in areas such as equalities and the environment will no longer enjoy the legal protection that EU membership gives them—indeed, they will, for the most part, be repealable by statutory instrument”’- Dominic Grieve (Conservative)

The Solicitor General Robert Buckland argued that “in no way whatsoever” will the Brexit process be used to undermine rights, particularly worker’s rights. He went on to suggest that the Government’s approach ensures that – to the extent that deficiencies might arise in any legislation as a result of exit – they can be corrected under powers in the Bill. Ken Clarke (Conservative) raised some important issues in response to Buckland’s remarks, particularly around the need for the Henry VIII powers:

“The problem is that the Bill includes powers that could be used to make drastic reductions in environmental standards and other things without any proper parliamentary process. There is a widespread consensus among Remainers and Leavers that we do not want the powers to be used in that way. We do not need a Bill to give us powers that no one wants to use—why can we not amend the Bill to put it beyond doubt that no such attempt will be made?”- Ken Clarke (Conservative)

Future relationship with the EU

Labour MP Heidi Alexander spoke to New Clauses 23 and 23, which would have prevented ministers from using provisions in the bill as the basis for withdrawing from the European Economic Area (EEA). New clause 22 would have guaranteed Parliament a say by introducing a separate bill. She received support from her Labour colleagues as well Anna Soubry (Conservative), who raised concerns that many people feel excluded by the Brexit process, and that debates are necessary to form a consensus. Jonathan Edwards (Plaid Cymru) also spoke to amendments which would have kept the option of EEA membership open. He pointed out that continued membership of the single market and customs union would be vital for the Welsh economy.

“How many of our colleagues actually understand what the Bill will do? Why do the Government want to avoid open and transparent debate? Why is there not a specific clause in the Bill that makes it clear? The answer is obvious: the Government are doing everything they can to avoid an explicit vote on whether the UK should leave the EEA and the single market. They are worried that there might be a parliamentary majority for a so-called soft Brexit, in which we put jobs first and anxieties about immigration and so-called sovereignty second”- Heidi Alexander (Labour)

Concerns over environmental protections post Brexit

The second part of the debate saw a lot of concerns raised about the recognition of animals as sentient beings, as well as how EU-derived environmental principles will continue to be part of domestic law after exit day.

Caroline Lucas (Green) and Mary Creagh (Labour) emerged as key champions for environmental protections. Lucas set out how the bill lacks considerable clarity when it comes to how environmental standards and protections will be upheld. Former minister for the Cabinet Office Oliver Letwin (Conservative)  spoke of the government’s intention to bring forward a bill on environmental protection, a national policy statement on environmental principles, and an independent authority upholding National Policy Statement, with an ability to take the government to court (a NPS is created by governments to establish a consistent policy on an issue across a nation).

Questions were raised however by Lucas and Creagh as to whether this body will have the ability to fine the Government, like the European Court of Justice currently has, and why, even with a new environmental protection bill, could the Withdrawal Bill not also include recognition of environmental principles. The national policy statement outlined by Letwin was met with skepticism from Lucas:

The Government have suggested several times that instead of enshrining the principles in UK law, they might instead consider using the NPS (national policy statement) route. I have real concerns about that because an NPS is not a fixed, long-term commitment, and does not provide the long-term certainty of primary legislation. Such an approach would represent a serious step backward from the current position”- Caroline Lucas (Green)

Creagh highlighted that the body that enacts legislation, monitoring, and enforcement of chemicals is currently at a European level, and therefore such a body will not exist in the UK on exit day. The Alliance has already voiced concerns about a potential governance gap after Brexit.

What’s next

The first two days of Committee Stage are now over. Many will be disappointed that well crafted amendments that would have gone a long way to securing a high standards UK were not passed. It is also disappointing that more MPs didn’t to turn up to vote for what is one of the most constitutionally significant pieces of legislation to go before the House of Commons.

Click here to see whether/ how your MP voted last night.

The third day of Committee Stage has been confirmed to take place on Tuesday 21 November, but day four will not come before the 4th December.

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